Two years ago, “Jurassic World” came out and made a staggering $652 million at the domestic box office, even though it was a messy and unimaginative piece of thunder-lizard junk: a movie so impersonal it felt genetically engineered. It was a depressing reminder of what blockbuster movie culture can get away with if the monsters are big enough and the franchise strikes enough reptile-brained chords of recognition. On that scale, “Kong: Skull Island” would seem to have a lot going for it commercially, even if it was just another shoddy and cynical reboot of a reboot — which is what a lot of people are probably expecting it to be.
The surprise is that “Skull Island” isn’t just 10 times as good as “Jurassic World”; it’s a rousing and smartly crafted primordial-beastie spectacular. The entire film takes place on Kong’s jungle island home (he doesn’t scale any skyscrapers — in New York or Dubai), and you could say that it’s more action-based and less ambitious than either of the “King Kong” remakes: the snarky, overblown, justly reviled 1976 knockoff or Peter Jackson’s good but still not good enough 2005 retread.
Yet in its jungle-stranded B-movie way, “Kong: Skull Island” may come closer in spirit to the wide-eyed amazement of the original than either of those remakes. That’s because it’s more casually willing to be its own thing. The 1933 version of “King Kong” is still definitive — the most awe-inspiring and emotionally transporting giant-monster movie ever made. Part of the problem with both remakes is that they were straining to live up to what could never be equaled. “Skull Island” is more modest, but by staying on Skull Island and updating the place, it takes you somewhere you haven’t been. The movie updates Kong, too — he’s a true savage and nobody’s sweetheart, and though he’s been brought to life by motion capture, it takes a while before his outsize “humanity” kicks in. But when it does, it feels earned, and you’re grateful to the movie for not milking it.
“Skull Island” is set in 1973, just as Watergate is heating up and the Vietnam War is winding down, and that means that John Goodman, as an irascible Bermuda Triangle conspiracy theorist named Bill Randa, gets to step out of a cab near Capitol Hill and say, “Mark my words, there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington!” The line comes off as an overly Trumped-up nudge in the ribs, but the period setting, which seems arbitrary at first, actually works for the film in a topical way.
Randa, with his nose for bizarre events that are covered up by the establishment, has gotten wind of rumblings about something hidden away on an uncharted South Pacific island. He convinces a senator (Richard Jenkins) to bankroll a field mission there, an exploration on which he’ll be backed by a pair of troubleshooters: Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a U.S. military commander who is smarting from the humiliation of America in Vietnam, and James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a renegade British mercenary tracker. Coming along to document the proceedings is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a free-spirited “antiwar photographer.”
The crew approaches Skull Island, an archipelago of giant jutting mossy rocks, in a handful of choppers, which get tipped and tossed by an electrical storm. But they really find out what it’s like to be batted around when they’re smacked, out of nowhere, by a gorilla hand the size of a tank. They respond by bombing the island (to the well-chosen strains of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”), goosed along by Jackson’s gung-ho officer, who rasps, “Kill this son-of-a-bitch!” It’s a shock to hear anyone refer to Kong that way, and if this were 1973, the antiwar commentary would be clear as day. In 2017, though, it feels less didactic and more prescient. Jackson’s seething, vengeful, kill-or-be-killed ethos is the real enemy in “Skull Island” — the film faces his squinty glare off against Kong’s — and given our post-Vietnam track record in Iraq, and whatever military master plans are now being drawn up in the White House, it’s galvanizing to see an action movie full of guns and hardware that comes down on the side of not blowing s—- up.
A “King Kong” movie should, first and foremost, be a fairy tale of primeval wonder, and this one is. The director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, takes much of his inspiration from the original Skull Island sequence of the 1933 “King Kong,” with its storybook dinosaurs, and you may also detect the influence of “The Mysterious Island,” the 1961 Ray Harryhausen classic that featured an eye-popping array of giant creatures. In “Skull Island,” the island is brimming with oversize species, from a sad-eyed water buffalo to a giant stick-bug to swarms of blue-blooded pterodactyls to a towering spider that hovers over a forest to the octopus whose tentacles Kong battles and makes a snack of. The creatures keep the rather elemental story popping; we never know what we’re going to see next.
The other thing that keeps the movie popping is John C. Reilly, who shows up as Hank Marlow, a World War II soldier who’s been stranded on the island since 1944. He’s been living with the native tribe there (they suggest Buddhist monks with faces painted like designer chocolates), and he’s a bit of a Rip Van Winkle in his bomber jacket and long curly gray beard, but if that makes the character sound like a deadly cliché, rest assured that Reilly’s performance is terrifically dry and sly. He plays this man who should have lost his mind long ago as a stubborn paragon of flaked-out common sense. It’s Hank who can help guide the crew to the north side of the island, where they’ve got just two days to rendezvous with a rescue team. But to do that, they’ll have to fight off the worst creatures of all: the gnashing corrosive exoskeletal thingies, all speed and tongue — think raptors, but uglier and meaner.
In many ways, “Kong: Skull Island” is a “Jurassic Park” movie — and if viewed that way, it’s the best since the first. The characters may be a touch minimal, but that doesn’t mean they’re boring; the actors fill them in. Hiddleston, while top-billed, never takes over the movie, but he’s crisp and hearty (though that accent of his is too posh). Goodman has become a more forceful presence by playing down his goofy humor, Jackson scores as a humanized bad guy, and Brie Larson takes a generic role and infuses it with vibrance. She’s the one actor on hand who really looks like she’s from the ’70s (she has that desert-flower earthiness), and the movie offers its coolest updating of the “Kong” mystique by connecting her to the big guy in a way that winks at the girl-in-the-ape-fist “romance” of old, minus the coercion (or the tearing off of dress tops). The connection between Mason and Kong seems all the more touching for being so understated. Kong emerges as just the hero we want him to be: noble but raging — a primate god who will rear up and destroy, but only when threatened.
As a Marvel-style sequence at the end of the closing credits makes clear, “Skull Island” has been planned, in league with the powerful and evocative 2014 “Godzilla,” as the second film in Legendary’s MonsterVerse, the elaborately linked series of creature-feature reboots from Warner Bros. (The teaser hints at a new “Mothra” and “Ghidorah.”) That might be enough to bring out the anti-franchise cynic in you. But if the upcoming films prove to be as winning as this one, then audiences eager to get their old giant movie monster on should have nothing to fear.