Sometimes, you want juicy, tender filet mignon. Other days, you’re in the mood for a greasy hamburger. Today, I found myself craving some junk food, so I went and caught a screening of Kong: Skull Island. I got my burger and then some: there’s some genuine gourmet ground beef in this cinematic meat patty.
As an avid fan of Gamera, Ultraman, and all things Harryhausen, I couldn’t be more thrilled with Hollywood’s current giant monster renaissance, and with Skull Island, Legendary Pictures (producers of Guillermo del Toro’s delightfully bonkers Pacific Rim) brings us one step closer to its demented vision of a Marvel-style shared universe of kaiju mayhem. Fortunately, Legendary succeeds where… other, unnamed studios have failed by keeping Kong’s story self-contained: yes, it does share some connective tissue with 2014’s Godzilla reboot, and yes, it does include a post-credits scene to tease future adventures, but director Jordan Vogt-Roberts ensures that these franchise-building moments never intrude upon the narrative—they’re an extra scoop of ice cream, not a big slice of the pie.
I won’t lie: Kong’s story is pretty thin, but it’s told with such enthusiasm and energy that I can easily overlook such a minor flaw. The movie opens with a literal bang: two WWII-era fighter planes crash-land on the shore of a remote island. Once the pilots—one American, one Japanese—get their bearings, they immediately resume their battle, first with pistols, then blades, and finally their fists. Even before a giant hand burst out of the foliage to interrupt the combatants, I was hooked: Vogt-Roberts splashes the contents of his twisted imagination across the screen like a modern artist chucking buckets of paint at a canvas, filling the frame with deliciously unpredictable imagery. The bamboo trees surrounding the characters, for example, might actually be the legs of a towering, man-eating spider; the leaves on a distant tree might suddenly scatter, revealing themselves to be terrifying, saw-beaked pterosaurs. Even the choice of setting—the final days of the Vietnam War—yields unexpected brilliance, allowing the filmmakers to draw a fascinating parallel between the titular ape (either a benevolent god protecting the natives of Skull Island or the last remnant of an extinct species indifferently defending its territory, depending on who you ask) and Samuel L. Jackson’s Ahab-esque villain (an old soldier who feels abandoned by his country, desperately searching for a fight he can win).
It helps that, like Logan's James Mangold, Vogt-Roberts steals from the best, combining Lego bricks from a dozen different kits to create something entirely new. I caught references to The Good, the Bad, the Weird; Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Old Boy, Apocalypse Now, Jurassic Park, and possibly even The NeverEnding Story. That’s one cocktail I would chug any day of the week.
[Originally written March 11, 2017.]