Last year was a particularly painful one for blockbuster cinema—painful for me, anyway. I spent countless hours being punched in the brain by some of the most tedious mass-market movies in recent memory. Just when I was about to write off Hollywood wide-release movies as a contemptible waste of time, 2017 arrived and so far has delivered extremely engaging and, dare I say, damn good films. Add “Kong: Skull Island” to the list.
Surprisingly, my expectations for a movie featuring a 400-foot gorilla aren’t too high. Monster movies are a guilty pleasure. I have many fond memories of late-night flicks featuring guys in rubber suits smashing through papier-mâché cities, while badly dubbed English dialogue plays out of sync with Asian actors. The joy of monster movies is the sheer, visceral thrill of watching something terrible tear through the world like tissue paper. Everything we’ve built is knocked down in an instant by something whose only purpose is to eviscerate life.
Sure, viewers get the occasional allegory to man’s contempt for the world and the price humanity will pay for constantly teabagging Mother Nature. But, for the most part, monster movies work because of their simplicity. Peter Jackson attempted his own take at “King Kong” back in 2005 with one of the most bloated, sanctimonious pieces of garbage ever released. It was nearly three hours and got just about everything wrong when it came to Kong. I wanted to stand up in the theater and scream, “It’s a giant monkey, Pete! Not ‘Citizen Kane!’” But I didn’t want to be escorted out of the theater by a handful of teenage ushers.
“Kong: Skull Island” is a back-to-basics approach to the monster movie and it (thankfully) knows exactly what people want to see in a movie about gigantic gorillas and lizards: We want to see gigantic gorillas and lizards frequently beating the hell out of each other. There are human characters present, but they take a back seat to the super-sized animals and their bare-knuckled beat downs.
This particular take on “King Kong” is set in the early 1970s. A secret government organization wants to take an expedition to an unexplored piece of Earth known as Skull Island. There are those who believe the hellish patch could be home to some terrifying monstrosities from a forgotten age. Turns out, they’re right. Within minutes of reaching the island, Kong shows up and turns their “Apocalypse Now”-inspired army helicopter brigade into scrap metal. Survivors then have to trek across the island to get to a rendezvous point without being eaten, stepped on or mauled by any number of freakish beasts.
Our cast of thinly laid-out characters include a former British SAS agent (Tom Hiddleston), a war photographer (Brie Larson), a government stooge (John Goodman), and soon-to-be retired military veteran (Samuel Jackson)—who just finished a tour of duty in Vietnam and sees Skull Island as a perfect place to wage another unwinnable war. I say the characters are “thinly laid out” because so few are given any backstory. In most movies, this would be a detriment, but in a movie like “Kong: Skull Island,” it’s a blessing. There is no fat on this film. It’s all about getting to the good stuff, and there’s a lot of good stuff. Praise to the movie gods for filmmakers who understand the audience doesn’t need to know the circumstances that left a British SAS agent conveniently in Thailand to join the search party. Or just because other “King Kong” movies focused on the relationship between the massive beast and a beautiful woman, it doesn’t mean any movie sharing the title must include the same element.
The film’s highlight is watching Kong battle enemies. Our explorers realize there might be deadlier things than a giant gorilla. Much like the recent “Godzilla,” the movie makes it evident creatures like Kong exist for a reason. The circle of life applies at every level—even super-sized animals and old-world monsters have natural predators. The concept eludes military men who seek to exact revenge on Kong for killing fellow soldiers. It’s hardly the most original plot, but it’s executed at a speedy clip and doesn’t wallow in the minutiae.
“Kong: Skull Island” is almost the perfect monster movie. It understands entertainment value and never loses the fact Kong and his creature cronies are the central focus. Plus, the human elements are handled well. The cast has fun with the material, and none of it is ever taken too seriously.
2017 has been a good year for film thus far because they’ve been made by creative teams who understand the material they’re presenting. “Logan” succeeded because it developed a character and eliminated larger-than-life elements often plaguing comic-book adaptations. “Split” was a perfectly executed thriller with some interesting layers. “John Wick Chapter 2” delivered exceptional action. “Get Out” was a smarter-than-average escapist thriller. “Kong: Skull Island” is a superior blockbuster because it isn’t saddled with unnecessary plot or weight. It’s rare to reward a film for economical choices, but a movie like this benefits greatly from what it does as much as what it doesn’t.