Movie review: Return of the king – ‘Kong: Skull Island’ offers old-fashioned monster movie fun

King Kong has been a Hollywood staple since the 1930s, a hallmark of the golden age of monster movies. Although it’s only been about a decade since we last saw the giant ape on the big screen — in “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” — it was perhaps inevitable in our era of big-budget franchises that Kong would make a return. He’ll reportedly face off against a certain giant rampaging lizard in 2020’s “Godzilla vs. Kong,” but first he stars in a new solo outing, “Kong: Skull Island.”

Set during the early 1970s amid the fallout of the Vietnam War, “Kong Skull: Island” follows a group of soldiers, scientists, and adventurers who travel to the uncharted Skull Island on a mysterious mission. They quickly learn Skull Island is no jungle paradise — the island is populated by deadly creatures and plants found nowhere else on Earth. Kong is the ruler of this domain and quickly takes out many of the expedition’s helicopters. To Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), Kong immediately becomes an enemy who must be neutralized. However, an encounter with marooned World War II vet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) convinces the expedition’s tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) that Kong isn’t a villain. He’s merely trying to protect the island, and without him the expedition will face a far more terrifying threat — the ravenous, lizard-like skullcrawlers.

There are a couple ways you can look at “Kong: Skull Island.” Some of the standard criticisms for action flicks can be applied here — there are a lot of characters, and not all of them get a lot of development (Jing Tian as a young biologist is particularly underused). The plot isn’t terribly deep, either, and doesn’t break much new ground for the monster movie genre. However, I had a heck of a good time watching this movie. It’s an undeniably fun film with some genuinely tense moments.

The star of the show is, of course, Kong himself, and he does not disappoint. One of the issues I had with the 2014 Godzilla movie is that we didn’t get to see nearly enough screen time for the title monster. Thankfully, “Kong: Skull Island” doesn’t have that problem. We see Kong in action almost as soon as we get to Skull Island, and his final confrontation with the biggest of the skullcrawlers is an epic smackdown.

I think it was a smart decision to give the film a retro setting (I loved the soundtrack!). I also felt the Vietnam War provided a fascinating lens with which to view the actions of the characters. For Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard, Kong is a metaphor for the War itself: a frustrating challenge he isn’t given enough resources to fight and one that rips away his friends and comrades. He’s a man who doesn’t know how to cope with living in peacetime and as he loses grip with reality, he views his war with Kong as a chance for revenge and redemption. I think Packard is ultimately a tragic character, even though he also becomes the film’s villain.

I do wish there had been more development/background for Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson’s characters, though I did enjoy seeing both actors in this film. And John C. Reilly steals just about every scene he’s in as the eccentric castaway, providing some humorous moments amongst the monster movie scares. He also helps the members of the expedition understand the peril of fixating on someone (or something) as your enemy to the point that you ignore the real dangers around you. That’s always a relevant lesson.

In short, I went to the theater hoping for a loud, fun, entertaining blockbuster that didn’t take itself too seriously and got exactly that. I think it was a really smart idea to release this movie in March, as opposed to the traditional summer blockbuster season. It may have gotten lost in the summer movie shuffle, but by coming out in early spring, it provides a nice boost to the box office. Also, definitely make sure you stay after the credits — there’s an exciting teaser about what’s to come.

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