“Kong: Skull Island”
(PG-13, 120 minutes)
It takes integrity to bother making a good film when a bad one might have made just as much money. “Kong: Skull Island” is a smart sci-fi action movie that doesn’t rely on a handful of monsters and random scenes of computerized destruction to run out the clock. It has a smart script, imaginative filmmaking and a cast of fine actors who actually get to act.
In a normal cinematic climate, this wouldn’t be a novelty, but sci-fi action has so degenerated in recent years that to see one that’s not a succession of undifferentiated explosions feels almost nostalgic, like a throwback to the 1990s (think “Jurassic Park”). But “Kong: Skull Island” is no throwback. It’s just movie literate, informed by a number of techniques from across several decades, even as it makes full and inspired use of today’s CGI technology.
Or to put it another way, King Kong has never looked so good.
The action takes place in the 1970s, right after the end of American participation in the Vietnam War. John Goodman plays a spooky scientist who gets government funding to explore the seismology of an uncharted island, but he’s not really interested in earthquakes — he’s interested in monsters. He saw one or two in the second World War and has been trying to prove it ever since.
A team is assembled. There’s Samuel L. Jackson as a military officer, brooding about the loss of Vietnam, and Tom Hiddleston as a tracker hired to help out. Brie Larson plays a war photographer who becomes interested in the mission because she smells a story: “When three sources tell you the same thing word for word, you know they’re lying.” Along for the ride are lots of soldiers, multiple helicopters and unnamed characters, so that the monsters have plenty to chew on. If this were a “Star Trek” episode, 90 percent of the cast would be in bright red shirts.
“Kong: Skull Island” signals that the movie is in good hands from the beginning. The characters are introduced with care and specificity, and the dialogue is sharp. An early scene, in which the helicopters pass through a ghastly electrical storm, isn’t just the usual thing of shaking cameras, smeary cuts and thunderous sound. As the leader of the crew, Jackson gets on the radio and soothes his men with a loopy speech, and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts indicates the gyration of the helicopter by showing a dashboard Richard Nixon bobblehead going up and down.
There are other nice touches, too, such as the use of pop music on the soundtrack and a certain gallows-humor spirit among the men that calls to mind movies made around 1970 such as “M*A*S*H.” But the set piece to eliminate any doubt is the expedition’s first encounter with Kong, a kind of replay of the Empire State Building scene from the 1933 classic, only this time Kong has the home-field advantage.
Military helicopters come at him from all sides, firing machine guns at him, and he swats them away. But this time, unlike in “King Kong,” we sometimes get the perspective from inside the aircraft (it’s not fun). The movie also finds various imaginative ways for Kong to deal with his attackers. Sometimes he swats. Other times he smashes two helicopters together. Sometimes he throws one into the other, and they both explode. In the movies, helicopters have always been the most unsafe form of transport, and “King Kong” adds another vivid chapter to that combustible history.
The rest of the film — most of it — deals with the various characters getting the lay of the land, figuring out which monsters are bad, which are worse and which are only sort of bad. There are sincere-looking water buffalo that are clearly OK, and on the other end of the spectrum is an absolutely disgusting spider that’s the size of an office building — it’s so convincing and so disgusting.
Adding to the general festivity is John C. Reilly, as an aviator who has been stuck on Skull Island since 1944. Reilly’s performance is a comic delight, in that this aviator has been driven a little bit crazy — he can’t quite tell when he’s actually speaking and when he’s communicating thoughts telepathically. At the same time, he’s the only English-speaking person on the island with any idea as to what’s going on.
There’s a little patch about two-thirds in when “Kong: Skull Island” starts to drag, but it stops dragging within five minutes of one’s noticing, “Hey, this thing is starting to drag.” Fortunately, it recovers — completely. Let’s hope that this action blockbuster sets the pattern for all that follow.