After the success of 2014’s “Godzilla,” Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures greenlit “Kong: Skull Island” to set up a universe of classic monsters, dubbed the MonsterVerse. Its endgame is a battle royale for the ages, featuring minimal rubber suits and maximum CGI — a Godzilla vs. King Kong movie slated for a 2020 release. These grand plans, however, likely hinge on the commercial success of the aforementioned Kong reboot. The good news: “Kong: Skull Island” is a fun and visually stunning spectacle, unhindered by franchise set up, while accomplishing that same feat.
Set near the end of the Vietnam War, the film centers around a team of scientists and its cadre of military escorts who explore the mysterious, ominous-sounding Skull Island. As expected, this tops the List of Terrible Ideas Probably Resulting in Death by Giant Ape, and soon enough, the explorers are trapped on an island of monsters, whose sovereign is none other than King Kong.
We’ve seen countless cinematic renditions of people running around in jungles while being chased by monsters, but director Jordan Vogt-Roberts makes such a premise fresh through the film’s unique visual stylings. He successfully adopts Zack Snyder-esque slow-motion action, and cinematographer Larry Fong, with his unique eye for color, drapes “Kong: Skull Island” in lush greens and yellows.
The astounding visuals don’t end with cinematography though, because the Vietnam War setting allows Vogt-Roberts to embrace an “Apocalypse Now” aesthetic that distinguishes “Kong: Skull Island” from all King Kong films before it. Vogt-Roberts truly wears his influences on his sleeve (look out for some “Jurassic Park” references too), including direct visual nods such as a boat journey on a river and helicopters hovering over an exploding jungle. By associating with Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 classic, “Kong: Skull Island” is endowed with a sense of gravitas few other blockbusters achieve. If nothing else, the film is an exercise in how many shots of a fiery-orange sun can fit into one movie.
Such impressive visuals provide an epic backdrop for equally epic monster battles. Unlike “Godzilla,” infamous for hiding its titular creature, this film flaunts its monster (the most gigantic onscreen depiction of Kong thus far — he’s got to fight Godzilla somehow), and every scene with Skull Island’s king is jaw-dropping. Other monsters get their fair share of screen time too, and while some creatures are fascinating to behold, others are a bit too grounded in reality to be very interesting. Still, much of the film’s enjoyment comes from exploring the flora and fauna of Skull Island and how its ecosystem is structured.
“Kong: Skull Island” is very much a spectacle, and like many spectacles, it falls into the trap of having too many characters with too little depth. Unfortunately, most of the characters — Tom Hiddleston as a tracker and Brie Larson as a war photographer both come to mind — only have the bare minimum amount of personality to avoid being completely boring. Worse yet, Jing Tian plays a biologist, surely an important position for the expedition, and yet she has fewer lines than characters who die early on in the film. Like “Independence Day: Resurgence” before it, “Kong: Skull Island” could have featured an Asian lead, but only includes a small bit character to pander to the Chinese market. (On top of that, Legendary Pictures is owned by the Chinese corporation Wanda Group.)
Still, there are some standout characters, notably Samuel L. Jackson’s military man, whose bloodlust establishes character motivations that are clear and engaging while befitting of the period’s wartime setting. Additionally, John C. Reilly plays a former pilot who has been living on Skull Island since crash landing sometime during World War II. Reilly provides comedic relief, which keeps the film’s tone away from being overserious but never results in tonal imbalance.
Though “Kong: Skull Island” isn’t perfect, its exhilarating visuals make the film’s flaws easy to overlook. The film is essentially a theme park ride in cinematic form, which isn’t a bad thing if done well. It’s a film that deserves to be seen on the largest screen possible, with a Kong-sized bucket of popcorn on your lap. A final word of advice: Stay after the credits.
Ultimately, kaiju fans have so much to look forward to with the MonsterVerse’s future, especially the inevitable film featuring the biggest, most terrifying beast of them all — Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ epic beard.
“Kong: Skull Island” opens at California Theatre on March 10.