It’s been four years since Jordan Vogt-Roberts wowed audiences at the Sundance Film Festival with The Kings of Summer, and despite the critical acclaim showered upon his debut effort, you wouldn’t think the director of an intimate and poignant coming-of-age tale would be the most obvious choice to revive one of cinema’s most recognizable icons. But with a keen eye for arresting visuals and an uncanny penchant for pitch-perfect music selection, Vogt-Roberts turns out to be one of Kong: Skull Island‘s biggest assets.
Of course, the film’s biggest asset is the titular primate, reimagined as a towering creature that dwarfs any previous incarnation, able to crush a military helicopter in the palm of a single massive hand. Those helicopters belong to an elite team of pilots led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a disillusioned Vietnam War veteran looking for another fight to pick – and when he and his men are knocked out of the sky by a beast of mythical proportions while transporting a team of scientists to an uncharted island in the South Pacific, Packard has a new enemy clearly in his sights.
Elsewhere, former British Special Forces agent James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) encounter the island’s indigenous people, all painted faces and stoic expressions, in an isolated village that also plays host to Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a WWII fighter pilot who crash-landed on the island some thirty years prior, and whose mind isn’t quite what it used to be. Marlow has spent the past few years salvaging components from other wrecks and crafting a makeshift boat, which Conrad and his crew will need if they’re going to have any shot of reaching the rendezvous point before the extraction team arrives in three days.
While this trio is focused solely on staying alive long enough to get off the island, Packard has another plan – track down the monstrous ape that killed his men, and extract a measure of revenge. Much like Captain Ahab in his quest to conquer the white whale, Packard’s obsession is all-consuming, leaving him with no qualms about putting the lives of his men at risk for his personal vendetta. Jackson’s work here paints a compelling portrait of a man in the grip of madness, offering a surprising amount of depth for a film about that, at its core, is about the awe-inspiring presence of giant monsters.
Unlike the Godzilla reboot, which doled out the excitement in smaller doses and kept its subject hidden from view for a large segment of the running time, Kong: Skull Island takes the opposite approach. Audiences will catch their first glimpse of the big guy during the film’s opening scene, with his full might and majesty on display about 20 minutes later when Packard’s team arrives on the island. This full introduction, played out from multiple POVs as Kong decimates an entire squadron of attack choppers and asserts his position as king of the island, is merely the opening salvo: Vogt-Roberts has plenty more tricks up his sleeve, and each subsequent encounter with Kong (or another equally terrifying creature) is even more impressive than the last.
Audiences who didn’t care for the more reserved and meditative approach to 2014’s Godzilla will find plenty of things to love about the world that Vogt-Roberts has created here, a world that belongs not to men, but to beasts. As the next piece of an interconnected cinematic universe that will eventually finds its title character crossing paths with a certain gargantuan reptile, Kong: Skull Island is a tremendously entertaining foundation on which to build – and if the post-credits scene is any indication of things to come, we’ve only just scratched the surface, and the future smells even better than the napalm dropped from Packard’s helicopters.