Monster movies have been part of Hollywood folklore since its beginnings, and one of the most memorable has been the giant ape known as Kong, from the original “King Kong” in 1933, on through remakes in 1976 and 2005. The big beast has come a long way from the stop motion creature scaling a tiny model of the Empire State Building in the original, surviving the dud Seventies edition, and the overblown, butt-numbing, three-hour version by Peter Jackson.
This weekend, Kong returns in the utterly bizarre, thoroughly loopy and undeniably entertaining “Kong: Skull Island.” Starring an oddly yet effectively matched cast of ace actors, the new film manages to combine some of the most amazing effects I’ve ever seen with surprisingly touching character-driven moments to create an experience that demands to be seen on the big screen.
The movie opens with a showdown between two pilots, one American and one Japanese, in 1945 when both men crash their planes on an island while flying missions in WWII. As the men battle with guns and swords, they suddenly are interrupted by the giant hands of Kong swinging wildly in their direction.
Cut to the day in 1973 that the truce was announced ending the Vietnam War. A mysterious blowhard named Bill Randa (John Goodman), who is seeking approval to lead a purported geological exploration to a mysterious place called Skull Island.
Randa works for a company called Monarch that specializes in seeking out and exploiting “extraterrestrial creatures,” meaning all manner of odd earthbound beings, and believes the island is home to countless undiscovered creatures. He is given authorization to fly his team into the island with a battalion of military choppers, under the pretense that the US should explore the island before a Soviet spy satellite flies over it in three days.
Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is eager to score a quick success after being disappointed at America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, leads the escort team. Along for the ride are a British jungle guide named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and a Life magazine photographer named Mason Weaver (Brie Larson – smartly building on her 2015 Best Actress Oscar for the tiny indie “Room” with her first blockbuster role), who quickly draws Packard’s ire for having been part of the antiwar media.
With these juicy conflicts in place, they fly in, only to find themselves attacked by Kong. With only a few survivors left after the choppers all crash amid the battle, two teams spread out and find that they have far more than Kong to worry about – including giant spiders, vicious birds, monstrous yaks, and dinosaur-like beasties called “skull crushers” by Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), the American pilot who crashed there 28 years before.
“Kong: Skull Island” is absolutely ridiculous, but in all the right ways. Its dialogue often clunks with exposition, yet it also has a slyly self-referential sense of humor that makes it a hoot to watch, and its slumming stars are having infectious fun.
But a movie like this rises or falls on its special effects, and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has overseen a team that is likely to set the standard for Oscar voters in technical categories next year. The movie alternates between full-bore action, impressive slow-motion, pounding sonic fury and moments of quiet silence, all combining for jaw-dropping moments throughout that are custom-made for 3D magic.
There are only about 10 "S" words in the movie, one or two "GD"s, and one use of "F" word in what's intended as a comical rather than prurient context. The violence, however, is really really graphic a lot of the time, including a guy with a giant piece of bamboo down his throat after Kong surprises him, a silhouetted man who has an arm lopped off by an ugly bird with a razor-sharp beak, and a whole lot of scenes where the various giant monsters get shot at or otherwise pulverized, leading to huge amounts of monster body fluids to be released. In other words, this is definitely a movie for at least 13 year olds on up, as befits the PG-13 rating, but parents whose kids and teens might have a hard time handling major monster gore should likely steer clear anyway.
On the other hand, unlike "Logan" or the atrociously nihilistic "John Wick: Chapter Two," most viewers – especially teens – will just be in awe of the utterly amazing creatures, with the complete lack of real-world realism rendering this impossible to scar anyone's minds. This is "Jurassic Park" or "Jurassic World" on steroids, Red Bull and Monster drinks.
This is one movie that absolutely demands to be seen on the big screen, preferably with the full glasses effect, yet is solid enough entertainment to stand on its own in 2D as well. After a dire opening to the year, the back-to-back punch of the late-February thriller “Get Out,” the epic superhero flick “Logan” and now this monstrous treat are enough to inspire hope that this might be a good year for fun movies after all.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.