Silver Screen: Kong: Skull Island ***1/2
In the primitive days of Hollywood special effects, when a monster was a man in a rubber suit and flying saucers levitated via fishing line, the term of art— or lack thereof— for a shoddy illusion was “seeing the strings.”
To see the strings, as in the literal strings holding aloft a falling asteroid or an alien spacecraft, was to see the mechanics of the effect at work, and to have your suspension of disbelief suspended.
Modern digital effects have rendered this moot. Now even second-tier would-be blockbusters directed by relative nobodies feature seamless visuals. Seemingly every couple of weeks now sees the release of an eye-popping visual extravaganza that would have not so long ago been a rarity reserved only for the Camerons and the Spielbergs.
Suspension of disbelief is under a whole new threat. In the era of interconnected film franchises and corporatized cinema “world-building,” movies no longer have to just be good, but boast a requisite number of callbacks to earlier films as well as serve as advertisements for their own sequels and related other franchises. It’s hard for the regular moviegoer not to notice the writers struggling to jam in every bit of exposition necessary to complete their own story while also keeping some overarching plot moving.
In other words, it’s hard not to see the strings.
Kong: Skull Island is a fairly brazen effort to re-re-reboot King Kong while situating it within the same cinematic world as the recently re-rebooted Godzilla and all his pals from Monster Island. Imagine the crossover potential!
Someone has. But since Godzilla was most recently reimagined as significantly larger than previous incarnations, we apparently need a whole separate movie to establish a newer, bigger Kong.
What’s perhaps most impressive about Skull Island is that, for a movie with no real raison d’être other than unmitigated profiteering, it’s a fun hybrid of modern spectacle and old-fashioned adventure that’s also blessedly (mostly) self-contained. It actually feels like a real movie.
In other words, you can barely see the strings.
Kong: Skull Island avoids the pitfalls of Peter Jackson’s bloated remake by essentially chopping the original in half, leaving off all the most famous skyscraper-climbing antics in favor of the mystery-island prologue.
In this modernization, set in the early 1970s, Skull Island is yet another hostile bit of land where America sends its soldiers. For military man Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), it represents a chance for a victory just as the United States is leaving the Vietnam War behind. But for scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his partner Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), it represents the greatest chance yet to prove that prehistoric monsters still exist on Earth.
Of course they do find Kong— right away, thankfully. The filmmakers smartly waste no time getting to the giant-monster action, which features not only his Royal Apeness but humongous spiders, squids, and a whole species of underground-dwelling monsters.
The crew, which also includes generic glib pilot hero James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), also finds World War II ace Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), who has been living amongst the natives on the island for decades since his plane crashed.
Reilly is the movie’s comic relief, but also its most essential human character. His quest to get back to his long-lost family lends some emotional stakes to a movie otherwise populated by clichés: the overzealous scientist, the empowered anti-damsel, the noble grunt soldiers, and their war-mad commander.
But what the movie lacks in the human element it makes up for in eye-popping production design and, of course, Kong. There’s not much in the way of pathos for this iteration of the King. He’s not the tragic beast who falls for Fay Wray, he’s a benevolent brawler. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts doles out just enough of Kong to keep his appearances momentous yet is not stingy with the giant-monster smashing.
Vogt-Roberts joins the ranks of directors who jump from one semi-successful indie (Kings of Summer) to a massive studio project. He doesn’t do much in the way of innovation, but he keeps the pace quick and the action clear. And the ace cast helps cover over the occasional flimsiness of the writing, which is indistinct but at least deft enough to make us forget we’re not watching a movie, we’re watching a necessary installment in a larger moneymaking scheme.
Meanwhile, one of the movie’s four credited screenwriters, Max Borenstein , is reportedly already at work on the next Godzilla movie... and the next one. We’ll see if he can keep his strings from showing.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@RealBryanMiller.