Kong: Skull Island starts in 1944, the last years of Japan's Empire of the Rising Sun. Behold! There's the sun now, boiling in the center of the screen before the opening credits begin. Then director Jordan Vogt-Roberts blocks out the light with a surprise: a screaming body falling from the sky. It's an American soldier crash-landing on an uncharted island in the Pacific. Kaboom! Now he's joined by a pilot from Japan. The enemies grab their guns and the fight continues until the sun disappears again — this time behind a 100-foot ape. Guys, it’s time to make friends.
Vogt-Roberts's gleaming King Kong flick, the seventh since the original giant grabbed Fay Wray, eclipses the past timeline. This Kong has never made it to Manhattan. Instead, his story picks up in 1973 Washington, D.C., where a government lobbyist named Bill (John Goodman) knows the primate exists. Bill's own WWII brigade stumbled onto Kong's atoll, a chain of rocks that the battle-scarred veteran describes as a skull, but which looks more like a leering Joker spray-painted on an Impala. Bill was the only survivor. Thirty years later, he wants proof he's not a kook. He's convinced a senator (Richard Jenkins) to green-light his, er, mapping expedition, for which he's going to need one aircraft carrier, 14 helicopters, a platoon of army soldiers fresh off the Vietnam War, a couple of scientists, an all-purpose swashbuckler (Tom Hiddleston), way too much napalm, and a tag-along photographer (Brie Larson), who takes her job very seriously for someone we catch taking a black-and-white snap of a pastel aurora borealis.
The mid-'70s is Hollywood's new, hip period setting. This is the fourth take on it I've seen this year, and the production design still feels fresh. Maybe it's my fetish for dot-matrix printers and suits that appear to have been sewn from my parents' college couch. Or maybe it's all the Nixon protesters waving signs that scream, "Honk for impeachment." Mutters Goodman's Bill to his aide (Corey Hawkins, of Straight Outta Compton) as they stomp past the angry voters, "Mark my words. There'll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington." Don't trust the mission's safety to this psychic.
Skull Island is an old-school, popcorn-chomping adventure that could fit in at the movie theater in 1973. It's spry, not sarcastic or kitschy — those buzzkills take all the gas out of a fizzy blockbuster. Pair it in a double feature with another sci-fi thriller from that year, like The Day of the Dolphin, The Neptune Factor, or Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Creedence Clearwater Revival thrums on the soundtrack — has any '70s movie managed to avoid it? — but when the giant spiders start stomping, Vogt-Roberts earns the right to blast "Run Through the Jungle."
The script hints at post-Vietnam trauma. For U.S. combat forces, the war had ended so recently that soldiers like Mills (the instantly empathetic Jason Mitchell) haven't had a chance to leave Saigon, and when his commander, the fearsome and unhinged Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), orders his helicopters to drop bombs on Kong's trees, we're meant to think of those explosive aerial runs above the Indochinese forests. Is there a scene where a napalm-soaked monster recalls the terrorized naked 9-year-old girl of Trang Bang? You betcha.
Here, history is a punch that doesn't leave a bruise. The script doesn't want us fretting over the futility of war. It just wants us to care a little more about our characters and their decade, and set up Jackson's officer as the island's deadliest loon. Packard can't avenge himself on the Vietcong who killed his men. But this monkey who swatted down all his military copters like they were butterflies is gonna taste his battle-hardened wrath — and Jackson puts his flaring nostrils front and center. Nobody's better at charismatic cruelty, or getting away with swaggering lines like, "I am the cavalry!" When Best Actress winner Larson turns her sad, brown eyes to him and begs for peace, Jackson bats her away with, "Bish, please."
Larson fares better with Kong, who despite killing a dozen of her companions and stranding her on his home, seems at least clued in to that decade's women's-liberation movement. Instead of pawing the lovely brunette, he simply allows her to touch his nose, and later, shelters her from harm like a protective older brother. If this less-pervy ape could speak, he'd say, "Kong respect personal lady space." No wonder Vogt-Roberts gifts him a dozen classic hero shots, with Kong's fur rippling poetically in the sun. Then again, everyone gets a hero shot — not just one on each human in the huge cast, but also on a dragonfly, a Nixon bobblehead, and even Kong's ass. Those big poses make the movie feel grander than it is.
Yet, Vogt-Roberts also does things with the camera no director in 1933, or even 1973, would have dared. Censors would have never allowed him to stab a man through the throat with a spider leg, an image lifted directly from the banned 1980 exploitation flick Cannibal Holocaust. And technology couldn't dream of all the places he puts his lens: in a vertiginous plunge down Kong's mouth, inside a pterodactyl as it's sliced in half by a samurai sword, and directly in the splash zone of a vomiting Skullcrawler, a two-legged dino-thing that toddles around the island like one of those plastic drinking birds thirsty for blood. His camerawork is both gratuitous and dazzling. I kept goggling my eyes at my friend as if to say, "Did you see that?!" But they, of course, were sucked into the screen.
For all of Skull Island's cavalier charm, the script could use more of a spark between Larson and Hiddleston, our two supposed heroes, who both could have used more of a personality. But with an ensemble this large and strong — I haven't even had space to mention half of them — who needs extra time with the pale darlings?
The first Kong had one lunatic, huckster Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong in the '30s and Jack Black in the 2005 remake). Vogt-Roberts starts off the film with two, Goodman and Jackson, both antler-clanging for attention. As the team treks further into the bush, we get John C. Reilly, too, as a marooned American named Hank who's been stuck on the island for 28 years. From the moment Reilly opens his yap he doesn't stop talking, except for a quiet moment when he imagines eating a hot dog at a Cubs game, and cradles the invisible sausage in his hand until we can practically see it ourselves. Reilly is perfectly cued into Skull Island's strange retro-sincerity, so much so that his character can't stop talking about the past. "What happened to the war?" he asks. "Did we win?" And when the blues rock starts blaring, he says with a groan, "What happened to swing?"
Most modern remakes would be so obsessed with being bloody serious that we wouldn't get a nut like Hank. But when your movie stars a 10-story ape, why not just aim to entertain? Kong: Skull Island is an offering to the hungry mouths at the multiplex who want to cheer a movie that doesn't insult, or tax, their intelligence. This beast speaks plainly in its own voice, whether it's Kong's rattling roar or Hank advising, "You've probably noticed a lot of weird things live on this island," before yelping, "That sounds like a bird, but it's a fucking ant!" Thanks for the advice, mister. See you under the trees.