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The sense of scale in this movie is just masterful.

I really, really didn’t like 2005’s King Kong and it was really the beginning of my reappraisal of Peter Jackson as a filmmaker (George Lucas 2.0). I only saw it the one time and while people have reassured me that it’s got redeeming qualities, and I’m sure it does, I have never had the desire to revisit it again.

Kong: Skull Island on the other hand? I think I’ll be rewatching this one a ton. For one thing, it’s fucking gorgeous. So well designed and beautifully shot. It’s an obvious course-correction after Godzilla 2014’s very mixed bag, and this might not sit well for fans of that movie, but I loved it. Mostly what this means is that Kong has a diverse cast of human characters that are fleshed out to varying degrees and have charisma and meaningful arcs (for the most part). Godzilla had one dude who just kept being inexplicably there for everything. Kong simply does it one better by paying a little more attention to the humans and also by making sure Kong is around early and often. It maintains the somewhat distant perspective on Kong that Godzilla had with its titular beast, but I actually kind of like that. It’s better if humans are sort of watching this big ape-god and arguing among themselves about its true motives and traits. It gives it a slight tinge of cosmic horror, where even with all the jawing about it we’re pretty sure no one really ever understands these great monsters fully.

In most ways, Kong plays like a very old fashioned adventure movie. It has a playful sensibility with tons of visual gags and a critical attention to small details that helps it pull off that swashbuckling tone. It feels like the cover of a 60’s Hollow Earth novel come to life, right down to the action figure hero and heroine. I was not expecting something with this much scale and confidence from Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose previous movie Kings of Summer is one I really liked but is almost laughably smaller in every conceivable way. Still, Vogt-Roberts might owe a debt to Gareth Edwards but he very much makes his own mark in the Kaijuverse that they are trying to build. I think he’s the best bet for bringing together that inevitable movie where Kong and Godzilla throw down.

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There are a lot of people in this movie, a healthy mix of characters as well as “redshirts”.

Kong opens with a dogfight over an uncharted island in 1944. The two pilots, one American and one Japanese, soon realize they are in a very strange place. Flash forward to 1973 with Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his protege Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) trying to secure funding for an expedition to said island, just as political problems seem poised to create a lot of upheaval in Washington (spoiler: Nixon gets impeached). In short order, many characters are introduced in a truly economic sequence of getting people together and ready to go to the island. Whole half seasons of television shows are spent on the kind of storytelling that is done here in a few short minutes. I hope people are paying attention to this because it’s incredible work, really, and probably going to be overlooked because it’s one of those “invisible cogs” of cinematic storytelling and plot momentum.

They need a cover story so they get with John Ortiz and his band of surveyors.

They need protection and helicopters so Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a grumpy soldier who is pissed about giving up on ‘Nam and his unit, are assigned. Packard’s unit is full of good side characters, including Toby Kebbel (more on him later), Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell, and Thomas Mann… all of whom get a few broad character notes, fit nicely into a familiar type, and even get to play around with expectations and tropes the audience might have in mind.

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People who like Hiddleston and Larson are gonna have a lot to like. Both of them are instantly iconic and able to shoulder the aesthetic weight of their characters, which often does the heavy-lifting in terms of characterization overall.

Finally, they need a guide so Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) peels himself off a fucking movie poster somewhere else to join up. The last recruit is Mace Weaver (Brie Larson), an anti-war photojournalist who comes to document the trip and immediately butts heads with Packard over the war, connects with Conrad over their outsider status, and gets more character development in her introduction scene than there is for anyone in all of Assassin’s Creed.

Some people have nitpicked that there are too many characters to do them all justice, but I think they’re wrong. While not really an ensemble picture, Kong is filled with subtle and economic (there’s that word again) characterization but isn’t afraid to also go big, sometimes with mixed results, when the time is right. I got the sense that many of these characters, especially the soldiers, represented different points of view about American military adventurism (a criticism of which is embedded all through this movie’s subtext). The characters talk to each other, they bond, they bicker, they sometimes get into heated confrontations. But there’s some heart here, mostly in Mann’s youngster Slivko and Kebbel’s awe-struck and contemplative Chapman.

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Kong 2017 feels like Kebbel the same way 2005’s version felt like Andy Serkis.

One of my biggest struggles with the movie, actually, was the unceremonious way Chapman dies moments after experiencing a moment of quiet realization about the island and its megafauna. He is sort of like Jim Caviezel’s character in The Thin Red Line, actually. Just enough that you’re reminded of that movie, but not enough that it’s distracting or threatens the overall tone of Kong.

Ultimately, I think I get why Chapman dies the way he does, but it was hard to see the statement in its perfunctory execution. Vogt-Roberts repeats a version of this when Whigham’s character tries to do a heroic sacrifice for the group, only to be splattered against a wall by a Skull Crawler’s tail swipe. It’s a play on a trope which is then summarily undermined in a way that is sort of funny to me, but I think might seem to be overplaying the hand a little. The weakest characters are probably Brooks and San (Tian Jing) but even they transform from academics to hardened survivors by the end, which might not be a three dimensional dramatic arc but is more than many movies bother to have for minor characters (let alone major ones).

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Ladies with flare guns. Was Vogt-Roberts trying to one-up Jurassic World?

The real heart comes from Marlow (John C. Reilly) who picks the movie up and runs away with it about a third of the way through. He’s the American who crashed on the island in ’44 and he delivers a pretty big exposition dump which would be a misfire if not for Reilly’s enthusiasm and vaguely unhinged performance. Though the trailers and a few early scenes make him seem like he’s going to be sheer comic relief and maybe threaten the tone of the movie from a different angle than Kebbel’s character does, it’s reigned in just enough to make room for legitimate badassery (samurai sword!), themes of transgressing political boundaries in the name of friendship, and a whole lotta heart. It’s no surprise that the movie’s credits are devoted to Marlow and not Conrad and Mace or some other surviving character. Marlow’s life, lost to a war in a profound sense, is interesting because it indicts World War 2 alongside Viet Nam, which is a fucking whacky thing for a movie to do even in 2017. WW2 is usually untouchable, but Kong reaches out a hand paw to gently, subtly take a shot.

Speaking of its anti-war themes, Kong does do what the trailers show and have its monstrous “hero” slaughter a lot of American soldiers. This is discussed by the characters, and the tension between the pursuit of vengeance and just trying to survive or move on forms a lot of the conflict between the human characters. Packard pretends he’s trying to save Chapman, but really he is just Captain Ahab hunting down his nemesis, on which he has projected not only the deaths of his men but also his deep-seated frustration about what he feels as his superiors giving up on the war he fought and probably fought hard. He’s understandable, in other words, but no less awful in the end. On the other hand, there’s Kong who winds up having pretty good reasons for being himself. I mean, the first thing the humans do when they get to the island is bomb the shit out of it, which turns out to not be about geology, but about Randa’s misguided attempts to right a wrong in his past that completely reframes the character. There’s also that Marlow’s experiences have helped the others to understand (to varying degrees) what Kong is all about and that there’s a much deeper threat to worry about, which Kong is probably necessary to fight. Perhaps this is supposed to be a metaphor for the fixation on Communism as a way for America to miss the Skull Crawlers for the Kong when the real threat was global destabilization, economic disparity, etc. Seems like something that might deserve more thought. Beyond any subtext, there’s the evidence that this movie tries really hard to humanize the characters, all of them, even when they do bad things. It gives it a touch of sophistication that surprised me and that, honestly, this movie could have gotten away with not having. It could have been as cartoonish in its politics and morality as it is in its setting and aesthetics and no one would have blinked.

I love getting more especially when I didn’t ask for it.

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It’s easy to get audiences on Kong’s side, and while there’s some waving at the idea of Kong digging blondes, it’s not overdone.

The thing I think people are going to most appreciate about this movie, though, is its sense of scale. Especially in the last third, there are shots and sequences I won’t spoil here that will just drop jaws. Some of it is in the trailers, but a lot of it isn’t. Before the final showdown(s), the movie very deliberately paces the encounters with Skull Island’s various beasties, all of which are treated as animals with their own ecological niche that is interrupted by the newcomers. When it becomes time for Kong to throw down with the big Skull Crawler, the movie doesn’t deflate but rises to the occasion and becomes an incredibly satisfying battle royale that I think will impress the people who thought Godzilla didn’t have enough of this or that Pacific Rim was too darkly lit to be fully realized. Kong stomps creepy lizard ass in broad daylight, folks. Suffice it to say that the screenshots I’ve poached for this review just don’t do this movie justice whatsoever.

All in all, I went into Kong with slightly diminished expectations after some early mixed reviews suggested that the movie would be shallow and rushed. I disagree with those claims, as what I found was a lot of unnecessary (if we’re honest) depth in a well-paced adventure movie. And I do mean adventure. A lot of “adventure movies” are really just action movies because they never quite achieve the tone and atmosphere of an adventure story. Kong does this with aplomb, comparing more to something like Jurassic Park or Star Wars: A New Hope than to a John Wick or Rogue One. It has wonder, takes time to world-build and explore, and never loses sight of its sense of daring-do and fun even when things get grim. It’s not like adventure is a superior genre, though. It’s just rare because you can’t be lazy about it and in the pursuit of what makes money “works”, big budget movies usually cut corners and undermine their own tonal aspirations. That doesn’t happen here, so if you think you might like some buckles in your swash and a little of that old fashioned adventure, this is a great movie to remind you of what that’s like. Beyond that, though, it’s just a great movie and I think people should start getting excited about this Kaijuverse thing now.

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