Movie review: ‘Kong: Skull Island’ (PG-13)

WARNER BROS.

“Kong: Skull Island” is fast, playful and ridiculous, a big-budget extravaganza with the soul of a spirited B-movie. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, making a huge leap in scale from his low-budget debut “The Kings of Summer,” doesn’t treat the iconic giant ape as reverently as Peter Jackson did in his laborious three-hour remake. He takes the material seriously, but he doesn’t weigh the movie down with self-importance, and he never forgets that pictures about enormous prehistoric monsters fighting each other are supposed to be, you know, fun.

Brisk, too. “Kong: Skull Island” clocks in at 115 minutes, a rarity in an era in which filmmakers seem to think longer is always better (the upcoming “The Fate of the Furious,” aka “Fast and Furious 8,” runs a whopping two hours and 40 minutes, which is longer than “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and that was a movie about the evolution of mankind from apes to space travelers).

The screenplay, which borrows some of the plot touchstones from the original 1933 “King Kong” but reshapes them, is credited to Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly. But Vogt-Roberts is the one who came up with the idea to set “Kong: Skull Island” in 1973, against a backdrop of political protests, cultural revolution, White House turmoil and the lingering death throes of an unsuccessful, costly war.

In other words, “Kong: Skull Island” is still a period piece, but it could have taken place in the present-day if all the characters had left their cellphones at home — not that they’d be getting any reception where they’re headed.

The first 20 minutes of “Kong: Skull Island” set up the central premise swiftly and introduce us to the film’s protagonists. Vogt-Roberts knows these characters aren’t exactly deep, so he’s cast the film with actors good enough to fill out their dimensions with sheer personality.

John Goodman is the scientist who convinces the U.S. government to allow him to tag along with the U.S. military on a mapping mission of an uncharted island. Tom Hiddleston is the professional tracker hired to help in case the place harbors critters. Brie Larson is an “anti-war photographer” who hitches a ride to document the journey. Samuel L. Jackson is the officer in charge of the show, still bitter about how American forces were ordered to pull out of Vietnam.

Even before the gang has reached the island, “Kong: Skull Island” is already invoking “Apocalypse Now,” and the Vietnam metaphors grow stronger as the movie unfolds. John C. Reilly shows up, improvising wildly, as a World War II pilot who’s been stranded on the island since 1944 and has made friends with the indigenous people — a tribe of chill, peace-loving villagers who worship Kong because he protects them against the island’s other, less hospitable residents.

As in all previous “King Kong” movies, Skull Island turns out to be roaming with creatures, including the scariest giant spider since Shelob in “The Return of the King,” except this one is a lot bigger. The special effects, by Industrial Light and Magic, are top-notch. But the way Vogt-Roberts composes his shots — often using striking perspectives and long takes — gives the movie its showmanship and spectacle. Things jump into the frame from unexpected directions, startling you. The film excels at conveying height and spatial dimensions. A sequence in which military helicopters square off against Kong is a wonderful piece of deft, old-school movie-making. Spielberg would approve. So would Ray Harryhausen.

Rating: ***

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, Thomas Mann, Toby Kebbell.

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

Screenwriters: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly.

A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 115 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, monster mayhem, scary images. Playing at area theaters.

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