What do we want from a creature feature, anyway?
A primal feeling of immensity, of unthinkable bigness, I think — a sense that we humans are beguilingly small. Other than that, not much. I could go on and on about the giant crab and the steroidal bees and the rampaging mega-chicken in 1961’s Saturday-matinee classic “Mysterious Island.” But please don’t ask me what the movie’s about.
The original 1933 “King Kong” doubled down on that compact by bringing its humongous ape to Manhattan for the third act: Suddenly the greatest city in the world seemed puny. For so many reasons, that first film is an icon, and the occasional remakes — the one with Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges in 1976, the Peter Jackson three-ring circus from 2005 — are notable only for their failure to rebottle the magic. Their beasts may be big, but they don’t make us feel little.
“Kong: Skull Island” isn’t a remake or a reboot or a re-anything. It’s just a Saturday matinee creature feature with a smart, unpretentious script, a handful of solid supporting players, and a digital Kong who feels big enough and real enough to provoke the necessary awe. This is all to the movie’s credit.
Better yet (and unlike Jackson’s film), the new movie understands the line between thrilling an audience and scaring it silly — between action-adventure awe and horror-movie gross-outs. The movie feels as if it has been made for a 10-year-old kid, either the one living in your house or the one living in your heart.
As reimagined by a raft of screenwriters and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (his only other feature was the slaphappy teen indie “The Kings of Summer,” from 2013), “Kong: Skull Island” moves the time-period to 1973 and the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War. Satellite imagery has revealed an uncharted island in the South Pacific, and a group of scientists is off to investigate under the guidance of Bill Randa (John Goodman), who works for a shadowy government agency and has the clout to bring a platoon of weary American soldiers stationed in Saigon along as protection. Also a natty British tracker, Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and a comely American war photographer, Mason (Brie Larson).
No sooner have they landed at Skull Island than things go spectacularly south in ways I cannot reveal. Suffice to say that all that business about beauty killing the beast and side-excursions to New York City is off the table. “Kong: Skull Island” is enjoyably linear and it suggests a cross between “The Most Dangerous Game” and “Apocalypse Now” as the characters separate and come back together while attempting to make it across the island alive. Kong, it turns out, is the least of their problems.
How’s the big guy? Pretty convincing, actually, and appreciably large. Digital rendering and motion-capture technology have progressed to the point where this Kong has both outer texture and inner presence; his movements are provided by actor Toby Kebbell (who also plays one of the soldiers) but at no point does he seem like a man in a monkey suit. Purists know that special effects genius Willis O’Brien created the only King Kong that matters back in 1933, but it feels like the movies have finally stopped playing catch-up in terms of breathing the character to life.
The human characters? Some are more lifelike than others. Hiddleston and Larson are nominally the leads and consequently quite dull; it’s the sort of movie where the supporting actors get to strut (as Robert Armstrong did in the original “King Kong”). So we get Samuel L. Jackson working up a righteous head of steam as the platoon’s crazed commanding officer, convinced that the giant ape is an enemy that, unlike the Vietnamese, he can vanquish. We get fine, frisky players like Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, and grizzled Shea Whigham as soldiers, along with Corey Hawkins and Tian Jiang as dutiful scientist types who don’t get to do much.
Best of all, we get the movie’s stealth weapon, John C. Reilly, as Hank Marlow, a marooned WWII pilot who has been living for decades with the island’s natives and has only lost part of his mind as a result. In the same way that director Vogt-Roberts finds fresh angles and settings in visualizing this old, old story, Reilly uses his off-kilter line readings and daft bonhomie to keep “Kong: Skull island” on the lighter side, even as the nasties start crawling out of the movie’s baseboards and treating the cast like individual sticks of beef jerky.
(As for the natives, they’re no longer the ooga-booga Africans of yore but a tribe of mystical and mute Southeast Asians, the filmmakers having swapped an objectionable racist iconography for one somewhat less objectionable.)
In the end, you come to a creature feature for the creatures, and, really, to watch them beat each other up. “Kong: Skull Island” keeps its side of the bargain in a handful of action sequences that play like deafening CGI wrestling bouts; they’re exhausting, but you’re strapped in by that point, so you go along for the ride. More to the point, you root for the big, hairy lummox the way the movie wants you to. And then you go home, to a real world where our humanness feels proportionally large again, in ways we don’t often enough consider. “Kong: Skull Island” is a Saturday afternoon monster movie, nothing more and nothing less — that’s what’s good about it. But for two hours, it lets you get small.
(Note: Stick around to the very end of the credits if you want hints of how Warner Bros. intends to turn this into a franchise. Or treat the movie as the stand-alone pleasure it is and get out while the going’s good.)
KONG: SKULL ISLAND
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly, and John Gatins. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Natick and Reading. 118 minutes. PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence ad action, brief strong language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.