Kong: Skull Island ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

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"I guess no man comes home from war, not really."

King Kong, the rampaging, romantic behemoth first seen towering model skyscrapers in 1933, isn't necessarily a staple for originality. Merian C. Cooper and RKO brought the beauty and the beast to monstrous life, and ever since, remakes propel the same story towards the same endpoint, dazzled up with effects, wonky technological creations, and bloated run-times. Never has the titular creature branched out from his own tragic demise, recycled in a feat of public consumption so that the blonde may make a connection strong enough for the audience to grow sullen as his weightless presence falls out of Heaven onto the asphalt. Kong: Skull Island, as both a reintroduction of the Monkey and Vietnam toybox iconography, is a triumph based around its firm grasp on freedom, delving deep into classical tendencies while subverting Kong's iconic stature in pop culture.

This is indeed a film about Skull Island (and how could it not be?) and its primordial happenings, from creepy crawly spiders with Bamboo legs (!!!!) to gigantic Water Buffalo and prehistoric Skullcrawlers, but the structure's context is of primary importance. Such rage rises from post-Vietnam occurrences, and it is what fuels Vogt-Roberts' lack of empathy towards a variety of the stock characters. Humans are taken apart with gnarly, livid rapidity, a wake-up call for the "Vietnam" horror which they survived, a situation in quotes considering the Living Room war is evoked entirely in cinematic pastiche. Meeting the soldiers in Skull Island is an uneasy one in that their camaraderie feels unearned - like they only lived through the fun, drug-induced haze without the inevitable shock of a fellow soldier torn to shreds next to them.

Such a blatant and obvious conjuration of the Vietnam War through a historical, image-compiled lens only makes sense when the helicopters are whizzing by in a fury of orange and red and green, an visceral gut-punch jump-started by Kong's full emergence a half-hour into the film. Adventure becomes War, two genres merging together to visualize similar sights and terrors and bubbles of dialogue. Take out the Monkey and you'd have one hell of a War Film opening, a group of soldiers on an Op desolated by an unseen force, but the context makes it all the more interesting. Post-Vietnam doesn't necessarily allow for in-the-moment feelings of panic and dread, so Vogt-Roberts portrays Skull Island *as* Vietnam itself, tossing aside any aftermaths of trauma in the first-act introduction.

The result is a total hodgepodge; lush and gorgeous and deranged and insane. Vogt-Roberts really, really, really, REALLY wants to let us know how much he loves Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, but for something far more exotic and uncharted than mere film-buff posturing. Through the opening of Skull Island, Vogt-Roberts tackles how Vietnam has been cleansed of its evil, its acid screams, its depraved darkness, and decides to unleash it back into the fold within a Kaiju extravaganza, allowing for actual monsters instead of marginalized enemies and commitment to figurine character types. The leading man, the leading lady, the rogue antagonist, the crazy scientists, the brute soldiers; they're all here and exactly how they should be packaged, only to be changed by Kong's sheer force rather than a group of scattered, unseen Vietcong.

And besides this, Skull Island joyously stays within Adventure boundaries, freshening up for tidiness when needed and standing strong with the rest. With the cast of characters cast across the island, why wouldn't there be a countdown narrative goal? And why wouldn't it be driven by pure obstacle storytelling, with side performers picked off messily by massive creatures? By the time Hiddleston and Larson ponder the beauty of Skull Island against a Northern Lights backdrop, the classic melodrama has reached a fever pitch in spite of the dynamic never climbing to the level of Romance, only common appreciation. It's a dream-movie - something an 8 year old would make - in some stretches and uncommonly sour in others, but it's always leaping towards a new encounter and a new needle-drop for the obvious purpose of injecting a monster mash with ancient/modern flourish whenever and wherever it wishes.

Such an approach brings a playlist of moments to the forefront, but they're so integral to the staging of smaller, less-memorable scenes that it'll be impossible to simply watch them on Youtube without a core component missing. Brie Larson's final glance towards Kong as he wanders back into the jungle would not resonate if not for a multitude of movements which came before (I think of Hiddleston motioning for a young soldier's gun to drop, and when he abides, Larson's camera rises, an "anti-war photographer" captured in a silent rack focus. I also think of Kong emerging out of the mist to greet them on a mountaintop, moonlight bathing his fir in radiance, with Larson's response simply one of touch; a digital gesture so very intimate and tangible.), and similarly with the final moments, 'we'll meet again' crooning as beautiful actors make beautiful poses after a stunning Kaiju battle comes to a close. You can practically hear Vogt-Roberts, in the spirit of Carl Denham, yelling from the director's chair: "Bask in the sun! Quick, Brie, turn your head so the light catches your hair! That's it! Now that's a beauty!"

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