PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Everyone’s at least heard of King Kong.
It was the 1933 original that spawned what eventually grew into a Kong-a line of giant-ape flicks.
That includes about a dozen-and-a-half creature features, otherwise known as action-adventure fantasies, featuring the mythic primate we know as Kong, who continues to fascinate us.
We’ve encountered His Hairy Immenseness in versions entitled King Kong in 1933, 1976, and 2005.
And is there a more iconic movie image than Kong swatting at planes on the Empire State Building – not in this version, but as he did in the original?
In the 2017 version, Kong: Skull Island, a diverse team of explorers and soldiers in 1973, as the Vietnam War winds down, travel on an expedition to an uncharted landmass in the Pacific – a place, says one character early on, “where myth and science meet” – to see what might be prowling around on a long-hidden island near Southeast Asia.
That’s where they encounter Kong as just one of the local gigantic monsters in the scenic but treacherous vicinity, an island that gets its name from a skull-shaped rock formation and serves as home to a number of huge prehistoric beasties and a primitive society of people who reside there.
As for the supporting creatures in this feature, there are plenty, most of them eye-poppingly splendid. Their inclusion recalls Jurassic Park just as much as it does the earlier King Kong movies, and leaves the recent Godzilla remakes in the dust. And their violent encounters locate the film at the far end of the PG-13 rating.
Tom Hiddleston leads the cast, making what might be called a minimal impression, as a British Special Forces agent and Brie Larson co-stars as a war photographer, with John Goodman as an aggressive scientist, Samuel L. Jackson as an army colonel, John C. Reilly as a fighter pilot, and Thomas Mann as a soldier.
If anyone comes close to stealing the movie out from under the giant ape, it’s Reilly, playing a guy who’s been stranded on Skull Island for nearly thirty years, in a slyly witty and winning performance.
As before, we’re titillated by the perverse imagery. As before, we project all kinds of Rohrschach-test-like associations onto Kong. As before, we root for the under-ape.
And as before, we have a great time at this colorful, scary, poignant tragedy, and with the titular motion-capture behemoth, who manages to be intimidating, sympathetic, and even heroic.
The script by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly, from a story by John Gatins, gives director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer and lots of television), in charge of his first epic undertaking, the opportunity to reimagine the familiar tale, this time awarding home-field advantage to the ape rather than the humans in New York City, and handling the emotional connection between the female lead and Kong differently than what you might expect.
Ultimately, what the movie depends on is the seeming authenticity of the extensive CGI footage, and it is casually, effectively, miraculously jaw-dropping, starting with Kong.
So we’ll go a little ape for 3 stars out of 4 for a breathlessly absorbing, action-packed, strongly entertaining fantasy. Kong: Skull Island is giddy escapism of a high order, a monstrous thrill ride that turns you back into a wide-eyed kid.