What makes a really good popcorn movie? There's no formula for the finely crafted, imaginative, escapist entertainment many of us find appealing, whatever our tastes in film. The best popcorn movies don't take themselves too seriously but do maintain a strong sense of fun, all while finding purpose in larger-than-life characters and exotic, often fantastic worlds.
With its tale of an outsized ape ruling an undiscovered, primordial land in the tropical South Pacific, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kong: Skull Island would seem an almost too-literal fulfillment of that figurative ideal. But Vogt-Roberts defies the odds with a weirdly inspired and entertaining reboot of the 84-year-old King Kong story.
Kong: Skull Island can only be described as a monster movie, an odd subgenre that had a devoted following in its 1950s and early '60s heyday. Monster movies share some turf with horror and science fiction but hold to their own peculiar aesthetic. They celebrate aberrant and imaginative creatures representing real-world horrors specific to their day, from nuclear war to genetic engineering. The monsters typically exist through no fault of their own, which can make them sympathetic. Most important, monster movies don't know the meaning of irony — they play it straight and never apologize for the silliness of their limited cinematic worlds.
That limited scope serves Kong: Skull Island well, especially with benefit of its vivid, highly specific 1973 setting. That's before the end of the Vietnam War and after NASA launched its Landsat program, which fully mapped the earth from space for the first time. These historical facts are used to explain how an island could go undetected so long and why there might be a U.S. military escort nearby to accompany a spontaneous scientific expedition.
Setting the film in 1973 also allows Vogt-Roberts to draw as much inspiration from Apocalypse Now as Jurassic Park. Like many other recent films, the 1970s permeate each frame of Kong: Skull Island, from the vibrant visuals (shot with vintage-style widescreen lenses) to a soundtrack that blasts period bands from the Stooges to Black Sabbath. The two-hour running time goes by in a flash. What's not to like?
The stereotypes connected with that era also come in handy. Samuel L. Jackson plays the hawkish U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who leads the military escort. Brie Larson (Room) is the self-described "anti-war" photographer, and Tom Hiddleston (Only Lovers Left Alive) plays the reluctant expert tracker from British Special Forces. Only John Goodman's secretive government agent knows the true purpose of the expedition, which is to prove monsters roam the earth. All the actors dive into their roles with appropriate abandon and not a trace of self-serving irony.
Of course, the real star of the show is Kong, a beautifully rendered, state-of-the-art digital creation by 300 artists, animators and technicians at Industrial Light & Magic. Those efforts are focused on giving Kong an array of recognizably human gestures and expressions. It turns out the big ape is merely misunderstood, just like the rest of us.
Kong: Skull Island has spotty dialogue and Kong-sized plot holes, all while giving in to the predictably epic creature battle that passes for an exciting finale. But if you feel like complaining, you've probably missed the point. Popcorn movies don't have to be great. They just have to keep us enthralled.