Kong: Skull Island enlists a real who's who of I love them's -- Tom Hiddleston! Brie Larson! Samuel L. Jackson, downright understated here despite once again reciting the iconic Jurassic Park line, "Hold on to your butts." And still, the true star is...Kong. Rightfully so, though perhaps improbably so. Unlike 2014's Godzilla, you get Kong -- full-on Kong, not a glimpse of a hand, not just a flash of his eye -- mere minutes into the movie, amid a WWII set piece that provides an epic re-introduction to the ape-like god.
Kong then jumps forward to 1973. As the U.S. is pulling out of Vietnam, the shady government organization known as Monarch (along with Hiddleston's former SAS tracker and Larson's anti-war photographer) sets off on an expedition to Skull Island -- The land where God did not finish creation! A place where myth and science meet! -- to search out "imaginary monsters." It's no spoiler to say: they find 'em.
Thus far, the MonsterVerse movies -- the shared cinematic universe that will bring together the likes of Godzilla and Kong -- have tended to hit many of the same story beats: find a MUTO (or, Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Watch that MUTO wreak havoc. Nefarious military types try to kill the un-killable kaiju as our heroes discover the MUTO is simply misunderstood and, ultimately, our monster must defend everyone from a far greater threat. Somewhere in there, the team stumbles upon a graveyard filled with skeletons of unnatural proportions.
Skull Island differs in one majorly satisfying way:
It never feels the need to hold back on Kong in order to "surprise" viewers at the climactic hour and forty-minute mark. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts plays his Kong card directly up top, and it pays off. Kong is the reason we're all here, after all. Later, we're told about Skull Crawlers and immediately get a taste of the reptilian monstrosities. You want giant creatures? You'll get giant creatures.
Because Kong: Skull Island delivers. The action bits are crafted with a skilled hand -- familiar but clever, with one early sequence playing out like a 3-D ride at an amusement park. The movie is also beautifully shot, so polished and poppy that I sometimes wished the CGI monkey would move out of the way so I could enjoy the view. While the easy comparison here is Apocalypse Now (and Skull Island does make use of every cliché Vietnam war song), it's more so an improvement on Jurassic Park III. It's a blockbuster popcorn flick that's only infrequently dumb, with some truly suspenseful, fun, ridiculous, gruesome surprises that had me slack jawed in the theater. It's a two-hour ride you won't regret. Not least of all, it's a much more promising start to a shared cinematic universe. (Never forget: The Incredible Hulk was a dud and look at the MCU now.)