2017 | rated PG-13 | starring John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Reilly, Jason Mitchell | directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts | 1hr 58mins |

Studio Pitch: A Kong Kong reboot centered around Skull Island and an entry point into a giant monster cinematic universe.

Gareth Edwards’ grim, teasing Godzilla reboot disappointed me on a first viewing and completely thrilled on a second; and the exact same thing happened with the next Legendary giant monster movie. Kong: Skull Island initially struck me as shallow and detached – and true it isn’t exactly a thriller from minute to minute – but like Godzilla it got better the more it swirled around in my head. Like that movie, you have to step back from it for a bit to see why it’s so special. Yes, it’s a big cartoonish CGI Hollywood blockbuster – but it’s an unusually clear-eyed and well constructed one.

The year is 1973 and the Vietnam war is winding down when Bill Randa (John Goodman), a researcher with a classified secret agency called Monarch, and a Hollow Earth theorist Brooks (Corey Hawkins) lead an expedition to an uncharted island in the Pacific, untouched by man, that ostensibly serves as a Bermuda Triangle. Along the way they pick up a mercenary (Tom Hiddleston), an anti-war photographer (Brie Larson) and a military escort lead by an embittered Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). The team immediately encounters King Kong, a gigantic, ferocious gorilla who tears apart the platoon and divides the group into two camps who make their way across an island crawling with prehistoric monsters.

While Kong has a similar exciting opening credit sequence as Godzilla, that’s pretty much where any indication that these movies share a universe ends. From the very beginning when a fighter pilot hurtles toward the Earth, slams into a tropical beach and is immediately perused by his Axis power enemy, Kong goes off like a cannon, It is high energy, fun and boasting a bright color palette.  Helicopters crash in slow motion, humans get stomped, chomped and flung through the air, half the cast of Straight Outta Compton appears and Samuel L. Jackson quotes himself in Jurassic Park. Everything here is light on it’s feet while loaded with personality.

Kong, and the many monsters of Skull Island, are seen in both their majesty and their terror early and often as the movie walks it’s cast through a classic jungle adventure befitting the original Merian C. Cooper film where the island was described as inhabiting monsters from “the dinosaur era”. The characters are thin, but well scripted and well acted. They’re different enough that tossing them together in this situation makes for a richer ensemble than you’d normally see in this type of blockbuster. Hiddleston is the level-headed leader (introduced in a bar fight no less), Larson the heart and record-keeper who tries to see Kong as more than a savage, Jackson the gung-ho type that wants to blow Kong off the map and we have a peppering of scientists and GIs in the mix.

Then the film all but turns itself over to John C. Reilly as a cast-away the explorers find living amongst the natives. Reilly – improvising some really funny stuff – serves as comic relief, an exposition data dump, time travel man and surprisingly enough the film’s biggest heart. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (the recommendable Kings of Summer) balances all of this just right, weaving the special effects in to build the world of the island, delivering the big crazy monster fights and keeping the humans involved in the action. It’s a striking difference that this movie ends, not with the usual roar of the titular monster, but with a quiet character-driven payoff.

Highlighting all of these differences against Edwards’ Godzilla is no slam on that film. I loved Edwards’ Godzilla; but taking that step back, it’s all the more encouraging on Legendary’s part that both of these movies exist in the same universe, but scratch completely different genre itches. I often say the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are too similar, so far the two Kaiju movies Legendary has rolled out are exactly what the opposite of that looks like. It’s going to be a challenge to merge those worlds, but one with a potentially more satisfying pay off.

Moving further back, Skull Island exists in a lineage of surprisingly few King Kong movies. While Godzilla has taken many forms in many movies, Kong has been a character that has seemingly flummoxed screenwriters. From his stop-motion debut to the man-in-a-gorilla suit of the 1976 Jeff Bridges remake to the epic, but overblown, CGI spectacle of Peter Jackson’s remake, Kong as a character is largely trapped in a Beauty and the Beast tale.  Skull Island reimagines Kong as a large, ferocious protector giving him a job and even a revenge story up against the film’s bigger bads – what Riley’s character names the “skull crushers” – who dwell beneath the island. While Kong shares moments of humanity with Larson, this is also the first Kong not to run headlong into self destruction out of humanly love.

Kong: Skull Island is big special-effects driven blockbuster studio filmmaking at it’s most assured and satisfying. The action is clearly executed, there isn’t an ounce of Transformers-esque toy-selling cynicism to it and it seems to genuinely care for the legacy of this type of jungle adventure film. A movie that stomps and roars but also has a guiding hand hand and clear vision. Great stuff and a solid foundation for more.