Kong: Skull Island
Kong: Skull Island
Release Date: March 10th, 2017
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, SAMUEL L. JACKSON, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, and John C. Reilly
I definitely had misgivings about Kong: Skull Island, the newest film in the Legendary Entertainment/Warner Bros "MonsterVerse" world that began with the Godzilla reboot in 2014. If you haven't seen the Gareth Edwards-directed mess that is Godzilla, I'd probably steer clear. The few outstanding kaiju moments are constantly interrupted by an incredibly boring family drama, an over-saturation of military presence, and the unsuccessful removal and replacement of the film's focus character played by Brian Cranston (It's amazing to think that the same person who directed Rogue One misfired on Godzilla).
Kong: Skull Island, however, seems to have learned from its predecessor's mistakes. It takes the best parts of Godzilla and actually gives us a coherent storyline with characters we root for and care about. It's the very end of the Vietnam War in 1973, and founder of the Monarch company Bill Randa (John Goodman) is leading a scientific expedition to Skull Island. Assigned to him are Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (SAMUEL L. JACKSON) and his helicopter squadron, as well as former British military captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). There are a lot of other characters in attendance as well, including Corey Hawkins and Jing Tian as scientists hired by Monarch, and an entire ensemble of soldiers working under Packard. Together they approach the island in an incredibly harrowing and thrilling moment where the helicopters try to burst through the storm system constantly surrounds the island (with an amazing narration of Icarus by JACKSON). However, once they reach the island, they discover that they're in way over their heads, coming face-to-giant-ape-face with the island's protector and king: Kong.
Like most monster films, it's the human's perspectives that are given the most attention, and the rowdy camaraderie, complimented by scenes of Weaver taking photographs, helps the audience warm up to many of the soldiers. It's nice to know our monster fodders have backstory, yes? Unlike Godzilla, we care about these characters and want them to succeed, which adds personal stakes to the film. A clichéd use of "writing a letter to my kid" moment is taken up as a refrain by many of the soldiers and turned into a motif. A cast this large is difficult to keep track of, and there are moments when a character pops up and you wonder "why are you here again?" This occurs several times with Weaver and Conrad, the film's obligatory "couple" (although we never see them get together). Sure, Hiddleston's character is necessary for survival, but at the same time they seem remarkably out of place. Most characters are pushed even further aside with the arrival of John C. Reilly's humorous Hank Marlow, an American WWII pilot who's been trapped on the island since 1944. Reilly is one of a few stand-out performances that includes John Goodman (intensity without going over-the-top) and the increasingly unhinged SAMUEL L. JACKSON. The actors portraying the soldiers give strong performances reminiscent of most "young men at war" films. Unfortunately, the scientists, including Hawkins and Tian, don't receive as much screen time or characterization (although Hawkins does an admirable job acting as Goodman's right-hand man). Hiddleston and Larson are fun to watch as always, but you can't help but think their parts could be interchanged with any other set of attractive people.
There's not much in the film that's original, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The parts that haven't been outright lifted from past stories are subtly referenced throughout the film. There are call-outs to the previously popular King Kong movies, including the inclusion of a "spider" scene famously removed from the 1933 film (and re-vamped in a horrifying scene for the 2005 Peter Jackson remake). There's a moment where Kong is in chains, calling back to the famous scenes from the original, and there's Kong softening at the sight of a beautiful woman in the classic "It was beauty killed the beast" moment. Meanwhile, the 1970's war setting echoes the New Hollywood tropes of the era, including Apocalypse Now, it's literary predecessor Heart of Darkness (anyone else notice that Hiddleston's character is named Conrad?), and the arrogance of man's military might as seen in Aliens.
Despite the clichés and fantasy of large megafauna running amok, it's surprising how grounded Kong tries to be. Between the giant monsters, references to the "hollow earth" theory, and lost tribes on an island "surrounded by a perpetual storm," a pitch for this film sounds like a story pulled straight from an early 20th century pulp novel. And yet, with only a few exceptions, the characters approach things as realistically as possible (after Kong attacks, one soldier questions his platoon's calmness, hysterically repeating "Are we not going to talk about that?"). Sure, we're dealing with tropes and cliches and a giant freakin' ape, but there's a visceral realism to it.
What sold the movie to me at the end, however, was just how exciting it was to watch. It had fantastic action sequences between both the human characters and the monsters. During the final major conflict between Kong and his great enemy, we see it in its entirety since the human characters are nearby, participating in their own way. This is a different approach than the Godzilla movie or previous monster films, where tracking the human characters became the focus as well as a chore that took the audience away from the movie's main attraction. Scenes with the "skull crawlers," or Kong fighting off the helicopters, or the giant spider were tense, frightening, and visually astounding. It reminded me of the Godzilla scenes in Shin Godzilla, which was one of the few times I had found a kaiju monster legitimately terrifying.
Finally, there's an after-credits scene that mixes the best and worst of film franchises, both gleefully hinting at future kaiju properties to come (yay!) while parroting the groan-worthy reveals of upcoming superhero movies (we get it, you're making more). It opens up with a fantastic spiel by Hiddleston, and it's worth it to stay after the credits to see it.
If there's anything to take away from all of this, it's that Kong: Skull Island is a surprisingly enjoyable monster romp that redeems the hope of a Legendary Entertainment kaiju franchise. While it doesn't surpass or redefine its genre, it creates a solid entry that tries to ground its pulp premise by offering real characters in harrowing and exciting situations.