Very few cinematic characters have reached the level of fame and endurance as Kong, King of The Apes. The iconic monster first appeared on screen in the black and white 1933 original King Kong, and became an instant star. Since then, Kong has reappeared in numerous sequels and spin-off, including two remakes in 1977 and 2005. At this point, trying to bring back Kong may seem a little redundant, yet 2017’s Kong Skull Island has managed to breathe new life into the massive primate.
In the year 1973, government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) organises an expedition to the mysterious island known only as “Skull Island”. Joining this fateful expedition are master survivalist James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) as well as a detachment of soldiers lead by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). As the expedition makes their way to Skull Island, they soon discover that it is populated by dangerous monsters, including a giant-sized ape who strands them in the middle of the hazardous landscape. Their only hope of escape comes in the form of Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II veteran who has been stranded on the island for over thirty years, and knows its secrets better than anyone. Together, the survivors will have to fight their way across treacherous terrain, nightmarish monstrosities as well as Kong himself if they have any chance of getting off Skull Island alive.
It’s impossible for me to adequately describe how much I liked Skull Island without comparing it to 2014’s Godzilla, another giant monster film. I despise that movie with a fiery passion (even though a fair number of people liked it quite a bit) and could go on forever about the many problems I had with it. But the one flaw that stood out most was the baffling decision to hide Godzilla for most of its runtime. To make things worse, when we finally got to see the giant lizard in action, he’s shrouded in darkness and smoke, making it hard to see what was actually happening. Thankfully, Kong: Skull Island takes the bold risk (sarcasm intended) of actually showing its namesake in full daylight multiple times throughout the film. Kong is beautifully brought to life through the magic of motion capture technology, and looks a lot more like the original 1933 Kong than the scaled down 2005 Peter Jackson version. He’s absolutely huge, and is an imposing presence each time he appears. You get the sense that he is a majestic creature worthy of respect, whether he’s simply lumbering around the forest or engaging in full-on battle with the island’s other colossal inhabitants.
Another big complaint I had with the 2014 Godzilla movie was that almost every single human character, especially the lead, were boring and emotionless zombies that were only there to run away from destruction. While the human characters in Kong: Skull Island are far from examples of master class writing, the actors themselves are lively and charismatic enough to keep you entertained for the moments Kong is not on screen, and I found myself actually caring about whether or not some of them would survive. Unfortunately, the two weakest characters are the leads as Tom Hiddleston is playing a generic rugged explorer, while Oscar Winning Brie Larson is given virtually nothing to do as the spunky female photographer aside from developing a bond with Kong. Yet despite this, they are both immensely more likeable than Aaron Taylor Johnson was in Godzilla. Hiddleston and Larson aside, it’s the side characters who really make a splash, particularly Jackson’s Packard and Riley’s Marlow. Samuel L. Jackson is playing the kind of larger-than-life character he has spent his entire career mastering, and as always it’s a joy to watch. His character undergoes some interesting changes throughout the film. He’s a post-Vietnam War military man who has a difficult time adjusting to peace time, feeling that he has lost his purpose in life without a battle to win. On Skull Inland, he has found a new purpose in defeated Kong, and it’s this rivalry that fuels him throughout the film. As good as Jackson is however, it’s John C. Reilly’s Marlow who steals the film as a character who I assumed would be nothing but comedic relief, yet turned out to be the emotional center of the film. It actually surprised me how much the film does to bring depth and sentiment to his character by focusing on the isolation he has endured having spent half his life on the island, and his joy at the prospect of finally going home.
Kong: Skull Island also makes the welcomed decision of straying far away from the tired plot of the original King Kong movies. If you’re looking for a climax involving Kong climbing the Empire State building, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, Skull Island takes itself much less seriously, and has a lot of fun with its monster movie roots. There’s a moment a while into Skull Island, where Sam Jackson’s character stares at Kong through a haze of smoke, as Kong stares back at him with the same hatred. It’s cheesy as hell, but it got me excited at the very idea of Samuel Jackson hunting down Kong like he’s Captain Ahab hunting Moby Dick. It’s this kind of cheesy fun that makes Skull Island such a joy to watch. Characters spew witty one-liners, make exaggerated action hero poses, and perform feats that defy all laws of physics on a regular basis, and all of it contributes to the retro 70s and 80s creature feature tone the film adopts. That being said, not all of the film’s attempts at humor land, but the ration of jokes that hit their mark is solid enough.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is relatively new to the director’s chair, having only previously helmed the little indie flick Kings of Summer, but he brings a distinct style and energy to Kong: Skull Island that distinguishes it from other blockbusters. During the scene where Kong is taking out the helicopters carrying the human characters, there’s a long shot of the action filmed from within the helicopter, essentially allowing us to see the action from the human’s perspective, and it’s a really cool camera trick that puts you right into the action. All the action scenes are extremely well filmed, and Skull Island also does a lot to defy expectations of how similar monster movies go, including a funny spin on the classic “noble sacrifice” trope. Most of the third act is nothing but an extended monster wrestling match, and it is just as satisfying as you would expect. The soundtrack is also a highlight, boasting a ton of 70s classics, and is incorporated into the plot in a very Guardians of The Galaxy sort of way. Skull Island also does a good job at setting the ground work for the larger universe of monster films Legendary Pictures is trying to create which includes the aforementioned Godzilla. It’s a small yet important part of the plot that makes me a little disappointed that most of these characters will be either old or dead by the time the franchise continues, since future installments will most likely take place in the modern day
In short, Kong: Skull Island is exactly what a creature feature needs to be. It’s fully aware of the ridiculousness of its premise and isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself. The beautifully realised CGI monsters are put on full display, engaging in some breathtaking battles and chase sequences. There’s plenty of humor throughout and the characters of Packard and Marlow are surprisingly compelling compared to the rest of the thinly written characters, who are elevated by the talented actors who portray them. The film is pure cheesy fun from beginning to end and will keep you entertained throughout. And isn’t that what blockbuster movies are supposed to do? Here’s hoping the upcoming films in this Monster-Verse stick closely to the template Skull Island has established, because I definitely want to see more of it.