For those of you who wanted to know what a mash-up of King Kong and Apocalypse Now would look like Legendary Pictures has done their best to answer that question with this second installment in their “MonsterVerse” series, which started back in 2014 with their American reboot of Godzilla, and pits Kong against Samuel L. Jackson and a bunch of new monsters.
Kong: Skull Island is a complete reimagining of the Kong mythos with no connection to the 1933 original or Peter Jackson’s King Kong back in 2005, aside from their being a giant ape located on Skull Island the similarities pretty much end, but instead we are given what is basically a prequel to the Godzilla film directed by Garth Edwards. The bulk of the movie takes place in 1973 just as the Vietnam War is wrapping up (there is an opening sequence where an American airman and a Japanese pilot are shot down over Skull Island in what could be taken as a neat homage to the film Hell in the Pacific) and we are introduced to Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkens) as government men who work for a ridiculed division called Monarch (the same organization investigating Godzilla in the 2014 reboot) and they manage to convince a senator to let them piggyback their mission to find monsters with that of a land survey which had made plans to check out an island newly discovered by satellite.
Note: The island is revealed to be hidden behind a “perpetual storm” which is a switch from the 1976 King Kong that had the island hidden behind a permanent fogbank. In the 1933 original the SS Venture passed through some fog but there was no indication that it was a permanent atmospheric phenomena. Obviously in the 1930s audiences could still believe in uncharted islands but as the years go by this would become harder to swallow.
Along with a group of government surveyors from Landsat Randa has managed to get a military escort that would be led by Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a man who seems rather bitter about being forced to pull out of Vietnam, and who signs up his squad despite them all having orders to return home. They should know that “One final mission” will become very final for a lot of them.
Rounding out the cast is former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) hired by Randa for his expertise at surviving hostile unknown jungles, anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) who fills out the “required female” quotient for a Kong film, and biologist San Lin (Jing Tian) who is also female but given almost nothing to do in this movie, but if you watch the credit cookie it’s apparent they are setting her up for a bigger part in further MonsterVerse movies.
When they get to the island Landsat supervisor Victor Nieves (John Ortiz) wants to abort after seeing the horrific storm that surrounds the island, with Randa of course wanting to go forward despite the risks, and it’s “Never say die” Packard who breaks the tie and the mission goes forward. It’s no surprise that the storm was the least of their worries as this movie is called Kong: Skull Island and not Smurfs: The Lost Village, and when they drop seismic charges to supposedly “map the island’s terrain” a very pissed off Kong arrives.
What follows their catastrophic first encounter with Kong, once again proving that flying close to giant monsters in a helicopter is a terrible tactic. This Kong stands over one hundred feet tall and is not only a great bruiser when it comes to fighting but also a cunning tactician who is completely aware of his surroundings, he is able to use them and found objects as weapons against his enemies. He is one giant ape you do not want to underestimate.
After the initial attack our heroes are separated into two groups, both physically and mentally, as those with Conrad and Weaver are eager to get off the island while Packard has his men focused on revenge for their fallen brethren. It’s when Conrad and company encounter Lieutenant Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), the downed airman from the prologue who has managed to survive 28 years stranded on this island. He informs them that Kong is not the true danger they face, well that is if you don’t piss him off by dropping bombs on his home turf because then he’s very dangerous, but the monstrous creatures he calls “Skullcrawlers” that emerge from the depths of the island are the real threat to life and limb. The islanders worship Kong as god for he is the only thing stopping these things from overrunning the surface world.
Note: Skull Island natives in the past have been racially insensitive stereotypes, even the 2005 King Kong was guilty of this, but here they are dealt with a little better, if not given much to say, and the wall system they built to protect themselves from the Skullcrawlers is certainly a definite improvement over the Anti-Giant Ape Wall in earlier versions.
Unlike any of the previous incarnations of the Kong story there is no love interest between the hero and the heroine; Brie Larson’s photojournalist gets along well with Tom Hiddleston’s badass ex-S.A.S jungle hero but there are definitely no sparks flying between them. I’d also like to happily report that Brie Larson at no point is sacrificed to Kong or even lusted after by the giant ape. There is a moment where she ends up in Kong’s hand but it’s more about rescue than ape grabby hands.
Even a bigger star than Kong in this movie is the island itself, for the first time one really gets a sense of awe and majesty to the world of Skull Island. From the first shots of the helicopters skimming across the jungle terrain to our heroes trekking through monster filled jungles we are bombarded with gorgeous imagery. Cinematographer Larry Fong is easily worthy of an Oscar nomination as not only are his shots simply beautifully but they also help immerse you in the terrifying environs of the island. And these jungles are incredibly dangerous, though not populated by dinosaurs (we do get a shot of a triceratops skull but no rampaging T-Rex), they are chock full of all sorts of beasts; along with the primary threat of the Skullcrawlers we get an immense spider that can spear or snatch up its victims (an obvious homage to the cut spider pit scene from the original King Kong), there are swarms of winged creatures that can carry off the unwary, and Kong himself has a nice tussle with a giant squid.
Kong: Skull Island is more a throwback to the pulp adventure films of the 70s than it is the overlong love letter that Peter Jackson’s version was. One key difference between this movie and the 2005 King Kong is that no matter how much time Jackson spent trying to make us care for the S.S. Venture’s first mate or his idiot pal Jimmy we never gave a crap about them, but here director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Dan Gilroy manage to economically introduce a plethora of soldiers (subbing for the ill-fated crew of the Venture) and giving them nice character beats so that when the shit hits the fan we do actually care about these guys.
This is a two hour movie that just races along, no endless boat ride to Skull Island here, and though it does set up more kaiju movies to follow, and I do look forward to their remake of King Kong vs Godzilla, this movie stands on its own as pure escapist fun. The original King Kong was the movie that made me fall in love with films in the first place, and as a result I’ve fallen love with many of the giant ape movies that have come out since then (some good some bad but all fun to varying degrees) so I can only hope for more entertaining installments of this MonsterVerse.