OnScreen Chief Film Critic
Based on the success of 2014’s Godzilla and the recent Hollywood dictate that everything must be part of a shared universe, Kong: Skull Island arrives as the next chapter in the MonsterVerse by Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment. Eschewing the tale of the giant ape that falls in love with Ann Darrow only to meet his doom atop the Empire State Building, Kong: Skull Island presents its own original story of the monstrous gorilla, set in a Vietnam Era haze of the early 1970s.
With the United States about to begin the process of withdrawing from the Vietnam War, a government agent named Bill Randa (John Goodman) secures military transport for an mapping expedition to a mysterious and notorious island in the Pacific known as Skull Island. He hires a former British SAS captain, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), to serve at the guide for the expedition. The military escort for their expedition is a helicopter squadron known as the Sky Devils, led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a man who not very satisfied with how the Vietnam War is ending. Joining the crew of scientists and military pilots is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist who has been very busy in Vietnam and smells something more to this mapping expedition than she is being told. Entering the island, which is surrounded by constant, intense storms, the crew is cut off from the outside world for the next three days as they explore, with a planned extraction point on the northern tip of the island. As they begin dropping seismic bombs to get a underground survey of the island, they are almost immediately met with hostility in the form of a massive monster, Kong, who perceives their actions as an attack on the island, his island. He lays waste to their helicopters, leaving them scattered across the vast island. As they try to reconnect, a group led by Conrad works to survive with the goal of reaching the extraction point, while a group led by Packard seeks revenge for their fallen brothers in arms. In short order, they find out that there are creatures far more threatening to their survival than Kong.
Unlike the Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of the 1933 classic, Kong: Skull Island is a pure action adventure film. It’s purely about the spectacle of seeing Kong fight with the helicopters, take on a giant squid, or fight reptilian monsters known as Skullcrawlers that lurk below the island’s surface. And the action is very fun to watch. Most of it is easy to follow, save for a few camera shots inside helicopters being grabbed out of the sky by Kong. It also features a pretty awesome 70s soundtrack that underscores much of the action, such as blasting “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath when they initially arrive and are flying around the island. Also, putting a film about giant monsters on a mysterious island in 1973 makes far more sense than setting it in present day where satellites can cover every inch of the globe. It also plants it firmly in the Cold War, with the threat of the Soviets possibly discovering what the island has to offer before we do.
As the groups of survivors make their way through the jungle terrain of the island, they run into massive creatures other than Kong too. A giant water buffalo emerges from a swamp at one point. Giant mosquitos and prehistoric winged animals inhabit the island. One particular scene in a bamboo forest was almost too much for me to handle given one of my phobias. Kong and these various CGI creatures are all beautifully and impressively rendered.
In addition to the CGI, the landscape for this film is fantastic as well. Filmed in Hawaii, Australia, and Vietnam, everything looks incredible, but particularly everything shot near or on the water. The water is surrounded by giant outcrops of rocks covered in vegetation and vines that evoke the some of the rocks islands that dot the shores of Thailand (think of The Man with the Golden Gun or The Beach). There’s also one visual as they’re leaving their aircraft carrier and heading into the storm that is a pretty blatant rip-off of the sandstorm in Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s all filtered through camerawork that pretty faithfully recreates the visual style of many classic Vietnam war films. In fact, Apocalypse Now is a pretty obvious inspiration for director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, aside from the Heart of Darkness inspired naming of Hiddelston’s character Conrad.
The quality of characters is where this film becomes a little uneven. Some of the characters are a little thinly drawn. A lot is made about Hiddelston’s character when we are introduced to him, but he ends up being a little bland in the grand scheme of the film. Samuel L. Jackson’s Packard is straight out of central casting for Captain Ahab syndrome, too blinded by his quest for revenge to see his actions are foolhardy and could be catastrophic. His soldiers are mostly disposable, though that’s not a knock on the film. In most action adventures, these kinds of characters are disposable because the plot needs characters who can be sacrificed along the way. There is a running thread amongst them of talking about a letter that one of them wrote to their son, Billy, about why he was delayed in coming home that conveys the camaraderie and brotherhood they have. Ultimately, the flesh and blood characters are supporting players around the CGI Kong and the CGI action.
Brie Larson is her typically great self, someone I’ve been a fan of from early on. There are a lot of minor moments where everyone is holding a gun and she is holding her camera taking a snapshot here and there to really hammer home that she is a photographer. She does get quite a few moments to shine though, such as when she is taking group photos of and with indigenous people they run into on the island. Among those indigenous people is John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow, a WWII pilot who crashed there 28 years prior. Reilly makes almost every movie he is in better, and that is true here, playing a man who has been amongst a people who don’t talk for so long that he’s gone a little crazy. The character modulates a bit too wildly at times, with Reilly throwing in some lines that sound like they belonged more to his role in Step Brothers or Talladega Nights. Despite that, his character brings some much needed levity and some heart to the proceedings when things sag a little in the middle of the film.
Kong: Skull Island checks off nearly all the right boxes in how to make an action adventure film that entertains. While there are a few moment before the third act that drag a bit, the film is not overly long, clocking in at under two hours. There is enough of a story and just enough of dynamic between the characters to fill in around the visual spectacle of the action and the mighty Kong, the showcase of the film. The film wears its influences on its sleeve, indulges in one too many Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, but it’s easily one of the better King Kong movies made and shows that while a MonsterVerse sounds a little silly, the end results might turn out to be okay.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars