Kong: Skull Island is frantic fun, if tonally inconsistent.
King Kong has enjoyed top-shelf treatment ever since the 1933 original set the bar for special effects work in film. In the over eighty years since then, the film has been remade twice. Once, unsuccessfully, in 1976 and once, quite successfully, in 2005. Both remakes took the project seriously and endeavored to live up to the majesty of the original film. The only other Kong films in existence are Son of Kong (a rushed 1933 follow-up to the original) and two Toho movies. Toho’s work (King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes) lacks the grandeur of the original film’s story, but nevertheless expands the Kong mythos. Kong: Skull Island feels like these movies… only modernized.
This is not a bad thing, as fans of those Toho films will agree. Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) clearly had no intention of trying to shoehorn a now 100+ foot Kong into the original’s Beauty and the Beast thematic storyline. While one scene might be viewed as homage, Kong: Skull Island shares only the same premise and titular character as the 1933 original.
While Earnest Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper only saw Skull Island as Act II of their drama, Vogt-Roberts is content to make this arena the main event. After a quick opening that grounds the audience firmly in the last days of the Vietnam War, Kong: Skull Island takes off and never looks back. That isn’t to say that the opening feels rushed or underdeveloped. Skull Island builds effectively. Almost every scene centers around Skull Island’s unknown nature, climaxing in a sequence where an array of helicopters stare down its fierce thunderstorm shield.
It is during this time that the main players are met. John Goodman‘s Bill Randa is a scientist at Monarch, a secret government organization trying to unearth monsters. Since 1954, none have really been seen – so the group is on the verge of bankruptcy. He and his assistant (Corey Hawkins) barely manage to secure government funding for one last operation. From there on they pick up Preston Packard (a grizzled Vietnam Lt. colonel who believes the war could have been won – played by Samuel L. Jackson), James Conrad (a former British Special Air Service Captain – player by Tom Hiddleston), and Mason Weaver (an anti-war photojournalist who somehow secures passage – played by Brie Larson), along with a handful of other soldiers and scientists.
Kong: Skull Island does through all the paces of building a believable world… and then Act II begins. Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla managed managed to show unbelievable spectacle in a convincing way, largely through keeping a ground perspective camera that showed the action in the exact way that the human characters would experience it. Kong: Skull Island never tries to do this. Vogt-Roberts has a definite style for shooting giant monster action sequences and that is: go bombastic and have lots of slow-down. A later scene in the film involving Tom Hiddleston, poison gas, and a katana shows that this philosophy translates across the board.
While this is hugely entertaining, the contrast between these scenes and the harshness of the rest of the film is noticeable. Kong: Skull Island attempts to have its cake and eat it too, to be overblown and brutal. There are several scenes in the film where people just die and there is no slow-down, no style of any kind – just swift, final death. Then John C. Riley‘s character appears and starts telling jokes. It’s a mess, tone-wise.
That said, this is largely a fun mess. Jordan Vogt-Roberts keeps the pacing alive and moving and the A-list cast all play their roles well enough to stop the characters from being dull. There is one particular scene between John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson: the dialogue is largely flat but everything still works. Proof of why they’re paid the big bucks.
The real heroes of Skull Island, however, are Kong and the rest of the monsters. Every scene with them is visually captivating. Skull Island brims with a monstrous diversity that fans of the original (and monster lovers in general) will really appreciate. This film has everything: giant spiders, giant octopuses, even giant yaks. All of it comes together to give the impression of a complete ecosystem, one that is fantastic and real at the same time.
The final highlight I will mention involves literary theme. Curiously, Kong: Skull Island continues a reference begun in Peter Jackson’s 2005 film. While Beauty and the Beast has been reduced, Heart of Darkness is rampant throughout this movie. This is reflected in the character names of Marlowe (a character) and Conrad (the author). Further adding to it is the film’s clear reverence for Apocalypse Now, a Vietnam retelling of Conrad’s classic story.
Kong: Skull Island‘s plot involves that same pursuit of power, that insane inability to admit that there are forces beyond control, and the human capacity to delude itself into presumed godhood. Kong: Skull Island is part commentary on all these things… until Kong hits a skullcrawler with a tree… then its about giant monsters beating each other up.
Oh, one last quick thing to mention: stay through the credits. There’s a short teaser at the end that is frankly amazing.