Review: Kong: Skull Island

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max  Borenstein, Derek Connolly
Starring: John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, and John C. Reilly
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures

Ah, King Kong. It’s been a while since we’ve seen our gargantuan ape friend on the big screen. An icon of giant monster cinema who debuted back in the 1930s, Kong is a character who’s been revisited multiple times since then through sequels, remakes, and crossovers with other media. The last time we saw Kong in a film was Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, which isn’t the weakest Kong movie ever, but it’s such an unnecessarily bloated film that’s twice as long and only half as entertaining as the original 1933 classic. It’s been 12 years since then, and giant monster movies have seen a bit of a resurgence in mainstream prominence since then, most recently thanks to films like Pacific Rim and the revival of the popular Godzilla franchise back in 2014. With skyscraper-sized hulking beasts stomping around in theaters again, it seems like a perfect time as any for the giant simian to return, and so here we are with the latest in his cinematic adventures – Kong: Skull Island.

Taking place in 1973 in the final days of the Vietnam War, the film follows government agent Bill Randa (played by John Goodman) who assembles a team to investigate a newly uncovered island out in the South Pacific known only as “Skull Island.” Among the team’s recruits are a helicopter squadron led by Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), an expert hunter-tracker played by Tom Hiddleston, and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). Unbeknownst to them, Randa has a secret agenda with this expedition: he is part of a secret government organization called Monarch which is dedicated to hunting giant monstrous creatures, and he suspects several might be on the island (conspicuously refers to as “MUTOs”). Sure enough, as they land on the island, the crew is greeted by none other than the giant ape Kong, whose attack strands them on the island. The crew’s only hope to get back home is to rendezvous with a supply helicopter arriving in 3 days, so they’re now faced with the monumental task of surviving against the terrifying beasts of Skull Island, which unfortunately extends far beyond Kong himself.

The single best thing that can be said about Kong: Skull Island is that the movie tries to put its own stamp on the classic monster. Instead of trying to retread the basic plot of a team kidnapping the ape to bring to NY as a sideshow attraction, the film is almost entirely set on the island and adopts an approach similar to the aforementioned Pacific Rim i.e. proudly embracing a campy B-movie atmosphere with a massive budget. The film is loaded with over-the-top monster fights and cheesy character archetypes/interactions, which constantly keep things entertaining and satisfying throughout.

Much of the visual style of the film, as pointed out quite frequently in the lead-up to its release, is influenced by the iconic war drama Apocalypse Now. This is most evident in its usage of sunsets and explosive fires, often used to illustrate Kong’s hulking size and intimidating presence. This is used to great effect in constructing some instantly memorable shots and scenes, with the standout moment being during the first encounter with the beast when Kong and Samuel L. Jackson stare each other down amidst a flurry of explosions from downed helicopters. It’s an image that instantly sticks in the brain and plants a great intimidation factor, demonstrating that this is a creature to not be taken lightly.

Making matters worse for our heroes, Kong isn’t the only beast on the island. Kong: Skull Island takes the opportunity to explore the ecosystem of the island in great depth, showing off a multitude of other creatures both friendly…and not. Skull Island is teeming with vicious bird-like creatures, overgrown yaks, gargantuan insects, and the main antagonists only referred to as “Skullcrawlers.” Fleshing out the island in this manner really works in helping the setting feel more lived-in and alive, and the great special effects and inventively grotesque creature designs are a constant joy to watch. The best scene not featuring Kong has our heroes combating a giant spider-like being in the midst of a bamboo forest. The scene is incredibly tense as the creature’s tree-like legs are obscured by the rest of the foliage, keeping things thrilling as the soldiers try to discern the parts of the legs they can attack. If there’s a secondary highlight, it’s when the crew confronts an army of birds and two Skullcrawlers amidst the remains of Kong’s parents. In one particularly thrilling moment, Tom Hiddleston grabs a samurai sword and slices through waves of birds amidst the backdrop of exploding toxic gas containers.

If there is a weak point to be had, it’s with the cast of characters. As previously mentioned, Kong is very much a B-movie at heart, so all of the characters and their personalities are pretty basic and paper-thin. They never really break out of their archetypes, and while this isn’t a huge issue most of the time, there is the issue of the Brie Larson’s character. The movie sort of glazes over the typical plot beat of Kong falling in love with the film’s female lead (just like with nearly every King Kong film), but with the characters being underdeveloped, this comes across as extraneous, only really being their because it must be seen as a mandatory part of the formula. On the other side of the pond, the single most enjoyable character in the film is John C. Reilly as a military lieutenant who’s been stranded on the island since World War II. He’s an endearing goofball and his presence adds some heart and humor to the proceedings, mainly through his interactions with the rest of the cast as they try to catch him up on what’s happened with America’s culture and military affairs since World War II. Learning about everything from the Cold War to the Cubs’ continued failure to win the World Series and even his exposure to David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” are fun character moments that help things feel just slightly more developed then they would have been otherwise.

Kong: Skull Island is wickedly entertaining from start to finish, bringing back the titular ape in glorious fashion. The characters might be weak writing-wise, but that’s not much of a deal breaker thanks to the film’s dynamic visuals and enthusiastic embrace of its pulpy B-movie heart. This is a return to form for one of film’s most iconic beasts, and it’s definitely worth a watch.

Final verdict: Watch it in theaters. And stick around for the post-credits (seriously, 2019 can’t get here soon enough).

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