Review: Kong: Skull Island
When it was announced that Warner Bros. would be bringing King Kong back to the big screen, over a decade since since his last big screen outing, it would seem like another unnecessary blockbuster - especially one being strangely handled by Jordan Vogt-Roberts a director only known for a small, low-budget indie film and a few episodes of television. Good news, those trepidations are of no concern, because Kong: Skull Island is easily the best film featuring the king of the jungle since making his debut in 1933, and a supremely amusing thrillride that must be experienced on a big screen.
Taking the skeletal structure of the original film and transplanting it into the early 1970s - right in the midst of the Vietnam War, the story concerns an expedition to an uncharted island, where Bill Randa (John Goodman), head of a secret organization known as ‘Monarch’ believes a new kind of species exists. Enlisting the help of military personnel, a team of scientists, and a rogue adventurer (Tom Hiddleston) who commandeers the trip, suddenly things take a turn for the worse when they realize - oh shit, there’s a gigantic ape here and we’re dropping bombs on his home. Suffice to say, things don’t go well for a lot of the undeveloped characters riding in the helicopters during the scene pictured below, but from here on out it shows that Kong: Skull Island isn’t monkeying around with regards to bringing this classic story back for modern audiences.
Much like its interconnected predecessor Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island is inherently a man vs nature story, as the human characters run through the jungle and fight off an assortment of big creepy crawlies and other dangers that lurk about. While at the same time, Kong is slowly repositioned from enemy to friend, once the context around his important becomes apparent. While Godzilla was about the emergence of a massive creature into our world, Kong: Skull Island is the opposite, where humanity ventures into their territory.
This is worth noting as the film is not as dark (literally/figuratively) and in fact, makes for quite a fun time. From the very beginning there’s great comic moments across the entire ensemble and it never really slows down, even between the more high-octane scenes where characters are being crushed or eaten outright by the inhabitants of Skull Island. It also needs to be addressed that despite the PG-13 rating, this is a seriously action-packed film that borders close to R-rated territory. There’s a surprising amount of carnage and two or three scenes that will almost certainly provoke an audible reaction with audiences.
At two hours (one shorter than Peter Jackson's seriously bloated King Kong from 2005), Kong: Skull Island manages to pack a lot of story and a lot of characters in - some may even say that the ensemble here is too weighty and that more focus should have been bestowed on the titular ape, who does get ample screen time from the start and enough action sequences as well - though it must be said that a fine group of actors have been assembled here.
Strangely, despite having the top billing, Tom Hiddleston doesn’t really do all that much as James Conrad - a former soldier turned tracker that assists in leading the expedition to the island. Save for one super cool moment involving a gas mask in one of the later action sequences, his character is your standard macho figure - but there’s more interest to be found in the supporting cast.
Case in point; Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard - a Colonel in the United States Army who is enlisted to provide chopper support, bringing with him his team of helicopter pilots (Thomas Mann, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham) known as the ‘Sky Devils’. Jackson is his usual hard-ass self - as much as the film’s PG-13 rating allows, and it’s always a blast to watch him here.
As the Carl Denham-esque figure Bill Randa who puts the expedition into action, John Goodman is just as intriguing as he was in last year’s March genre film 10 Cloverfield Lane - albeit less menacing and more crotchety. His right hand man Houston (Corey Hawkins) gets some fun character moments too, eventually subverting the intellectual persona adorned by him from the start. Strangely, the sole Oscar winner in this group,
Brie Larson, gets fourth-billing, but as the lead female character she is essentially the closest thing we get to an Ann Darrow. Here she’s a photojournalist covering the Vietnam War from an anti-war perspective, and its her affinity for nature that ends up being a major factor upon coming into contact with Kong.
The only other notable performance here is John C. Reilly - who plays a man that’s been stranded on Skull Island since World War II, having become a chief of the natives and understanding the cultural history of Kong and the other monsters inhabiting Skull Island. He’s also funny as hell, allowing some levity to the proceedings, while also being a genuinely fun addition to the story.
I also need to mention that the cinematography by Larry Fong is great here, making the setting look magnificent and breathtaking, instituting a very temperate palette and some great sunrise moments which are a direct homage to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The soundtrack is also jam-packed with era-appropriate rock music (Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Stooges, Black Sabbath, David Bowie) that fits in well and doesn't seem like it's being forced down the viewer's throat.
Kong: Skull Island is an extremely entertaining blockbuster, packed with exquisitely composed action and some serious laughs to boot. It's a reminder that movies like this can have a lot of ingenuity and a sense of visual wonder, and that Vogt-Roberts has a surefire handling of visual language that should serve him well in future endeavors. Those who may feel like this is just another retread of the last Kong movie can put those fears to rest - this is a bold and daring take on the character and one that works to a high level of success.
P.S.: Be sure to stay through the credits for a scene that will definitely get giant monster fans excited for what's coming next.