While 2014’s Godzilla was the first entry in Legendary’s Monsterverse, Kong: Skull Island does its share of legwork in establishing the universe two of cinema’s most iconic titans inhabit.
This film reintroduces us to the King Kong character and mythos for the first time since Peter Jackson’s 2005 film. There are nods to the rich history of the titular character as well as some new tweaks. The result is nearly two hours of action and adventure on Skull Island.
“Is that a monkey?”
As the film opens we see a U.S. World War II pilot dropping to the ground on Skull Island only to realize a Japanese soldier has also landed there as well. The two continue the fight until being interrupted by Kong.
Fast forward roughly 30 years and the meat of our story begins. Kong: Skull Island follows a group of researchers from the secret organization Monarch being accompanied by soldiers to explore the mysterious Skull Island. Monarch made its debut during Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla.
The film takes place just months after the Vietnam War. The soldiers, most notably Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) are still feeling the sting of defeat and seem to have something to prove. The Vietnam War era is significant contextually in that this movie was largely shot in Vietnam and pays some significant homage to war films like Apocalypse Now.
The research team is assembled by Bill Randa (John Goodman) who focuses his attention on researching Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms or M.U.T.O. Randa speaks of Skull Island as a Bermuda Triangle-like spot on the globe that is constantly surrounded by violent sea storms and odd magnetic activity. As he makes the rounds to assemble his team, he recruits James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), an expert tracker and former British soldier turned mercenary, and Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist who chronicled the Vietnam War through her lens.
After breaking through the swirling storm that surrounds Skull Island, the choppers start dropping explosive charges at the direction of Randa. It isn’t clear why this is happening until it is later revealed that Randa is trying to lure out the monsters he believes are living underground here. The hollow earth theory, which centers around civilizations and in this case monsters living deep underground, is central to the Monsterverse’s mythology.
Randa’s wish of drawing out monsters is quickly granted as Kong starts swatting choppers out of the sky. This sets Packard on a quest for vengeance while Conrad, Weaver and the other researchers just hope to survive and escape the island.
“Yes they deserved to die”
So that quote is from another Samuel L. Jackson movie A Time To Kill, but it feels applicable here.
Upon the immediate appearance of Kong, Packard and his troops begin firing and attacking. Kong gets a couple of them immediately while several others fall to other creatures later in the film. Based on Packard’s initial reaction to Kong and the vendetta he telegraphs thereafter it becomes apparent he is the real villain in this movie.
Not all of the soldiers have a giant axe to grind but the demise of most of them comes from their own doing. So yes, they deserved to die.
Most of the human characters contribute very little to Skull Island. The cast is quite impressive but outside of Hiddleston, Larson, Jackson, Goodman and John C. Reilly there isn’t much room for anybody else. This is well enough as the other characters are fair game but most of their deaths aren’t very impactful.
Speaking of deaths, Kong isn’t the only harbinger of doom we get to see. A gargantuan spider has a tough-to-swallow kill in a very suspenseful early sequence. We also see Kong tangle with an octopus. The roster of creatures only lightly touches on Kong’s home but it does add texture to a lively ancient world.
“He’s not the one they’re trying to keep out”
After the helicopters are batted down by Kong, Packard and Randa are with one group on a search for one of Packard’s soldiers while Conrad and Weaver are off in another group with a substantially more interesting path.
As Conrad and Weaver venture deeper into the forests they come across man-built structures only to find a tribe living here. As the Iwi tribe closes in we are introduced — sort of reintroduced rather — to Marlow (John C. Reilly), the American pilot from the start of the movie. He and the Japanese soldier Gunpei Ikari helped each other survive on the island after encountering Kong. Marlow gives us the bulk of the exposition for the film, explaining Kong is like a god to the Iwis.
During Marlow’s exposition bit, he reveals the arch nemesis of Kong, aside from Samuel L., is a species of bipedal predatory lizards called Skull Crawlers.
Well, maybe they aren’t called Skull Crawlers. Unless we think it’s cool.
It turns out these Skull Crawlers are responsible for killing Kong’s parents.
The most immediate takeaway from this exchange is that Kong is not the enemy. This sets Conrad and Weaver on a path to working with him, rather than against. But in the grand scheme of the Monsterverse, we get to see how ancient societies idolize titans, kaiju, whatever you want to call them. Skull Island belongs to Kong.
Battle for Skull Island
Like many modern day monster flicks, the big names dominate the screen time and that is fine, but we’re really waiting to see a rumble. When the time comes for Kong to lay the smack down he doesn’t disappoint.
Kong actually has a few big battles. First he takes on a gaggle of Skull Crawlers which give him a fair share of trouble. Then he takes on the big bad, the Skull Devil.
The Skull Crawler fight serves a couple purposes somewhat quietly. When Kong’s parents were killed by the Skull Devil, it would seem the devil got the upper hand with the assistance of its brood. When Kong is killing the Skull Crawlers he is neutralizing the devil’s advantage. He’s also training himself for the big fight.
When we get to that big fight we see Kong attempt some attacks he used in his Skull Crawler fight but to no avail. There are noticeable call backs to 2005’s King Kong in the fight sequence, most notably with Kong attempting to pry the Skull Devil’s mouth wide open.
When the old stuff doesn’t work, Kong gets creative, proving he’s not just a mindless behemoth. He finds a chain wrapped around a boat propeller and uses it as a weapon to knock the big lizard around. It may not be the last time we see Kong use a weapon either.
Kong: Skull Island was a bit of a wild ride. Visually, I will be thinking of the shots of Kong standing tall with the red sun at his back. It is one of many stunning shots in this film. There were also moments where special effects took everything over but when it came to Kong I loved seeing how he was treated in this movie.
At first, the Vietnam War backdrop felt like a fresh setting for a King Kong story. It gave Samuel L. Jackson’s Packard reasonable motivation to be hell bent on avenging his troops. However the execution was uneven at best. By the midway point of the film it almost felt irrelevant.
There was one death in the film that was a bit of a letdown in the moment but in hindsight it fit with the big picture. The Monsterverse has taught us human characters are ultimately insignificant. The monsters rule over all, barely noticing us insects below their feet. Within that context it was OK for a human antagonist to not get their own faceoff with Kong like you might have expected.
For as great a cast this film assembles, I only felt a lukewarm attachment to Marlow, Carson and Weaver. Some of Weaver’s backstory ended up on the cutting room floor which is unfortunate. There wasn’t a logical fit for it probably but it might have added another note to the character.
Overall score 3.5/5
The Shameless Plugs
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