This weekend, Legendary Studios expanded its burgeoning MonsterVerse with the release of Kong: Skull Island, which takes place in the same world as 2014’s Godzilla. While there are definite connections between the two films, Kong works (for better or worse) as a stand-alone monster movie.
I may be more of a Big G fan, myself, but King Kong is a lot of fun to watch when he’s done right. Add in the beast-filled setting of Skull Island, and that’s more than enough to get me to leave the house and subject myself to a crowded movie theater.
Did the big ape’s latest reboot capture any of the magic from its original 1933’s release? Let’s find out.
Kong: Skull Island (Legendary)
**There will be some minor spoilers (and enough typos that my editor likely won’t be able to catch them all), so read at your own peril.**
Rather than making Skull Island a destination being sought to film a movie or drill for oil, it gives our explorers much more noble—though still misguided—motivations. On the science side of things, Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are throwing a Hail Mary before their organization, Monarch, gets shut down by a post Vietnam War government. Randa knows for a fact that monsters exist thanks to a first hand encounter, while Brooks is simply smart enough to realize that an uncharted island encircled by bizarrely severe weather is bound to have something weird on it.
After being dismissed as crackpots, they deftly use the threat of the Soviet Union learning about the island first as a means to get their mission approved—which is where Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard and his elite Sky Devils come in. While Packard’s men are more than happy to leave the Vietnam War behind, their leader is infuriated at the fact that his mission there will be left unfinished due to forces beyond his control. Escorting the Monarch scientists into an uncharted area isn’t exactly fighting the Red Threat, but at least its one last mission he can complete before being put out to pasture.
Stuck in the middle of these two groups are James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a tracker, and Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), an anti-war photographer. Weaver is there because she believes it will end up being either a major discovery or a corrupt military op. Conrad is there because…uh, they need to track a giant ape, which makes sense I guess—although they never tell him about that part. In fact, Rada and Brooks don’t tell anybody about how dangerous the mission really is until after they’ve gotten their asses kicked.
If you’ve seen the trailers, then you know the team first encounters Kong during an aerial encounter that’s even more brutal and chaotic than advertised. What the trailer doesn’t show you is it results in the survivors being scattered across the island into various groups, all of whom make it their mission to find each other and get to the island’s extraction point before they die…except for Lt. Col. Packard, who is much more interested in avenging his troops and completing a mission.
Along the way, one of the groups finds Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), the downed American World War II pilot from the film’s opening. In addition to being accepted by the native people of the island, he also provides both comic relief and a sizable amount exposition, filling in the gaps about the island’s history and helping to set up the movie’s final act.
As you can probably imagine, the groups finally meet up, resulting in even more conflict between both the humans and the monsters.
Setting Kong: Skull Island in the early 1970’s was a brilliant move. For starters, it allows the film to exist in the same universe as Godzilla without requiring them to explicitly overlap. There are plenty of nods and references—along with a very cool post credits sequence—for folks like me who look for universe building connections/easter eggs. Otherwise, it works perfectly fine as on its own as movie about a giant ape monster.
It also provides an interesting parallel to the political unrest we’re observing now. Whether you like Trump or not, there’s no denying that the reactions he provokes from his opposition—and a very large segment of the American public—is eerily similar to Richard Nixon.
As far as Skull Island itself, you couldn’t ask for a more gorgeous setting in which to be brutally slaughtered by ancient monsters.
As great as 2014’s Godzilla film was, even its most ardent supporters can admit that the trick of cutting away right before the monsters fought became frustrating.
That’s definitely not a problem in Kong: Skull Island, though. While I don’t begrudge filmmakers for using lighting and scenery to maintain some realism, Kong takes full advantage of the fact that its beasts are being visually referenced against mountains and forests rather than skyscrapers. The monsters show up early and often, framed by a gorgeous setting and spectacular camerawork.
The one scene where things are obscured—the shootout with the skullcrawlers inside the graveyard—actually enhances the experience quite a bit.
Good lord. I’m not sure how much the music-licensing budget was for this movie, but I’m glad the studio was willing to pay it. The film is packed with some rock n’ roll classics from the early 70’s.
But don’t let the groovy soundtrack distract you from Henry Jackman’s orchestral score. It’s a perfect blend of bombastic themes and dissonant chords for a movie with big monsters fighting on a mysterious island.
Maybe I’m just starting to get less jaded…or maybe the self-serve popcorn butter they had at the theater I went to affected my judgment…but the CGI looked surprisingly good. Like, really good. The fact that most of the big monster moments happened in daylight makes that feat even more impressive.
In fact, the only thing that really bothered me in this area were some of the water effects. The monsters thrashing around them looked all types of awesome. The final fight in particular was a visual feast of large-scale violence—perfectly choreographed and viscerally stunning.
How good was it? The guy sitting next to me kept making very loud comments about how amazing it was, which would normally cause me to want to inflict my own brand of large scale violence…or at least give a dirty look. But I couldn’t be mad at him, mostly because of the big stupid grin on my own face. We were both having a great time watching one hell of a good monster fight.
On screen violence: It brings people together.
When I first heard that there wouldn’t be any classic dinosaurs in Kong: Skull Island (aside from the triceratops skull), I was disappointed. Thankfully, the design team came up with unique and horrifying creatures that would have given H.P. Lovecraft the willies.
Kong’s design was also very well done. The beast was both terrifying and sympathetic—and FREAKING HUGE. Maybe I’m just not remembering things right, but I’m pretty sure this is by far one of the biggest iterations of Kong we’ve ever seen. Despite his massive size, however, the creature still emotes and communicates just as effectively as his much smaller predecessors.
Bill Rada (John Goodman)
As with anything he does, John Goodman is great in this film. What makes his character particularly compelling is that he is not a “pure” crackpot. Not only is Randa highly intelligent (and right about the existence of monsters), but he’s also selfish/guarded about what he knows.
Right or wrong, most conspiracy theorists can’t shut up about what they know. Randa, on the other hand, withholds valuable information from the people he should trust the most, resulting in many of their deaths. While it’s possible they may not have gone with him if he’d said “Hey guys, keep an eye out for the giant ape,” it’s just as likely they would have laughed at him and done it anyway. He’d already secured the funding and the military escort. There was no reason to be cagey about things after that…unless he wasn’t ready to share his secret without the proof being immediately present validate him.
Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins)
Brooks may not have had the first hand paranormal experience Rada has, but he’s always the smartest guy in room, lending intellectual credibility to Rada’s claims. Where Rada is idealistic to a hair’s breadth of being fanatical, Brooks can is able to think things through and see the bigger picture.
Corey Hawkins and John Goodman also have great chemistry, even when their characters are put to the test by things going completely FUBAR on the island.
Mason Weaver (Brie Larson)
Can I admit something to you if you won’t hate me?
Okay, here goes:
Despite my unabashed liberal leanings, I can still be a cranky old straight white guy sometimes…especially when every single big budget action movie these days seems to get exhaustively analyzed over how it portrays its female characters.
WAIT! Put down your pitchforks!
The reason I even bring that up is that Brie Laron’s character in Kong: Skull Island is a perfect example of why that process can be a good thing. Instead of making her a damsel in distress or a source of man pain for Tom Hiddleston’s heroics, she’s 100% badass—and not because her character is simply a gender-swapped dude. Weaver is still feminine, but unlike a lot of action movies, Kong doesn’t equate that characteristic with weakness.
Even her anti-war views are nuanced. While Weaver is clearly against what the United States is doing in Vietnam, she never takes that out on the soldiers, instead treating them with respect and being friendly with them.
It’s also nice that there wasn’t a love story shoehorned into things while everyone was running for thdir lives and/or being killed. Sure, there was a slight bit sexual tension between Weaver and Tom Hiddleston’s character, but that’s bound to happen when two of the most beautiful people in the world are together.
The film also makes some great callbacks to Kong franchise tradition of the beast’s infatuation with the female lead, but also manages to refrain from making that aspect weirdly sexualized.
Hank Marlowe (John C. Reilly)
I like John C. Reilly, but I thought I’d hate him in this. Turns out I was wrong. His character provided just the right amount of comic relief (and maybe a tad too much exposition) while also showing a surprising amount of emotional weight.
Shake N’ Bake indeed, good sir.
Aside from Lt. Col. Packard (who we’ll get to soon), Kong: Skull Island did a lot of things right with its military characters, namely by avoiding the Broken Soldier trope that befalls so many other genre films.
Even critical darlings like Arrival often portray its soldiers as monolithic, trigger-happy barbarians. In Kong, however, we see soldiers who are curious, questioning, and quintessentially human.
This was often shown in their interactions with each other, like how Slivko (Thomas Mann) and Mills (Jason Mitchell) are baffled by the non-reaction of some of their teammates to the insanity around them. The banter/friendship between Mills and Cole (Shea Whigham) not only provides a few good laughs, but also humanizes the soldiers even in their most aggressive moments.
When Lt. Packard starts to completely lose it, the soldiers don’t blindly follow his lead—but they also don’t immediately pivot into full-blown mutiny. Instead, very clear conflict emerges about the limits of loyalty and obedience.
In one of the films cooler moments, Major Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell) reacts to a giant walking stick bug the way most of us would—freaking out and unloading his weapon at it. When the bug becomes visibly scared and shrinks away, however, he stops, watching with wonder and a touch of sympathy as the creature retreats.
What Doesn’t Work
Sorry to be a party pooper, but if you’re a regular reader of my reviews (HI DAD), then you knew this was coming.
-When the movie starts, the government wants to put an end to Monarch and then search for monsters altogether. Later on, however, we learn that Bill Randa was the lone survivor from a mission to kill a monster (possibly Godzilla) a few decades ago—which means the government not only knows monsters exist, but has previously tried to destroy them. So why are they now acting like the existence of monsters is a crackpot conspiracy theory? And if they were simply trying to keep it a secret, why would the government let a guy like Randa run for all these years around looking for evidence…or even remain alive?
– As we saw in the post-credits sequence, Monarch took in the surviving team members, partially in an effort to make sure they remained quiet about what they saw. Hank Marlowe, on the other hand, was allowed to go home, reunite with his family, and pop open a few cold ones while watching the Cubs play. Is Monarch and/or the United State government really that unconcerned that a fighter pilot who was left for dead 28 years ago would happily stay quiet for the rest of his life?
– How does a squad of helicopters fly through a massive hurricane without being hit by lightning? (Not really a plot hole, but that did bug me a bit).
– HOW THE HECK DID THEY GET KONG FROM THE ISLAND TO NEW…er…uh, wrong movie. Sorry about that. Moving on…
Lt. Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson)
At first, I found the character’s dogged determination to be a noble flaw. By the film’s end, however, Jackson plays him like a less subtle version of Colonel Kurtz.
James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston)
While James Conrad’s purpose and abilities aren’t anywhere near as nebulous as those of Brad Pitt’s character in World War Z, he still feels like a bit of a Marty Stu. The guy is not only good at everything, but can effortlessly shift back and forth between a steely-eyed mercenary and a haunted man with a heart of gold.
The Island Natives
While I appreciate that this movie refrained from the gross stereotypes of its predecessors, the island natives were sadly relegated to background scenery. Despite having what is clearly an interesting and complex culture, all they do during their brief time on screen is stand around and look ethnic and menacing while John C. Reilly explains everything.
Much as I enjoyed the character development in this movie, it had the unfortunate side affect of making it pretty easy to tell who was going to die. In fact, there were a couple times that I’m pretty sure the film randomly added soldiers who hadn’t been there before just so they could get killed again.
And of the few main characters who do bite the dust, two of them are executed in such hilariously random ways that I almost felt bad for laughing about it. Almost.
Remember that comment I made earlier about self serve popcorn butter? That was the King Kong movie from 2005—drenched in an unlimited stream of everything you ever wanted to the point that it ultimately leaves you feeling pained and bloated…and your pee still smells like butter after three days (I wish I was kidding).
Kong: Skull Island, on the other hand, is a bag of popcorn expertly soaked/edited in just the right amount of butter to make eating it an enjoyable experience from start to finish. Are there a few old maids and dry kernels in there? Of course. But it’s still a great experience that won’t result in you spending an inordinate amount of time on the toilet later.