The long reigning king, of the island that time forgot, is back in the theaters with a fairly familiar story, with a slightly new take. Most iterations of King Kong feature the same basic idea, that one man believing in a mysterious island of monsters, convinces/enlists a group of people to join him on an expedition in search of proof. The original Kong film, as well as the 2005 Peter Jackson film, frame the search around a movie crew, who wish to film on the uncharted island. The newest take, Kong: Skull Island, places the search against the backdrop of the war in Vietnam, and rather than a movie crew, the group is made up of soldiers, scientists, and an anti-war photographer, who are all led by a couple of seemingly crazy people from the government entity known as Monarch. Monarch is dedicated to proving that monsters exist, and it is with this that the events of the film are set in motion.
Despite being the same general premise as previous Kong movies, the story for Skull Island has enough differences that. Taking Kong out of the 1930s where the films have been previously set was a great choice, as it give the very familiar story a new spin, so it doesn’t feel the same as all the films that have come before it. With this setting it also feels like a war film, and not just a big monster movie, and throughout, it very much feels like Apocalypse Now, or Platoon, albeit with larger than life creatures substituting as the enemy. Gone are the subplots of capturing Kong to put him on display, as well as the idea of Kong falling in love with the main female protagonist, as those are replaced with aspects of a survival focused film. Once the large group arrives to Skull Island, they almost immediately go up against Kong, who decimated more than half of the army unit, and splits up the survivors. The movie from that point on follows the different smaller groups as they traverse the incredibly dangerous jungle, providing many tense moments, because Kong is not the only thing to fear on the island. The inclusion of many different types monsters made for a lot of cool action sequences, both between the humans, and between the monsters. There are several different types of creatures, and beyond Kong, and the main “villains,” each of them get a moment or a setpiece to show off. The film does a great job with balancing monster moments, and character moments, as neither one feels like it overshadows the other. The humans may get more screen time, but the monster moments feel important, and are visually cool to see, so they never feel lacking.
Beyond the monsters, the film creates a number of believable characters, and each have their own distinct personalities that bring the story together. While the older Kong films focus on only a handful of characters, Skull Island gives enough of a back story to several characters, so that you care about them, which is better than only caring about two or three. That being said there are a couple of instances where the film telegraphs the fate of some of the characters, because it sticks to some traditional trappings of monster movies. The films all-star cast also adds to the likeability of each of these characters, and while there are a few standouts, and a few weak links, the majority of the actors are more than fine. John Goodman is perfect as the main Monarch representative, Bill Randa, and his demeanor initially as he skirts around the real reason for the trip, compared to how cold he is once he reveals the truth, is a great dichotomy, and he makes the most of allotted screen time. The sympathetic leads are Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver, as the anti-war photographer who gained notoriety for her Vietnam coverage, and Tom Hiddleston’s James Conrad, a former British Soldier, turned mercenary, who is hired by Goodman to lead the expedition into the Jungle. Larson is great in this role, as she carries herself with the kindness that is normally associated with Kong movie mainstay Ann Darrow, as well as a toughness, that allows her to handle her own amongst all the soldiers, and never feels like a damsel in distress. Hiddleston is good as well, though his rugged, charming persona, borders on cheesy at many points throughout. The character is one that is a little too good at everything, so some of the instances where he takes charge of the situation, are goofier than intended. Another hit and miss character is Samuel L. Jackson’s Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard, a soldier who isn’t quite ready to leave the battlefield when the war in Vietnam comes to an end. Jackson, as always commands attention when the action focuses on him, and his best moments in the film are fantastic, such his military take on the story of Icarus, that he recites as the helicopter squadron attempts to pass through the storm surrounding Skull Island. However there are many times where his motivations and actions are so ridiculous that it makes the character feel cartoonish. The rest of the soldiers in the film are all fine, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, and Thomas Mann are all given a few scenes to stand out, with Mitchell and Mann providing a little comic relief. The real comic relief comes in when one of the groups comes along John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow. Marlow is a WWII pilot that crashed on the island during the war, and has survived ever since, and is used to provide backstory on the island, Kong, and the monsters that live below the surface. The film actually opens with a great scene depicting the crash landing, as Marlow battles another downed Japanese pilot, who nearly battle to the death before being confronted by the films first look at Kong.
As with previous Kong films, Kong is the spectacle, and Skull Island is the most menacing depiction seen thus far. The removal of Kong’s infatuation with any human characters means that he is more of a powerhouse throughout the film. During every altercation, it is conveyed incredibly well that Kong is both a protector, a ruler, and a target. Even in quieter moments with Kong, character, and emotion are shown on the giants face, so even without dialogue, all of the right emotions show through.
Kong: Skull Island is far from a perfect film, but has enough going for it to make for an enjoyable popcorn flick. The acting is good enough to not tank the film, and includes some worthwhile character arcs. There is even a touching documentary style film at the closing that was a nice added bonus. The action is great, and the 1970s Vietnam War setting provides a much needed change to the usually King Kong format. Skull Island will never rank as the best Kong film, but is still a big enough spectacle worthy of The King.