Go See Kong: Skull Island
The giant monster movie revival is in full swing, and this Spring’s latest entry is a doozie. If you’ve seen one of the other three(!) King Kong reboots, you may think you know what to expect from Skull Island. Forget that. Skull Island delivers a nominally fresh take on the giant ape that is as much a love letter to the kaiju genre as it is a big-budget action blowout. If you have even a passing interest in big hairy apes battling big lizards and rogue military elements, go see this movie.
Although Skull Island does touch on many of the common beats of past Kong entries, it only does so as homage rather than as re-tread, ultimately delivering a new story that feels as fresh as it does familiar. Sure, you’ve got the plucky cast of imperialist adventurers seeking fame and fortune in an unknown and alien land. Sure, you have a white, female protagonist who somehow soothes the heart of the savage beast. Sure, you have Kong beating down monstrous opponents. But so many of these familiar concepts are delivered in unexpected ways. The enemies are different. There is no sappy death of Kong due to love-induced cardiac arrest. And the monsters, of which there are plenty (and a healthy variety too, from ossified dinosaurs to sneaky spiders), are as interesting as they were in the original Kong film.
Thematically, the film draws as much from Moby Dick as it does Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (the inspiration of the movie’s clear visual forebear, Apocalypse Now). Although the slick visuals are delivered in a suitably retro setting of just after the end of the Vietnam War, and with often breathtaking panache, the story truly follows a far more Melville-inspired arc. The chief antagonist of the film is not a capitalist extorter hungry for fame and fortune, but Samuel L. Jackson’s jaded and cynical army colonel, Preston Packard, hellbent on vengeance with Kong in his monomaniacal search for victory and absolution. Like Ahab, the clear archetype for the character, Packard projects all his loss and failure upon some mythical beast and sets up the true climax of the film in his quest for victory. It’s a great arc for a Kong film, and one that spares us the commonly trod ground of Kong’s extraction from the island.
Thankfully, Kong leverages plenty of visual heft to match its thematic weight. A common point of failure among CGI-driven monster films is a lack of tangible force and bulk to the creatures portrayed on screen; compared to the classic suitmation Toho films or Willis OBrien’s timeless stop-motion work on the original Kong, the titans in films like Monsters: Dark Continent or Cloverfield just lack the tactile presence necessary to command filmgoer attention. Skull Island, though not perfect, gives us a monster that looks and feels real, one that bleeds and sweats and gets hungry. Little details, like Kong’s angry grimace and body scars, establish the giant ape as the king of his own film and lend the pitched battles against both Packard’s soldiers and the nasty beasts on the titular island a real sense of urgency. I haven’t been this impressed by an on-screen creature since I saw Jurassic Park as a little kid.
Ultimately, it’s that focus on Kong himself that makes Skull Island such a fun movie. Unlike 2014’s Godzilla, to which Skull Island is narratively linked (both films are set in Legendary’s MonsterVerse), Skull Island is unafraid to give screen time to its gargantuan hero. Although the film leverages some real star power, including the devastatingly suave Tom Hiddleston and the vivacious Brie Larson, it is Kong who drives the film forward as he defends his territory from invaders, both human and megafauna. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts knew exactly what fans of the genre wanted, and he gave it to them in spades.
Monster films tend to work best when they balance serious social commentaries against campy cheese, and Vogt-Roberts’s portrayal of Kong accomplishes both. While Kong does embody a rejection of imperialism, the big ape also revels in his own kitsch silliness as he swings a propeller attached to a chain like a gargantuan flail and batters rival monsters with trees wielded like clubs. In fact, there’s a scene depicting a fight against a giant octopus that is a clear allusion to the 1962 classic King Kong vs. Godzilla. Throw in some impressive pyrotechnics, the aforementioned jaw-dropping visuals (seriously, this is the best-looking monster film ever made), and an excellent soundtrack featuring classic rock favorites like “Paranoid” and “White Rabbit,” and you’ve got yourself a hell of a good time.
That said, as with any film whose premise involves giant monsters, don’t go in expecting a flawless experience. The narrative, though engaging, features a fairly limp script; you probably won’t find yourself dropping Samuel L. Jackson one-liners after the film. Nor will you find yourself blown away by the cast’s performances. John Goodman and John C. Reilly both deliver quality efforts for what they’ve been given, but with the film’s focus on Kong, there just isn’t much room for the human cast to steal the show. A gas-mask bedecked Hiddleston won’t be winning an Oscar for slicing through pterodactyls swarming through poison gas with a Japanese katana, but at least he looked like he had fun with it.
And really, that’s what Kong: Skull Island gives the audience. Fun. It’s a delight to watch Kong smash helicopters while his massive frame is accented by a beautiful setting sun. It’s a joy to see Kong rip an octopus apart with his bare hands. It’s wonderful to see Hiddleston and Larson running for their lives while Kong fights a giant, skull-adorned monstrosity to the death. If you have any attachment to kaiju films at all, you’re going to love Skull Island, and if you catch the classic literature references and see that Kong is a mirror asking us who the real monsters are, well you’re all the better for it.