Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddelston, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Reilly, Toby Kebbell, Brie Larson
“Kong: Skull Island” is the brilliant big ape, kaiju mayhem movie monster fans have been waiting for since “Pacific Rim.”
Choosing to forego the lazily written themes of Legendary Picture’s “Godzilla,” “Kong”gives a big gorilla-sized middle finger to all that and opts to just be as fun and ridiculous as possible and its exactly what a monster movie should aspire to be.
(Thank you for not cutting away from the action, movie *side eyes “Godzilla”*)
“Kong: Skull Island” takes place just as the Vietnam war is coming to a close as researchers Bill Randa and Houston Brooks from the secretive organization known as Monarch organize an expedition to an uncharted island in the south Pacific. Enlisting the help of a British tracker named James Conrad, an “anti-war” photographer named Mason Weaver and the “Sky Devils” helicopter squadron led by the war hungry Preston Packard, the crew sets off to scout the island. Of course when a giant ape appears minutes into their first survey, Randa’s crew quickly figure out this island is a lot crazier than it looks and if they’re not careful they’ll end up as dinner next.
Generally speaking monster movies only work on two ends of a very extreme scale; either they go dark and serious (“Gojira”) or bat shit, cheesy and over the top (“Pacific Rim”).
2014’s “Godzilla” failed largely because it tried to have it both ways; trying to tell a serious, but confusing story, about how uncontrollable nature is while also trying to have a Godzilla act like a super hero too.
“Kong: Skull Island” does not make this same mistake, opting instead for the latter end of the kaiju scale giving viewers as much giant monster mayhem as they want and more.
The film truly is best when these kaiju are on screen; Kong is beautifully motion captured by Toby Kebbell (the other Andy Serkis of motion capture that no one talks about), giant bugs and octopuses are both creepy and awesome to watch, and the film’s big bad “Skull Crawlers” are freaky in their own way and enjoyable adversaries to the big ape himself.
Monster fight scenes play out like giant, kaiju-sized wrestling matches and it’s a joy to watch Kong layeth the smacketh down on these monsters’ candy-asses.
(”KONG FROM THE TOP ROPE! BAW GAWD! THAT SKULL CRAWLER HAD A FAMILY!”)
One huge improvement over “Godzilla,” however, are the characters in “Kong.” Sure the film suffers from having too many to follow, never truly settling on a lead character and even wasting the talents of Goodman, Larson and Hiddelston, but like “Pacific Rim” they are still fun and even self-aware of the ridiculousness of the plot.
There’s a brilliant little exchange, most of you have seen in the trailer, involving John C. Reilly’s character Hank Marlow, a marooned former US pilot from WWII, explaining the threat of the “Skull Crawlers” to Hiddelston’s Conrad and Larson’s Weaver where they ask Marlow why they’re named that to which he snidely replies “Look, I just made that name up. I’m trying to scare you.”
This sequence is truly representative of the film’s tone as it never takes its self very seriously, a huge kaiju sized step away from schmaltz of “Godzilla.” The film is all the better for it too, as sequences away from Kong are still entertaining as Reilly’s banters with co-stars Hiddelston, Larson and Jackson constantly, even at one point, against his protest of certain danger, snorts “I’ve only been here 28 years, what do I know?”
(Basically Reilly’s Marlow when encountering Skull Crawlers.)
If there is a story to be had here however it’s in the diverging paths of Reilly’s Marlow and Jackson’s Packard who’s played at near full Samuel L. Jackson throughout the movie.
Marlow is a WWII pilot who has been done with war for quite some time, even befriending the Japanese pilot he crashed with. At one point in the film he asks one of the soldiers “Hey, who won the war?” to which one replies “Which one?” with Marlow chortling “That’s not surprising.” He has in a weird way found wisdom in his isolation from the rest of the world, living among the natives and seeing Kong as just another creature trying to live his life. It’s not a perfect way to show an anti-war message but it works.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s Packard has gone full Captain Ahab since the end of the war, choosing not to accept defeat and looking instead for closure in bringing down Kong who attacked and killed many of his men. Jackson is as hammy as ever but effective as Kong’s Ahab and creates a real sense of tension and drama when he’s in action on screen.
Are either of these characters and this story very deep though? No, but they’re faaarrr more interesting and entertaining than what we got out of the characters in “Godzilla” at least and in a film that doubles down on the monster beat downs that’s all you need out of your human characters.
With Gareth Edwards departing from the giant monster universe franchise, “Kong: Skull Island” should be a very positive sign of the future as more kaiju get thrown into the mix.
Its the kind of monster movie fans of the early to late 70s kaiju flicks will enjoy as there are plenty of fun little nods to the genre throughout the film.
Is “Kong: Skull Island” a smart movie though with a well-developed story and script that fans wanted out of “Godzilla?” Fuck no! But it’s bonkers and God damn fun, so who cares? Go enjoy your escapism, you apes!
4 out of 5
One can only hope the crossover will be half as awesome as this.