Since being unveiled nearly 85 years ago, King Kong has been a purely cinematic creation, meant as a meta contextual “Eighth Wonder of the World” to enchant in and out of universe. A much beloved example of purely American monster movie making that spread around the world, particularly once Toho got a hold of him after he fought their reptilian representation of giant monsters Godzilla in 1962. With Kong: Skull Island, the party is staying in Kong’s domain of the titular land mass. There ain’t no elaborate ferry ride to New York City here. Which is honestly refreshing, given the original and its remakes from 1976 and 2005 stayed pretty close to the formula we all know. Bunch of opportunistic folks go to Skull Island. The one blonde female is nearly sacrificed to him. He’s captured and sent to New York. Then the Beast runs amok until he dies protecting his Beauty. It’s a song we’ve heard before and Kong: Skull Island is fully aware that the tune needs to change.
The tragic ballad of before is replaced with a rampaging 70s rock tune, many of which make up the film’s Vietnam era soundtrack. One can clearly tell that Jordan Vogt-Roberts was inspired by films like Apocalypse Now or Platoon in terms of how he displays these soldiers of the era. The helicopter squads and massive amounts of gun totting carnage on display recalls those films, but is given a much more animalistic edge when faced off against the giant ape and variety of monsters in the jungles of this island. Kong: Skull Island has its thematic drive aimed at man’s careless nature towards the environment. The mythology of Kong’s protective nature over his world comes in direct confrontation with these soldiers trying to make their presence known on the island with explosives, leading to the incredibly elaborate and masterfully shot introduction to Kong as he unleashes his rage. Showing the true consequences of those that impede his domain.
As to those that impede that domain, the eclectic cast of Kong: Skull Island is full of intriguing faces. Most of them are either given interesting characters who kind of go nowhere or lesser characters they bring more life and personality to. There’s the research team of John Goodman and Corey Hawkins, who have a passionate drive to map out the mythological island & seek out these beasts… before sort of just being along for the ride. Or getting a kind of love interest with Jing Tian and Hawkins. Brie Larson‘s sassy war photographer is mainly meant to be a subversion of the Anne Darrow archetype and little else, but there’s a feistiness there that keeps her endearing. Especially when she has to have another sort-of-but-not-really back and forth with Tom Hiddleston, who’s saddled with a rather bland adventurer that mainly exists to get us from Plot Point A to Plot Point B. Any sort of charisma is drowned out by his rather thin motivations. He and a few others suffer especially from rather poorly ramped up moments of action that just seem bizarre and out of place. Hiddleston at one point takes a sword and just starts mowing down monsters in a fashion that’s barely set up and not earned on any level, no matter how much slow motion is used to make it appear badass.
The military personnel sort of suffer from this as well. Samuel L. Jackson relishes the Sgt. Barnes level of maddening descent as he sets his eyes on destroying Kong after the ape killed his men. A sort of lingering desire to win in the dying days of Vietnam. Hawkins’ Straight Outta Compton co-star Jason Mitchell has this attempted unlikely brotherly bond with Shea Whigham‘s mysterious soldier character that never quite clicks. Toby Kebbell even has an incredibly pointless subplot driven by some of the biggest war cliches in cinematic history. Yet, despite all these issues, the characters in Kong: Skull Island at least have more personality than any of the characters in Legendary’s previous monster pic from 2014 Godzilla. It’s more a problem of spreading things thin amongst this large cast. The ones that stand out tend to have the most compelling back stories, mainly John C. Reilly as a WWII era pilot that’s lived on the island for nearly 30 years. Reilly feels like a caveman unfrozen by modern explorers, trying to even grasp the idea of folks from his homeland coming into the only home he’s had for years.
It helps that he’s a major part of endearing us to the true star and stand out factor of Kong: Skull Island: the ecosystem of this island. Obviously, Legendary is trying to build a universe for their monsters and there’s a bountiful amount of world building on display here. So much detail in every aspect of creature and production design, all showed off with gorgeous photography by cinematographer Larry Fong. The island has rules and machinations that show off an understanding for how this location operates. The humans have their own section they stick to. The uglier birds are vulture-ish scavengers. Giant spiders guard over the trees. The “Skull Crawlers” seek to destroy the protective Kong in a battle for supremacy. There’s a rich vast mythos established here that both connects to the role Godzilla had in his film while not over explaining the idea so as to numb us to the impact. Particularly during the various death scenes that truly push the PG-13 rating. These creatures are brutal forces of nature and they mean business.
This method also allows us to be more endeared to Kong in his element rather than as a fish out of water. He has an animalistic edge that is enraged by these intruding humans, but there’s still a curiosity encapsulated in there. Every Kong film is only as good as its furry star and Kong finds the right balance here between brute force & cunning. When he attacks, there’s an ingenuity at work to show he’s in his element. The motion capture by Terry Notary isn’t as grounded as something like Andy Serkis in his turn as the beast for Peter Jackson, but there’s more of a personality on display here. Kong knows how this island operates and doesn’t appreciate any guff. He also feels like far more of a presence than he has in previous versions. Appearing far more massive with more screen time, but without overstaying his welcome. It’s safe to say this Kong is one that’ll be worth seeing combat The King of the Monsters in a massive showdown.
Kong: Skull Island is more of a step in the right direction for building up this monster universe. Rather than suck all the fun out of the idea of giant monsters like their Godzilla, Legendary chose to give us a more fun and high spirited romp through the jungle. There are issues of balance with the characters, spreading some too thin and others not thick enough. Yet, the world of Kong and detail on Skull Island makes up for the issues with some of the individual human characters. Kong: Skull Island brawls its way into being an exciting kaiju film that knows how to solidly balance its human and monster stuff quite well. Still, a bit more cutting of the fat with the cast would be beneficial. We only need so many human characters, specifically confined to those more directly affected by the environment of the monster. That’s part of what made Bryan Cranston the stand out character of that American Godzilla film. Well, that and he didn’t just blankly stare. What I’m saying is that this wasn’t a high bar… but they could improve upon it once Godzilla and Kong meet up to fight.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Giant Monkey Skulls