Kong: Skull Island is a movie for the child and inner geek inside us all. Rife with giant monster fights and classic movie references, this King Kong-by-way-of-Apocalypse-Now reboot has more on its mind than just spectacle but not quite the bandwidth to handle it. Though it’s hampered by its own preoccupations and weak characters from transcending as a B-movie tribute, it’s nonetheless the definition (well, my definition) of a good time at the movies.
The movie begins in 1973, at the end of the Vietnam War, with the discovery of Skull Island by MONARCH, the secret government organization first seen in 2014’s Godzilla. An eclectic group of scientists, soldiers, and other experts are assembled to investigate the island, before the Russians do (one of many unintentionally-timely political moments in the film) . Predictably, upon arrival, they find they’re not nearly as welcome as they thought as they encounter Kong and have to survive all manner of giant beasties.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ sophomore effort following his 2013 indie hit The Kings of Summer, he wears his influences on his sleeves. Skull Island has all the trappings of a gleeful kid in the most epic toy box imaginable and the film radiates that child-like joy, treating its characters more as action figures than actual characters. While they all (for the most part) get a moment or two beyond their introductions, it’s inevitably a joke or their death scene (sometimes both).
The film is a film lover’s pastiche, with Apocalypse Now in both story and visuals, with bits of Cannibal Holocaust and every previous film of King Kong of course. Roberts and writers Max Borenstein, Dan Gilroy, and Derek Connolly (with a story credit by John Gatins) get a ton of mileage out of the Vietnam War metaphor but for all their cleverness, it lacks subtlety and occasionally gives way to some head-smacking moments. It takes spiritual cues from Jurassic Park but doesn’t quite reach Spielberg’s mastery of both story and character. The thin characterization and episodic narrative lead to some emotional investment and momentum problems, though never enough to sink or ruin the movie.
The cast is absolutely stacked, though most have simply archetypal roles to work with. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are mostly stand-ins as leads, with only a couple moments to work through their emotions and only then, they’re reflective of one or two things about them; he’s a a tracker, she’s a photographer (ahem, “antiwar” photographer) etc. Thankfully, the movie is self-aware enough to spare us any romantic plot tumors.
Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman are great, as usual, particularly the former as the soldiers’ commanding officer who develops a Captain Ahab-like obsession with killing Kong. 24: Legacy‘s Corey Hawkins acquits himself well as Randa’s number two, but John Ortiz and Jing Tian have thankless roles as a MONARCH scientists along for the ride. The soldiers played by Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Toby Kebbell, and Thomas Mann all make the most of their parts, with Whigham as the shell-shocked stand-out.
The real protagonist of the movie is Hank Marlow, a fighter pilot stranded on the island since World War II, played with humor and heart by John C. Reilly. He, along to a lesser-degree Jackson, act as nexus points for that coveted story-character convergence that Spielberg masters, making a character’s arc not only present, but the thrust of the story.
Jackson, the human villain, embodies the corrupting nature of war but he is contrasted, not with the nominal leads Hiddleston or Larson, but with Reilly’s character, who against all odds maintained his sanity (mostly) amidst the craziness of Skull Island. Marlow wants something more than just survival; to see his wife again, meet his son for the first time, and watch the Cubs with a Budweiser and a hot dog. Incidentally, it’s with Marlow whom we start the movie and with Marlow that it ends.
The film’s Kong is a straight-up hero, a noble creature who protects all creatures from those who seek to cause malicious or gross harm on his home. Terry Notary comes straight from the previous Kong Andy Serkis’ (currently aping it up in the Planet of the Apes movies, which Notary also stars in) school of motion capture. The various monsters, fights, and monster fights tick off the boxes of what you want from monsters, fights, and monster fights.
In Legendary’s nascent MonsterVerse, it’s all about pitting them against each other. Like Godzilla, Kong is now a “protector,” one side of nature’s balance and the unabashedly good one at that. That leaves the human characters stuck in the middle, their efforts overshadowed literally and figuratively by the enormous monsters duking it out around them. It’s a lovely (and expensive) creature feature who’s main goal is entertain above all, making the movie with child-like imagination. John Hammond would be proud; they “spared no expense.”