Written by: Dan Gilroy (screenplay), Max Borenstein (screenplay), Derek Connolly (screenplay), John Gatins (story)
Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, and Brie Larson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"This planet doesn't belong to us. Ancient species owned this earth long before mankind. I spent 30 years trying to prove the truth: monsters exist."
One of the most effective aspects of Kong: Skull Island is that it’s not particularly interested in slavishly adhering to the Kong formula. Rather, it takes the most pertinent bits of the mythos—the existence of a giant ape and his home, the virtually prehistoric Skull Island—and plops it into a different sort of film that knows what everyone knows about this tale: the Skull Island stuff—in all its monstrous glory—is the fucking best. It’s the part of the Kong legend that appeals to the lizard part of our brain that really just wants to see Kong throw down with other oversized beasts. Where most other films treat Kong’s exploits in his homeland as an undercard, Skull Island knows it’s the main event and accordingly stages wall-to-wall monster mayhem—and it rules, naturally.
Set at the tail end of the Vietnam War, Skull Island begins as the story of one man’s obsession. Bill Randa (John Goodman) heads MONARCH, a secret government agency dedicated to uncovering strange phenomena, and he’s convinced giant monsters exist. The discovery of a new island in the South Pacific has especially piqued his interest, and he convinces the bureaucrats in Washington to charter an expedition to the mysterious land. In the process, he recruits an expert tracker (Tom Hiddleston), an award-winning anti-war photojournalist (Brie Larson), and a helicopter squadron led by a disillusioned lieutenant (Samuel L. Jackson). Upon their approach to Skull Island, they meet with trouble—if you’re looking for an indicator of just how much Kong looms over this film, just know that he starts to wreck their shit almost immediately. In the space of about two minutes, the group goes from triumphantly blaring “War Pigs” to watching on in horror as Kong swats most of the helicopters around as if they were flies.
Spectacle has always been at the heart of Kong, and it’s the guiding force behind director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s approach here. Even after several decades’ worth of advancements in special effects and various iterations of Kong, it’s hard not to look on in awe at an enormous ape causing absolute destruction. This is especially true when someone with an eye for it is at the helm, as Vogt-Roberts is clearly up to the task of capturing Kong in all his glory. Skull Island is practically lined with hero shots of Kong looking every bit the part of a god, whether he’s towering in front of a blood red sun or emerging through flames. At all times, Kong is a sight to behold, not only because he’s never been this huge before, but also because he’s a genuine presence. Even though he’s on-screen quite often (he actually appears about two minutes into the film’s prologue), it never feels like the camera takes him for granted—each appearance carries enormous weight. He’s the star, and everyone involved realizes it.
But he’s also got a hell of a supporting cast, and I’m not even referring to the humans. We’ll get to them in a bit, but I’m going to be real: I know it’s “proper” to extol the virtues of strong characters, but Skull Island makes the case that a monster movie can largely thrive on the back of its monsters. The island is crawling with various beasts, many of which are treated like the horrific creatures they are. Vogt-Roberts has a flair for the dramatic when capturing them on-screen, too—for example, a soldier is stopped dead in his trapped, seemingly (and inexplicably) impaled by what appears to be a tree until everyone realizes a giant spider looms above them, waiting to strike again. The island’s main predators—the devils constantly at war with Kong—are reptilian creatures that are depicted as menacingly as the Xenomorphs in Aliens, as they surround and attack in swarming packs. And, hell, for good measure, Skull Island even boasts the most random giant octopus this side of Frankenstein Conquers the World.
While mashing together pixels isn’t exactly novel at this point, Skull Island’s stellar cinematography helps to separate it from the pack. Clarity, scale, and scope are particularly integral in creating jaw-dropping action sequences, especially the climax that finds Kong locked in combat with the island’s other alpha monster. Skull Island is out to thrill and amaze with each shootout and brawl, of which there are many. The pacing here is so breathless that it’d be exhausting had Vogt-Roberts opted for more of a blunt force trauma approach that didn’t value coherence. Every blockbuster director would do well to take notes of the use of wide shots here: Skull Island often feels epic because you’re actually watching two huge creatures clash across a lavish widescreen canvas. You’re not just getting an impression of it through hyper-edited close-ups—you’re getting the heads, the tails, the whole damn thing.
I don’t mean to diminish the humans’ roles here. While watching the film, it struck me that the array of characters is fine—most are superficially sketched with just enough details to register (Hiddleston is rugged but noble, Larson serves as the assertive conscience, Toby Kebbell, uh, has a kid and a ridiculous southern drawl), and are obviously brought to life by a terrific cast. However, upon reflection, some of the characters really sing and provide a compelling gravity outside of Kong’s orbit. John C. Reilly easily emerges as the standout among this group as a scatterbrained Air Force pilot that’s been stranded on Skull Island since World War II. In that time, he’s adapted about as well as one possibly can considering the natives barely speak and he’s been basically living under the thumb of a hundred-foot primate for nearly 30 years.
Reilly’s performance expectedly provides the comic relief; what’s less expected is just how much pathos it brings too, as he becomes he heart and soul here. He’s the guy you really want to see make it off the island so he can reunite with a wife he hasn’t seen in three decades and meet a son that was born soon after his deployment. In the Kong tradition, he’s also the one who realizes that the giant ape terrorizing the group is merely defending his turf and doesn’t deserve to be killed.
Opposing him is Jackson, who delivers the film’s other surprising turn as Packard, the increasingly erratic lieutenant; if Skull Island takes its cue from Apocalypse Now, then he’s sort of the Kurtz analogue, at least as it pertains to his paranoia a single-minded obsessiveness that manifests with his on insistence with slaying the beast that’s killed many of his men (Kong as a surrogate for the Viet Kong is almost too obvious, but Skull Island definitely carries an anti-war streak by insisting on its futility multiple times). It’s nice to see Jackson in a role that’s more than a one-note riff on his usual shtick: Packard starts out as a typical Jackson role with his scenery-chewing swagger, but he degenerates into something more menacing by the end. For once, we’re not dealing with a human antagonist who wants to capture Kong; instead, Packard is devising ways to deploy leftover napalm against the monster during a tense sequence that features Kong fending off fire, gunshots, and a giant monster.
In case it weren’t obvious enough, Skull Island is a blast. Sure, it faintly echoes the likes of Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness (it even features characters named Marlow and Conrad to nod vigorously in that direction), but it’s not nearly as grim as that suggests. Instead, the general aesthetic here is perhaps just a step away from resembling comic book panels—this isn’t a film that’s shooting for photo-realism, nor is it even feigning any interest in being “grounded” or whatever other buzzword that’s being thrown around Hollywood these days. Skull Island is unapologetic pulp, propelled by big moments, witty banner, one-liners, and a lively, multicultural ensemble—in truth, it’s closer in tone to a Predator movie, only the jungle’s crawling with dozens of monsters.
Most importantly, Skull Island isn’t completely without the whimsy and spectacle one associates with a King Kong movie. Vogt-Roberts is unafraid to embrace the sort of energy you’d see from a kid mashing together toys during a sugar high. Look no further than one particularly show-stopping scene that features Tom Hiddleston brandishing a katana sword against flying lizards, a soldier wielding a flamethrower, and another soldier manning a machine gun that’s mounted on a triceratops skull. Basically, every feverishly imaginative time you ever had in a sandbox has been projected onto a huge screen, which is not to say Skull Island is only great because it appeals to your inner 8-year-old—though it certainly helps its cause.
Because WB’s burgeoning MonsterVerse has charted Kong’s course from Skull Island to an impending showdown with Godzilla, there’s an obvious temptation to compare this film to the other King of the Monsters’s previous outing. However, with the exception of their general premise (“giant monsters wrecking shit”), the two aren’t much alike: where Gareth Edwards patiently builds to his rousing moments, Vogt-Roberts indulges them at nearly every turn. Both approaches are equally valid, and I love that we’ve been graced with two fairly different takes on iconic monsters within the last few years. This one especially put the biggest, dumbest grin on my face for two hours, all the way through an end credits tease that leaves me secure in my belief that watching King Kong dunk on other monsters will never, ever get old.
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