Do you ever get the feeling that a movie is tailor-made for you? And isn’t that one of the best feelings in the world?
“Kong: Skull Island” feels like Legendary Pictures scanned my brain and took everything I love about movies, and compiled it with the biggest budget they could get and the largest number of big-name actors they could find.
I would describe “Kong: Skull Island” as if “Apocalypse Now” met up with giant monsters. In other words, my favorite movie of all time meets my favorite genre of all time. And they make it even better with subtle references to the 2014 “Godzilla” film, and a catchy teaser at the end of the credits that you should stay for. Let’s just say that I had a perpetual smile on my face throughout this film.
At the end of the Vietnam War, scientists Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) have recovered satellite footage of an uncharted island in the Indian Ocean, believing that it could hold some mysterious powers. They contact a U.S. senator who begrudgingly signs off on their mission and gives them a military escort to the island, led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Bill and Houston also hire former British SAS Captain Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as a tracker, and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) begs to be apart of the mission.
Once they’re on the island, the military begins dropping bombs and scientific equipment to study the landscape. But as soon as the fires start, helicopters are taken out of the air by flying trees and a very angry giant ape.
In case you missed it, I recently did a book-length retrospective on the history of King Kong, which you can find at Toho Kingdom. And during the research for that piece, one thought kept going through my head – All these King Kong movies have the same story. With only miniute differences, the plots of the 1933 Kong, the 1976 remake and the 2005 Peter Jackson version are virtually the same – Carl Denham wants to make the greatest movie of all time, he goes to Skull Island to film it, they all find King Kong who falls in love with Ann Dawson, and they take Kong back to New York where he runs amok. Even most of the Kong scenes in “King Kong vs. Godzilla” tell the same story.
This is why “Kong: Skull Island” is the most important Kong film since the 1933 version. It strays as much as possible from the format we’ve seen in many other Kong movies, while still being loyal to the character. There is no filmmaker character, no tale of beauty and beast, no attempt to capture Kong and New York City is never mentioned.
Instead, we get a stylized look at Kong through the eyes of the 1970s and the Vietnam War. Admittedly, the Vietnam War is captured in the same way “Apocalypse Now” did it, but that is far from a bad thing. Some of the more memorable shots of the film involve the orange sunsets, as a horde of helicopters charge the massive Kong, or our titular character looking up at the vast night sky after a long day of defending his island.
Through visuals and storytelling, “Kong: Skull Island” is the most unique monster movie in recent memory.
But even with the an ongoing war between man and nature, the film finds the time to settle down and have many relaxing scenes. One of my favorites is when Kong is alone, nursing his wounds and drinking some water, when he finds a giant octopus in the water and decides to make that his next meal. It’s not only a reference to “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” but was a quieter moment that let us get to see a day-in-the-life of Kong; that he isn’t just some creature only looking for destruction and mayhem.
If there’s one complaint I have with “Kong: Skull Island” it would be the acting, which has some great performances from John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly as a WWII fighter-pilot stranded on the island for 25 years, but everyone else seems wasted, especially Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson. These two don’t get many opportunities to show their acting abilities here, mostly resorting to action-hero clichés, being skeptical of the military’s agenda, and saying one-liners like, “We’re going to save Kong!”
That being said, Samuel L. Jackson steals the show with his always captivating intensity. People had said his character is akin to Captain Ahab, especially with his need to bring down Kong, but continuing the “Apocalypse Now” theme, I find that he’s more like Colonel Kurtz – A man who has seen the horrors of the world, both natural and man-made, and wants to show that he can conquer that horror. He believes that man is the dominant force on this planet and should remain that way, despite being faced with an intelligent giant ape. Jackson’s madness never feels like it goes over-the-top, yet he lets his rage explode all over the screen; a job no actor can do any better than Sam Jackson.
John Goodman and John C. Reilly turn in quieter performances, but also ones that show their emotional sides. Goodman plays a scientist who doesn’t want to tell everyone on the mission what is really going on, because he knows they wouldn’t believe him. His role is similar to his performance in “10 Cloverfield Lane,” as a man who wants to help but is untrustworthy and could back-stab you if it would help him.
Reilly, on the other hand, gives the film his usual comedic touch, while continually showing the strain that comes with being trapped on island for 25 years. When he talks about missing a hot dog and a cold beer while watching a Cubs game, he pauses for a moment, looking at his imaginary food with longing and sadness.
Of course, with all these actors, plots and quieter moments, it means there is a lot going on “Kong: Skull Island,” with at least ten major characters, while also trying to build Legendary Pictures’ Monster Universe. The film builds off of the events of “Godzilla,” by showing the creation of the government organization Monarch, which deals with supernatural threats like ones on Skull Island. This movie has as much going on as one of the Avengers movies, so be prepared to keep up with lots of plots and characters.
Overall, “Kong: Skull Island” was a blast. I found this to be more enjoyable than “Godzilla,” since Kong never took itself too seriously, always finding some way to poke fun at the ridiculous situations. It was visually exciting to behold and had some great fight sequences where humans stand a chance against a giant monster. Some of the acting is great, but others pretty generic. But if you’re looking for a fun action-packed monster movie that is surprisingly different from other monster-fests, this is a great change of pace.
Final Grade: A-