What if the story of “King Kong” took place not during the 30s, but instead the orange-blazed Vietnam era, just as the war was ended-er-abandoned and complete with a poster that outright mimics Apocalypse Now? What if it also contained a collection of modern character personalities who’d probably feel more at home in a Marvel flick or a better sequel to Independence Day? What if it took itself about 50% less seriously than Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake? And what if, to top it all off, you layered it against a budding monster cinematic universe franchise that is already underway with 2014’s Godzilla?
Kong: Skull Island is the answer to those questions and more — a sort of mashup of interesting ideas and directions blended together by second-time director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, an indie auteur who’d make Gareth Edwards blush. The basic structure is still in place: a team of scientists, civilians, and soldiers travel to Skull Island, the last uncharted territory hiding in the South Pacific. There, they uncover prehistoric threats and a massive, titular primate named Kong. From there, it’s a tale of survival, but a much smaller one in scope than the 2005 remake, at least removed from its ties to bigger monster threats around the world and the mysterious “Monarch” organization.
The idea to paint this as a Vietnam film is definitely inspired. The same, “what are we doing here” mentality is played just right an overwhelming message, though that’s not to say Kong ever tries to be more than a big, blustering blockbuster that succumbs to movie logic willfully and enthusiastically. You can probably respect the fact that Kong knows how bonkers it is throughout, and in a better movie with more surprises, it could even be hailed as an inspired new turn for monster movies (Shin Godzilla or no).
Strangely, though, Kong suffers from 21st Century film editing, a new wave of trailer-inspired cuts and cutaways that make this film feel more like a collection of intriguing short films spliced together to just barely hold together as a two hour feature. The screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and in small part, Derek Connolly is certainly in a great place, as this is one of the few flicks in a while I caught myself thinking about the script (in a good way).
The story, by Need For Speed and Real Steal‘s John Gatins, is less innovative, yet mostly salvaged thanks to a serviceable ensemble of characters featuring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, and many others. The best scenes in Kong belong to Jackson and Reilly without any doubt, as Reilly plays the island survivalist from World War II who kindly fills us in on just the right amount of exposition to get a sense of place and relevance in Skull Island.
What truly saves Kong from mediocrity, though, is what monster movie fans are itching to come see. A visually striking action movie with big monsters, big stakes, and big battles. This movie checks off those boxes in force, while mostly eschewing other expectations of its legacy, like the tendency to play up Kong as a “possessor” of a beautiful woman.
Brie Larson takes the role in her own way as a photographer in search of discovering something new, instead moving along the movie in a jog, playing about as crucial a role as the other ensemble characters without much of a special relationship with Kong, which is likely for the better. It’s replaced with a passive respect, rather than an otherworldly affection, and at the very least, it makes more sense for a film set in the 70s, not an escapist tragedy set in the 30s.
Most films would suffer from tonal shifts as drastic as the ones in Kong. But for whatever reason, the scattershot ideas in this monster mash adventure movie manage to lend the film something of a personality, much like they accomplished with the CGI primate himself. There are just as many moments showing what Kong does when no one is around, and it’s one of a few morsels of surprising touches this movie thankfully scrambles to find.
- There is a post-credits scene, and it’s actually awful. Badly edited. Bad in the way it teases. See it if you must, but I left the theater feeling a lot less excited about the future of Warner Bros.’s monsterverse.
- With so many characters in this movie, I didn’t have much of a chance to get to each one. And that’s not a good thing. They’re mostly forgettable, even Larson and Hiddleston, whose motivations are actually interchangeable. Great screen presence, but this movie’s heart belongs to Reilly and Jackson.
- This movie might look a tad familiar. It was shot in Hawaii, close to where Jurassic World was filmed. Samuel L. Jackson even utters his famous line, “Hold on to your butts” from the first Jurassic Park.
- I also forgot to mention one of my favorite things about this movie: Kong’s design. It’s a clear combination of the 30s version and the adapted Japanese version. He stands tall, and it looks great.
- Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell have great, understated roles in this movie. They last acted together as Dre and Eazy E in Straight Outta Compton.
- Weird Easter egg that might be important: Riley’s character, Hank Marlow, wears a jacket with a reference to Akira, a manga that came out years after this movie takes place. It’s a pill and the line, “Good for your health. Bad for your education.”
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