WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS!
For those of you that know me, you are well aware that I am a Godzilla fanatic. I’ve never met a Godzilla movie, or collectible, that I didn’t like. (Yes, I even have a healthy affection for GODZILLA’S REVENGE, which most agree is the absolute nadir of the franchise.) When it comes to King Kong, I may not be as big a fan, but I have a healthy respect for the character. If King Kong never existed, we may never have had Godzilla!
The 1933 classic introduced audiences to a lost world full of prehistoric monsters, ruled over by a giant ape named Kong. The mighty beast is captured and displayed to the modern world, but ends up breaking his bonds and escaping. Surrounded by hundreds of tiny screaming humans, in a world he doesn’t recognize, Kong lashes out then eventually meets a tragic end upon the peak of the Empire State Building. (Or the World Trade Center if you watch the 1975 remake).
Ah yes…. it’s a story we all know well, and that’s mainly because we’ve seen it THREE. Freakin’. Times! But that’s (thankfully) not what happens in Legendary Films’ new reboot of the character.
KONG: SKULL ISLAND takes place in 1973 during the final days of the Vietnam War. Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his assistant Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), plead with Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins) to allocate funds for an expedition to a recently discovered island in the South Pacific. Though not initially keen on finding financing for the excursion, the Senator gives in after Randa warns that the Russians may very well beat them to the punch.
With funding in place, Randa hires former British SAS officer James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as a tracker, and war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to chronicle the trip. Along with a military escort led by Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), dozens of soldiers and scientists pierce through the stormy vale that hides the mythical Skull Island. Blaring awesome 70s rock music, the small group of choppers spreads out over the island and begin dropping seismic charges.
The series of explosions does not go unnoticed, and soon a giant silohuette appears on the horizon! Kong makes a big entrance, and then furiously begins knocking helicopters from the sky. Within moments, every chopper is down, and the scattered survivors must regroup and head to the other side of the island to the extraction point. But they’ve got to make it there within three days, or else risk becoming permanent tenants on the isle that time forgot!
Along the way they encounter other giant fauna, a kindly tribe of Kong-worshipers, and a World War II pilot named Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) that crash-landed on the island nearly thirty years earlier. Hank is a fountain of knowledge and fills them in on Kong, and Skull Island’s many perils, including the “Skull Crawlers.” Living quietly underground, the subterranean terrors have begun to resurface, due to the military’s reckless bombing.
Eventually battle lines are drawn when Colonel Packard, angry over the death of his men, decides that Kong must be destroyed. But Packard’s misguided efforts may have bigger repercussions, as bigger and nastier things are lurking underground, just waiting to be awakened. As the film races to a close, the mighty Kong battles for the fate of the island, while the remaining human cast members attempt to reach their rendezvous point! It’s a race against time amidst a giant monster smackdown, and it all leads to a very satisfying conclusion!
As stated much earlier, KONG: SKULL ISLAND shies away from retelling the same “twas beauty killed the beast” storyline we’ve already seen multiple times. This proves to be one of the film’s greatest strengths, because we’re given a chance to explore a far more realistic Skull Island. The 1933 original, and the 2005 retread painted the island as an inhospitable hellhole where everything wants to eat you, while 1975’s version of Skull Island is boring, and sadly dinosaur-free.
In this film, the island certainly has its fair share of dangers (giant insects, octopi, and lizards), but it also takes minor respites to show the audience that not everything living there is eager to feast on humans. Giant water buffalo, a variety of deer (in various stages of evolution), and normal-sized birds all live on the island as well. It’s actually a beautiful and tranquil place, mainly because modern man hasn’t been able to exploit it. And ruling over all of this natural beauty is Kong, the “god” of Skull Island.
Rendered fully in CGI, and portrayed via motion-capture by stunt-coordinator Terry Notary, this version of Kong is easily one of my all-time favorites. Previous films have always shown Kong as a wild beast that can only be tamed by a woman, but in this film he is “Kong the Peacekeeper.” He polices the island, protecting the natives (whose wall isn’t even meant to keep him out) and anything that can’t fend for itself. But Kong’s biggest task is keeping the vicious “Skull Crawlers” in check.
These bipedal reptiles have skull-like armor on their heads, are clever, and highly aggressive. According to John C. Reilly’s Marlow, the Kongs evolved as the islanders’ protectors ages ago. But Kong is now the last of his species, as his parents were both killed by “The Big One:” An enormous Skull Crawler that is currently in hibernation. However, Packard’s attempts to kill Kong create enough of a cacophony that the Alpha-Crawler makes an appearance in the film’s final act.
And while the movie is successful in giving us fantastic creatures to gawk at or cheer for, KONG: SKULL ISLAND comes up short with its human characters. The vast majority are fodder for the monstrous residents of the titular island, leaving us with a small handful of poorly developed main characters. Both Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston are wasted here, as they don’t really do anything of consequence, except help humanize Kong in a handful of scenes. John Goodman’s Bill Randa also doesn’t have much to do, other than help tie this film into the same universe as Gareth Edwards’ GODZILLA.
Samuel L. Jackson fares better in his role as Packard, a career soldier who trades one Cong for another. Angry that America is pulling out of Vietnam because of a lack of popular support at home, he eagerly jumps at another chance to go out into the field. But what should have been a simple recon mission, turns into a personal war when he loses numerous troops in their first engagement against Kong. He is so single-minded in his quest for revenge, that even when he’s faced with a bigger threat, Packard still decides that taking Kong out first is top priority.
But all is not lost Vault Dwellers because John C. Reilly saves the day as Hank Marlow! Trapped for twenty-eight years on the island, Marlow has been living among its people, who are shockingly not the stereotypical black “primitives” we’ve seen in every other American-made KONG film. Hank is super likable, and dreams of returning home so he can see his family, and watch a Cubs game while enjoying a beer and a hotdog! He may be a little crazy, but he’s genuine, and funny, and has a lot of heart. Hank Marlow is easily one of the best things about the film, and I’d personally welcome a spin-off movie chronicling his early years trapped on Skull Island!
KONG: SKULL ISLAND really hit the spot, and left me craving more! It creates a world with its own distinct mythology, further establishes Monarch, and also confirms the Hollow Earth Theory. This would explain why humanity hasn’t seen any “monsters” since they tried nuking Godzilla at Bikini Atoll in 1954! It also creates the possibility that hundreds of “mega cryptids” are hibernating beneath the Earth’s crust, and just waiting to come out of suspended animation to take back the planet from us puny humans! (As hinted at in the film’s after-credits sequence!)
Watching KONG: SKULL ISLAND made me feel like a kid again, and filled me with pure unmitigated joy! It’s a great adventure that delivers laughs and thrills, and I wasn’t bored with it for a minute. While the bulk of the characters are admittedly one-dimensional, the film makes up for it with great visuals, and some truly memorable action sequences. Kong is back in a big way, and I cannot wait to see him trade blows with the “King of the Monsters” as Legendary continues to build their cinematic universe. I loved KONG: SKULL ISLAND, and happily award it with: