Kong: Skull Island *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
Written by: Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly and John Gatins.
Starring: Tom Hiddleston (James Conrad), Samuel L. Jackson (Preston Packard), Brie Larson (Mason Weaver), John C. Reilly (Hank Marlow), John Goodman (Bill Randa), Corey Hawkins (Houston Brooks), John Ortiz (Victor Nieves), Tian Jing (San), Toby Kebbell (Jack Chapman / Kong), Jason Mitchell (Mills), Shea Whigham (Cole), Thomas Mann (Slivko), Eugene Cordero (Reles), Marc Evan Jackson (Landsat Steve) Richard Jenkins (Senator Willis).
I liked Gareth Edward’s 2014 version of Godzilla for many of the reasons others didn’t like it – I enjoyed the fact that the human characters were pretty much useless – coming up with one ill-fated plan after another, none of which ever end up working. I also enjoyed the fact that the movie played hide and seek with the monsters for much of the runtime – either showing them from a distance through news footage, or putting us on the ground with the humans, who are so dwarfed by the magnificent creatures, it’s hard to get a complete view of them. Kong Skull Island takes place in the “same universe” as that film did – and it shares a few things in common with it. In both films, humans are essentially to blame for what happens to them, and powerless to stop it, try as they might. But it does seem like the studio has in other ways taken the advice of the people who didn’t like Godzilla as much – this is a film that puts Kong front and center nearly from beginning to end – leaving its talented human cast as basically cookie cutter afterthoughts. The film, which is set in 1973 at the tail end of the Vietnam War, also – oddly – plays a lot on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – the greatest film ever made – in some ways that made me smile, and others that made me groan. I’m not sure the film really works – it certainly isn’t a match for Godzilla, one of my favorite blockbusters of recent years – but it is a hell of a lot fun – and that counts for a lot in a film about a giant monkey killing things.
The film is set right as the withdrawal from Vietnam is happening. Someone, the crazed Bill Randa (John Goodman) – the head of some weird, government agency whose job is apparently to hunt from giant monsters – convinces a Senator to send him and his team of scientists to the newly discovered Skull Island – which Randa thinks may prove his theory of giant pockets of hollow earth that would house giant creatures (some 40 years later in this universe, people still don’t believe this in Godzilla). Randa gets a military escort – led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) – a true believer pissed that they are “abandoning” the war in Vietnam, alongside an expert tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and a war photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who corrects Conrad by saying she is an “anti-war” photographer – whatever the hell that means., They show up on the the island, drop depth charges so they can “map” it – and Kong show sup to discover their puny helicopters. The survivors now have a few days to make it to the other side of the island to be picked up – or presumably, they’ll be stranded forever. And considering Hank Marlowe (John C. Reilly) has been stranded there since being shot down in WWII – and gone slightly crazy in the past 30 years – they don’t want that.
There are a lot of character in Kong: Skull Island – too many really, since the movie isn’t really interested in any of them. Only a few are memorable days after seeing the film – Samuel L. Jackson’s mad Colonel Kurtz like character, gone crazy in his mission to “not lose” this war as well, and kill Kong – even after it becomes clear he really isn’t the bad guy – and there are real bad guys there (they look kind of like the muttos in Godzilla – but only kind of). When John C. Reilly shows up, he steals the movie, with his crazed comic performance, whose every line reading is a delight. The rest of the cast though kind of blends into the background – both Huddleston and Larson are more than capable of being the charming leads at the center of the movie, but neither is given anything to do except the obvious – Huddleston’s job is to basically look ruggedly handsome (success!) and Larson’s job is to NOT be a damsel in distress throughout (again, success, I guess). This does point to something else the movie attempts to do – which is to go against the somewhat problematic history of Kong – seeing Kong himself as a “dangerous other” – a dark sexual predator after the pretty blonde, and the tribe on the island being complete savages. Kong Skull Island deliberately sets out not the do that – Kong himself seems to like Larson’s Mason, but their interactions are drained of those sexual under currents, and the islands natives are basically wordless and peaceful (does that fall into another cultural stereotype? Perhaps – but it’s not as offensive, so let’s chalk that up as a win).
Besides, Kong Skull Island knows that you’re there to see Kong smash things, and the film really does deliver the goods on that level. From the opening battles against the fleet of helicopters that come to attack, to various sequences on Kong battling his arch nemesis’ from beneath the island, to an amusing fight with a giant octopus, Kong Skull Island is a triumph of giant monster battling action. This Kong isn’t given the personality of Peter Jackson’s Kong (another film I like more than many) – but he battles wonderfully.
The film was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts – another of those indie directors given a couple hundred million to make a blockbuster after one indie hit (in his case, that would be 2013’s The Kings of Summer – a movie I remember not much liking the time). Unlike Edwards – whose indie film was Monsters, which was appropriately enough about giant monsters, why they thought of Vogt-Roberts to do this film is a mystery to me – but he mainly pulls it off. There are some clever jokes around the edges of the film – and some of the subtler references to Apocalypse Now are fun as well. No, Kong: Skull Island isn’t a great film – and perhaps if it was released in August, after months of weekly CGI-fests, I’d be harder on it than I’m being now. But it’s March, it’s been a while since I’ve seen some giant monsters do battle – and this film works on that level.