Kong: Skull Island is a monster movie. There’s a big-ass monster, a handful of pretty people, and a huge roster of expendable future-corpses, all trapped on a spooky island. It’s awesome in the most literal sense of the word, and as Chapter Two in the burgeoning ‘MonsterVerse,’ kicked off by 2014’s Godzilla, it’s a strong indicator that we’re headed in the right direction. This is a movie which is all about fun and spectacle. And it delivers. What more could you want?
The precedent is there — giant monster movies have always been about spectacle before anything else. Sure, we can mine thematic weight from just about any kaiju flick, but make no mistake, theater seats are filled with butts due primarily to the promise of good special effects and satisfying carnage. Second comes plot, our vehicle for the spectacle, and third comes story, if it ever comes at all. It’s a formula that can work wonders (Cloverfield), fail miserably (Jurassic World), or just kind of flounder somewhere in the middle (Pacific Rim, sorry). Kong delivers on spectacle and plot, and while the story elements are lacking, they are not missed. The pace of the movie is relentless from the outset, and to waste even an extra second on character development would be to miss the point of the whole thang. Yeah I said thang. This is because the movie’s post-Vietnam setting allows for a hip rock n’ roll soundtrack, which allows me to say “thang” like a real rock n’ roller!
I am a real rock n’ roller!
Ok, maybe not, but this movie does have Toby Kebbell in it, and he was in RocknRolla. So there.
Set in 1973, the film’s visuals borrow heavily from other Vietnam-era tales. If you’ve seen the poster (hint: it’s at the top of this review), the filmmakers are not at all shy about this connection. Swap out Marlon Brando for a similarly-sized ape, and it’s essentially the same design. Hell, Tom Hiddleston plays a character named James Conrad, an obvious nod to the writer of Heart of Darkness. There’s even a line from Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Sam Jackson) regarding his mission to take down the titular ape: “It’s a war we can win.” Yup, that’s some primo post-Vietnam philosophy right there.
Aaaand that’s about as deep as any commentary gets — this is proudly a B movie with an A budget, no more, no less — but lines like that are less about commentary and more about motivating the characters. And when a pissed off soldier declares war on a giant gorilla, you want a little motivation. But I get ahead of myself.
In a mad rush to explore the contents of Skull Island before the Russians do, biologists Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his hollow-Earther colleague, Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) convince their superiors to fund a trip to the mysterious locale, complete with a military escort. They employ a dashing ex-military adventurer (Tom Hiddleston, beaming), and a war photographer (Brie Larson, glowing), to guide and document the exploration. In tow are a bunch of soldiers led by the aforementioned Packard, who despite missing their chance to go home now that the war has ended, relish the opportunity to drop explosive charges on a jungle that isn’t so loaded with controversy.
Unfortunately, it is loaded with monsters. Awesome, huge, gross monsters.
The charges our protagonists drop are intended to help map the geography, but instead they incite the wrath of King Kong, who, in the standout sequence of the film, swats the team’s helicopters from the sky like so many mosquitoes. It’s a galvanizing sequence, as dynamic as it is brutal, and it serves to reduce the numbers of our cast to a manageable level, and divide them into three followable plot lines. From here it’s a race to escape the island without being consumed by the scores of creatively designed beasts which inhabit it. Escape doesn’t interest Packard, however. He just wants vengeance for his fallen men, and will stop at nothing to assert dominance over Kong. God bless Sam Jackson for going all in on this. There are many moments in which he has to stare down a giant ape (and I mean giant – this is the biggest Kong has ever been), and it easily could have come off as ridiculous, but it is instead a scene-chewing good time.
He’s properly motivated, you see.
The violence is stupefying, but due to the thorough motivation behind the actions of our characters, never does it feel cruel in the way that Jurassic World did. Remember the scene when the personal assistant character gets ripped to shreds by a variety of dinosaurs? Remember how mean it felt? While the gore-hound in me wanted to relish in the creative brutality, the human in me just found it tasteless. The way Jurassic World was framed almost made it feel like this character, the only person in the entire movie who acted from any sort of logical standpoint, was being punished for her competence. It’s weird to draw a line in the sand about such a thing when dealing with what is essentially a creature feature, but on the whole, the cruelty outweighed the novelty (and the last world I’d ever use to describe Jurassic World is ‘fun’). Kong, conversely, uses the same type of brutality-for-the-sake-of-brutality methods of mayhem, and since the characters are all motivated in realistic (or at least thoughtfully written) ways, it makes the carnage purely enjoyable, and no less effective when even the most undeserving character gets brutalized. These moments are surprising — heartbreaking, even — but never cruel. You’ll see what I mean. There’s not much of a morality play going on in regards to dictating whose demise is earned, but the one main theme that runs across all Kong media (and Godzilla too) is consistent and clear as day: Nature wins every time.
I should also mention that John C. Reilly is the best part in every scene he’s in. He plays the guy who’s been stranded on the island since WWII. He knows the ropes, but he’s a little bit batty. The back of his bomber jacket features a Easter egg for my fellow Brule fans out there. You won’t miss it.
So here we are at the doorway to the next big shared universe, complete with a post-credit sequence and the promise of something even bigger in the near future. Even so, Kong, like the earlier MCU entries, tells a complete tale. While it is indeed a piece of a much larger tapestry, we’re not so deep into things where brand management has trumped Kong as king. I suggest we enjoy it while we can. Then again, crossovers are not even remotely new to the monster movie game, so maybe this will be the one shared universe that manages to pull it off without reaching a point of dilution.
I am very very excited to see how this all shakes out, and if you aren’t, I don’t think you get it.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.