We may not like to admit it, but deep down, we’re all simple creatures. The things that tickle our fancy are sometimes no more complicated that a savory cut of beef or the sight of two fighters wailing away on one another.
Kong: Skull Island appeals to that part of our primal neanderthal brains in grand fashion. It’s a giant monster movie that gives no quarter to the self-serious navel-gazing and endless teasing that plagued Gareth Edwards’ 2014 take on Godzilla. No, this is a monster movie that knows what we want to see and offers it up until we’re damn near sick of it. It sketches a story in around the margins about humanity’s obsession with conquest, but Skull Island knows good and well what it is we’re paying to see.
The year is 1973 and government agent Randa (John Goodman) puts together a mission to explore a newly discovered island in Southeast Asia. He believes this island to be the home of some kind of giant monster, and intends to beat the Russians to discovering it. Randa commissions a helicopter squadron led by Samuel L. Jackson’s Lt. Col. Packard, as well as peacenik photojournalist Weaver (Brie Larson) and ex-SAS tracker Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Also along for the ride are Packard’s second-in-command Chapman (Toby Kebbell), Randa’s research assistant Brooks (Corey Hawkins) and a whole gaggle of cannon fodder.
The film wastes no time getting us to Skull Island, as the squadron drops seismic charges across the landscape to the tune of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”. Everything seems to be going great, and the troops are having the time of their lives blasting the hell out of this unknown island. Then, all of a sudden, one of the choppers is impaled by a flying tree. Kong appears on the horizon, standing defiant and unfathomably tall. This is not the same Kong we saw in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. This Kong is something more mythic. He stands upright and intently stares down any and all foes. He is the willful protector of this island, and the natives worship him like a god. We come to understand that Kong’s sympathies lie with those who value life rather than destroy it.
Right away, the Vietnam metaphors begin stacking up. The film takes great pains to evoke that era, right down to cribbing a dozen shots from Apocalypse Now (not to mention aping its poster) and borrowing every Vietnam-era tune Forrest Gump hadn’t already ruined. The moment our cast crash lands on the island, they find themselves right back in the shit as it seems like every creature wants to have them for lunch. It makes for stirring spectacle, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a point to it other than illustrating that war is hell. The dissonance does not go unnoticed, either. After Kong’s first attack, one of the soldiers asks why nobody is talking about the giant ape that just swatted them out of the sky. It’s almost played off as a joke.
Skull Island is a whirling dervish of disparate tones. Our first encounters with the island are violent and brutal; there’s something genuinely sickening about watching soldiers and scientists being picked off one by one by CGI monstrosities. From spiders the size of trees to pterodactyls with razor sharp beaks, everything on this island could end you in a second. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts builds a palpable sense of danger in these moments, as it seems like anyone could be the next to go. Other scenes play up film’s comedic side, with John C. Reilly providing much of the comic relief as Marlow, a fighter pilot who’s been stranded on Skull Island since World War II.
Reilly’s bumbling pilot schtick may seem to throw the film’s tone way off balance, but it’s a crucial counterbalance for all of the jarring violence going on in the jungle. Marlow has made a home for himself among the natives, and his vague sketch of a character (part of which we see during the prologue) is easily the most interesting thing going on in this film. Conrad may be searching for some greater purpose, Weaver may be after a Pulitzer, but it’s Marlow—the crazy goober who’s spent the last twenty years talking to himself—who somehow has the most compelling backstory. He gives a sweet little monologue about the one thing he wants most in the entire world, and it’s enough to immediately endear him to us. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson trade quips about each other’s jobs, but at no point do they actually state their purpose. They’re here because a Kong movie demands a dashing hero and a de facto damsel.
Perhaps if the film weren’t in such a hurry, it might have found the time to give its characters room to breathe. Richard Pearson’s editing is relentless, bouncing from one action sequence to the next with little time for the audience to find our bearings. The movie is in such a hurry to get to these fights that it nearly strangles the life out of its characters. This would be more of a complaint if the action weren’t so exhilarating. The first encounter with Kong is chaotic and awe-inspiring in equal measure, and his final showdown with the giant lizards Marlow dubs ‘Skullcrawlers’ is a knockdown drag-out brawl for the ages. There are certain cuts during the fight that feel like cheats, but with so many CGI fists flying, it’s hard to get hung up on insert shots.
At this point, you know if Kong: Skull Island is for you.
If you’re already partial to schlocky monster movies, you’ll find more than enough to keep you entertained. And if this is your cup of tea, you should know that there’s a special treat waiting for you after the credits. They’re teeing up something huge with this film, and only time will tell whether or not they’ll be able to nail it. But for now, know that the hype is real. Skull Island’s Vietnam parallels may not be entirely warranted, but they make for a dazzling spectacle all the same.
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