Kong: Skull Island compares to an animated theme-park ride (valiantly, I must add). An exciting, Vietnam-era coaster enclosed by digital screens. From Kong’s hasty introduction, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts asserts his reboot with a mighty roar. Gone is Peter Jackson’s flabby primate, traded for a muscular, toned God-figure who’s been maxing his jungle gym membership. Tight glutes (like, super-defined) will come in handy when challenging Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, but that’s a few years down the road still. First comes a military invasion sold on scientific motivations, and a lunatic commander who calls for Kong’s monstrous head. Hold on to your butts (Oh yea, Sammy J. resurrects our favorite quote), crank some Creedence and pick a side – the king is back, baby.
Vogt-Roberts opens on Monarch brass Bill Randa (John Goodman), who secures government approval for an uncharted island expedition. The mystery landmass – dubbed “Skull Island” – is said to house legendary beasts, like some primordial fantasy. Randa and sidekick Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) lead a geographical mission to the unknown site, escorted by Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his helicopter squadron.
Ex-SAS Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is hired as the group’s expert tracker, and photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) tags along for the story. Easy in-and-out research, right? Nah. Their seismic explosions beckon an enraged primate who stands stories tall, in full defensive mode. One by one, Lt. Packard’s birds are swatted from the sky, tallying unforeseen casualties. Can the remaining survivors rendezvous in time and catch a ride off Skull Island? Or will Kong’s land of the lost swallow them whole…
Now, Hollywood trends may have you expecting Kong: Skull Island to be another gritty reboot. Fair assumption, but untrue. Vogt-Roberts wields a tremendous sense of adventure (re: The Kings Of Summer) here, accelerating drama so Giant vs. Giant brawls remind of nature’s primal fury. Chest-beating war cries usher in gargantuan adversaries, as puny humans are caught underfoot while mighty warriors dwarf crumbling mountains.
This works to ensure hoots and hollers can be heard throughout excitable audiences, but Vogt-Roberts cuts emotional character ties in the process. You know who’s going to live, you know who’s going to die. “Yay, let’s all celebrate a momentary victory where nothing bad will happen!” – andddddddd there goes generic scientist #2, grabbed and dismembered by flying sawblade-nose reptiles. Right. Nature is a brutal sonofabitch. Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm might have something to say in these moments.
John Gatins’ story explores all things Kong, from man’s God-complex to ancient beginnings. Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly collaborate on a screenplay that recognizes human insignificance, but fumbles dramatic composure. We’re introduced to a core group of Charlie-chewing grunts (Jason Mitchell/Shea Whigham/Thomas Mann/Eugene Cordero), yet right before imminent attacks, the camera reveals never-before-seen extras in military fatigues. Gee, wonder who might be on the menu?
Vogt-Roberts serves up (PG-13) brutality, but at the expense of character depth beyond “rugged survivalist,” “crazy-eyed company man” and “blonde photographer.” Soldiers are chomped, squashed and incinerated with animistic abandon, like countless NPCs dying in a video game cut scene. The body count grows, but with a cold detachment that’s never meant to drive story. Poor bastards are shoved into focus only to become a meal. As Conrad quips, “The most beautiful places are often the most dangerous.” Welcome to Skull Island. Dangerous to all, but especially for Vogt-Roberts’ equivalent to a Red Shirt.
Such is the price of sun-soaked, monster mashin’ entertainment. And you know what? Vogt-Roberts still makes sure that Kong: Skull Island is worth more than the price of admission.
Apocalypse Now influences paint an untamed, humid island with luscious accents, which are doubly-intense when “Skullcrawlers” threaten normality. Picturesque freeze-frames of Kong outline his breathtaking figure – a scorching sun blasting from behind, reddish skies mirroring the blood about to be spilled. Scenery sprouts colorful foliage, as landscapes find more personality than human characters. Bone graveyards choked by thick, green gas. Marshy pools of water that mimic war-time rice paddies. A native village populated by mute, painted monk-types. Vision and location lay the foundation for exotic carnage, both of which Vogt-Roberts delivers with visceral deliciousness.
Action sequences do well to minimize the role of man. It’s the first act’s aerial gunshow that provokes Kong into a metal-crunching rage, with whirlybirds being twisted like tin cans as a 60s rock soundtrack tweaks in and out of focus. Randa, Lt. Packard, Conrad – everyone caught in Kong’s fury – are so helplessly unprepared to face the unexpected, awe-struck by a miles-high monkey laying waste to bomb-happy invaders. It’s such a catastrophic sight to behold, leading to smaller altercations on hallowed ground.
A gas-mask wearing Conrad goes katana-up into a cloud of toxic smoke, landing the film’s primo grab-your-armrest moment (Hiddleston chopping his way through smog, tightly-shirted, muscles bulging). Mounted machine guns turn animal bones into bunkers. Tiny men aim their rifles high, stinging Kong with bullets that feel like a dull mosquito bite. Sound trivial? Of course.
Kong is the mightiest warrior, as he pummels a mama Skullcrawler in WWE fashion. Headlocks, suplexes, a chain-and-boat-propeller swung with king-sized fury. Lt. Packard’s napalm lake evens the score as he stares into the eyes of manifested fears (PTSD, serving no purpose after war), but Kong’s barbaric acrobatics showcase brute force on an unmatched scale (motion-captured by actor Toby Kebbell, nonetheless).
Performances are never dull, but characters do seem to duel for importance. Hiddleston charms as the cheeky British tour guide, Larson sports heroism as a war-time photog with an anti-war agenda, Samuel L. Jackson hides psychotic pain behind two dead-focused eyes – all standard Vietnam-era motivations. Mitchell/Mann/Cordero represent the young bucks who are unprepared to face worldly horrors, while Whigham’s raspy vet couldn’t be less bothered by spiders the size of Boeing airliners.
Goodman’s self-obsessed conspiracy theories balance Jackson’s own suicide mission, yet their at-odds tension gets lost amidst too many faces with varying importance. Does Hawkins’ romance matter? You’ll barely remember him or Tian Jing. Does Kebbell sell his character’s country-boy drawl? HA. Does Marc Evan Jackson serve any purpose other than to die horribly? Of course not. You’re here for the Kong
butt chaos, so focus up.
Even with all those famous names – and a hulking mega ape – John C. Reilly shines brightest as a time-traveling tour guide who holds everything together. Hank Marlow is a LUNATIC. This unkempt visitor who dreams of the family he left for war (like, WWII). A bearded pilot whose too-many years on Skull Island have left him disoriented, outdated and wiser for it. He respects Kong, and tells guardian fables.
Mitchell and Mann attempt out-of-touch humor by way of “HOLY SHIT LOOK AT THAT GIGANTIC MONKEY,” but Reilly’s arc is the only one we remotely invest in, therefore defining a humorous persona. Plus, he gets the film’s only F-bomb (remember, PG-13), and who better to describe freakshow-sized ants? Reilly’s a hero, mad-mechanic and bumbling sweetheart all rolled into one perplexing package, but his inclusion is crucial. If only for unhinged threats towards John Ortiz, and one hell of a Dr. Steve Brule bomber-jacket-tie-in.
The legacy of Kong is born anew with Kong: Skull Island, under the nurturing care of zookeeper Jordan Vogt-Roberts. All the staples are checked. Kong is failed by human society, breaks from binding chains and shows affection towards Brie Larson’s soft-eyed dame. Man goes mad with power, only to face natural checks and balances with no prejudice (Goodman’s opening Trump zinger wasn’t an accident). It might be jokier than Edwards’ grim Godzilla, but Kong: Skull Island is equally cinematic in its Saigon haze. Hyper-realized locales, agriculture and violent jungle boogies all pop, as one mighty mammal pounds his pecs with a boastful bravado. Thanks to Mr. Vogt-Roberts, Kong is King once again. Except this time, we’re on his turf.
Kong: Skull Island is a grand cinematic adventure powered by furry fury, as the horrors of war blend with chest-beating creature confidence.