It’s 1973 and strange things are happening on an uncharted island in the South Pacific. To beat the Russians to the punch, the U.S. government sends a disparate team of soldiers, trackers, scientists and explorers to map the area, and investigate both the surface, and what lies beneath. What they find above ground is King Kong and a whole host of terrifying monsters. Living below is something much worse.
New Spin on an Old Tale
The King Kong story has been told multiple times onscreen. The brilliant, tragic 1933 original and beautiful, overlong 2005 remake revolved around film crews heading to Skull Island in search of the legendary creature. The underwhelming 1976 effort concerned an oil company getting more than it bargained for when hunting untapped deposits in the same location. All three films ended in death and destruction.
This new version – helmed by Kings of Summer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts – instead begins that way, the carnage kicking off almost immediately in a film that combines spectacular creature feature with violent war movie for a wholly unique monster mash.
That war is Vietnam, a conflict that makes its presence felt throughout proceedings. Though the film actually starts over the South Pacific in 1944, with Japanese and American soldiers doing battle in the air, then parachuting into Skull Island, where their battle continues on the ground. Until they are rudely interrupted by a giant, ape-like creature. Who seems to be King of them parts.
We’re then transported to Washington in 1973, where anti-Vietnam protests are in full swing. Bill Randa (John Goodman) – a senior official with shady organisation Monarch – is endeavouring to convince a government suit to fund his expedition to the mysterious island. One where myth and science apparently meet.
In spite of the fact that it’s surrounded by a perpetual storm system, and referred to as “the land where god did not finish creation,” Landa nevertheless seals the deal and so starts assembling his team.
The Main Players
His diverse group includes tracker and former SAS man James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), Monarch biologist San Lin (Jing Tian) and U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson).
There are also other assorted officials, scientists, and army grunts, some of whom have personalities – most notably those played by Shea Whigham and Thomas Mann – and others that are so disposable they may as well be wearing red shirts.
And die they do, the kills spread out pretty consistently over the film’s two-hour runtime. It starts when the weather turns as the army helicopters approach Skull Island. Those that make it through the storm drop bombs for reasons too ridiculous to explain here. Their efforts damage the delicate eco-system, stir the ancient species living below ground, and seriously annoy Kong above it.
His first appearance proper is therefore pretty intense, with the big guy apoplectic with rage, and taking it out on those puny army choppers.
Kong’s actions divide the team both literally and ideologically, scattering them to different parts of the island, the scientists in one treacherous region endeavouring to survive, the soldiers in another looking to kill. And that’s where the real problems begin, as Kong isn’t the only monstrous creature in town.
And while we won’t spoil the many surprises that Skull Island throws at the screen, we will say that those averse to creepy crawlies will probably want to avert their eyes from here on in.
Which makes for some impressive action sequences – most notably when nature is taking on man. The visuals are less impressive when it’s nature vs. nature though, with those dust-ups frequently looking like computer-generated blobs rolling around in confusing fashion.
The kills are suitably gory and hilariously unpleasant, however. Best is a blackly comic moment that’s set up as a noble disaster movie death, then ends up being anything but.
The Secret Weapon
Indeed Skull Island has its tongue placed firmly in cheek throughout, with screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Derek Connolly and Max Bornstein capturing the war parallels, but also embracing the ridiculous elements of the Kong story; the narrative and dialogue remaining just the right side of silly.
Their secret weapon isn’t a prehistoric beast however, but rather John C. Reilly. As a somewhat unhinged soldier who has spent nearly 30 years on the island, he’s part comic relief, part cipher for the plot, and steals every scene that he’s in.
Jackson also plays it large as the army man trying to kill Kong, his character a combination of Captain Ahab and Colonel Kurtz, but with that trademark Samuel L. attitude thrown in for good measure.
The seasoned pair outshine Hiddleston, whose stubble makes his delicate features a little more rugged, but who nevertheless fails to convince as British Special Forces. Indeed when Kong does have his ‘beauty and the beast’ moment with Larson’s character, you half-expect the beast – dazzled by those cheekbones and lulled by that soothing cut-glass accent – to gather up Tom instead. Which would certainly put a progressive twist on the tale.
As for Kong himself, he’s a thing of beauty, his size unimaginable, but his kind eyes and noble behaviour suggesting a creature of great humanity. You actually don’t see a huge amount of him in the film, but that makes his jaw-dropping appearances all-the-more-memorable. And the moment the filmmakers set up the inevitable sequel a little more bearable.
Is Kong: Skull Island Good?
Beyond the action, the humour, the effects, and those larger-than-life performances, what really sets Skull Island apart from the majority of monster movies is Vietnam. The film takes place during the conflict, and seen through that lens, America’s failing informs the behaviour of many of the characters.
The visuals are obviously inspired by films about that period – most notably Apocalypse Now – while napalm is used to similarly catastrophic effect. The music too, is of the era, with the likes of Credence Clearwater Revival and Jefferson Airplane scoring the action just as they soundtracked combat for many American soldiers.
And ultimately the confrontations with Kong himself can be seen as a metaphor for the war. The way the soldiers underestimate their enemy. The way their campaign quickly turns into a no-win situation for both sides. And the way attitudes change as hostilities progress.
Which makes Skull Island a little more than the sum of its parts. Because while the film is an entertaining action-adventure in the tradition of The Lost World and Indiana Jones, it also sneaks in an anti-war message that’s really quite affecting. So while the action underlines why Kong is King, it’s the drama that resonates, lending events an unexpected gravitas that elevates the proceedings – making this the best version of the story since that 1933 original.