At first, I might compare Kong: Skull Island to the trend of special effects-oriented action movies that were everywhere in the 1990s, because the mayhem is easily on par with such. But director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and a game writing crew have managed to craft a monster movie that, while tongue-in-cheek and not especially deep, is still more intelligent and has more affection for its characters than something like Armageddon or the 1998 Godzilla. Despite how thin the story is, there are enough solid performances from most of the cast to keep the audience invested in the crew’s fight for survival.
Various characters are allowed to have their own unique experience when they encounter the massive monkey. These range from sympathy in the case of Brie Larson as photographer Mason Weaver, sheer terror from Tom Hiddelston as former Air Service captain James Conrad, or sheer rage on the part of Samuel L. Jackson as. Col. Packard. They’re corralled as part of a motley crew by government agents Bill Randa and Houston Brooks (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) on part of an expedition to Skull Island, where Randa hopes to finally retrieve proof of the strange creatures that exist there. Brooks is in it for the love of science, while Randa simply wants to be taken seriously by his peers.
The setting is 1973, and Vogt-Roberts does utilize the political climate of the time to help define the narrative. The compassionate Weaver is clearly a symbol of the anti-war movement, while Packard- as hinted at subtly by a Richard Nixon bobblehead that rattles when the team travels through a thunderstorm en route to Skull Island, in a visually cool scene- is a war hawk, still bitter about the U.S.’s failure in Vietnam.
And when the titular monster first appears on screen, laying waste to numerous helicopters and soldiers, the colonel vows bloody revenge on Kong. Jackson plays his role deadly serious to a campy degree, and he has enough charisma and presence to believably stare down a giant prehistoric creature without the showdown looking too absurd. Of course Samuel L. Jackson would want to pick a fight with a hundred-foot-tall primate.
When I say that Skull Island isn’t especially deep, that isn’t to imply it’s brainless or idiotic. But the narrative is pretty basic- all this movie truly wants to do is be an entertaining popcorn flick, and it accomplishes that for the most part. But the action is evenly dispensed by smaller moments where the characters are allowed to make connections. The protagonists are likable and clearly care about one another, and the motivations of the villains make sense. Kong for his part, like the Godzilla featured in Gareth Edwards’s 2014 film, is presented ambiguously- not outright heroic, but never a completely heartless beast.
Two ways in which this recent film feels so different from the 2014 Godzilla is through its humor and humanity. John C. Reilly provides plenty of both as a World War 2 pilot living on the island after being shot down thirty years prior, and he has a great, well-rounded performance here. Even among such an all-star cast of actors, he still stands out with some of the funnier lines and more heartfelt moments as he aims to hopefully reunite with his wife. For what they’re given, Hiddelston and Larson are appealing action heroes, and Goodman even in a supporting role is always memorable.
That last film from Legendary Pictures had some enjoyable mayhem, but the human characters (with maybe the exception of Bryan Cranston as a grieving scientist) felt bland and rather flat. The cast of Skull Island has more of a camaraderie with each other, and in between running from and shooting at the various creatures attacking, they’re at least allowed a handful of moments to laugh, work together and mourn their lost friends. These parts seem insignificant at first, but they gradually built up to where I knew I definitely cared about what was happening to the characters and wanted to see them escape. But nevertheless, this film is mostly big, loud and chaotic, and most moviegoers are buying tickets for it to see the title character smash things and roar. Terry Notary shines as Kong himself through motion capture, and his fight scenes alone are worth the price of admission.
One factor about this film that makes it so entertaining is its gleeful, borderline B-movie sense of enthusiasm. Whereas Edwards was more solemn with the approach to his material and held off Godzilla’s reveal for roughly an hour, Vogt-Roberts is almost like “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if ____?” Only using as much exposition as it needs to, the movie wastes little time in getting to what most people were hoping for, and fortunately most of the buildup is well done enough to where it doesn’t feel like a slog getting to the next big action scene.
Overall, I wouldn’t brand Kong: Skull Island a blow away, great monster movie, but I wasn’t bored and my intelligence wasn’t insulted, so I do recommend it. It’s an entertaining start for what Warner Bros. hopes will be one of their next big franchises.