by Justin MadoreIt’s been awhile (by contemporary standards) since filmgoers have seen everyone’s favorite supersized gorilla on the big screen. After a 12-year absence, Legendary Pictures has brought King Kong back to the big screen by way of their blossoming cinematic “monsterverse,” which started in 2014 with the successful reboot of Godzilla. Kong: Skull Island is clearly a continuation of what Godzilla started — a reimagining of classic monster movies for new audiences. However, it’s also clear that the film exists to fulfill a corporate agenda and work towards building this monsterverse into a billion-dollar franchise. With that in mind, unlike films like Batman v Superman, Kong succeeds at what it sets out to be, which is a finely paced and edited action film with some great effects and set pieces.
The film takes places almost entirely in 1973, during the end of the Vietnam War. Bill Randa (played by John Goodman) is a struggling scientist desperate to prove that monsters exist, so when he discovers an opportunity to piggyback off a military mission to go to an uncharted Island in the South Pacific, he gathers his team. The film very quickly introduces its key characters, with veteran and new actors alike making up an impressively large cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann and Tom Hiddleston. Afraid of being ostracized by his colleagues once again, Randa doesn’t disclose his belief that the island is inhabited by a monster to his team.
From the get-go, it’s apparent that the producers of Skull Island were fully aware of the criticisms leveled at Godzilla three years ago, especially the assertions that the lead character lacked any sort of charisma (sorry, Aaron-Taylor Johnson), and that Godzilla himself wasn’t on screen enough. In Skull Island, Kong is the star of the show, and as such, he gets as much screen time as everyone else. This is definitely for the better, as this new 100 foot-tall version of Kong is menacing, violent, and awesome. He’s much more human looking than previous incarnations, although still unmistakably an ape. Additionally, the texture on his body reflects his experiences in the film, with his skin getting noticeably rougher as the story progresses. He’s a wonder to behold as he easily swats helicopters out of the air and does battle with the feared lizard-like “skull crawlers.” These creatures (as well as the others that make appearances) are all intelligently designed to fit within the ecosystem of the film and make for some of the more interesting set pieces I’ve seen this year.
No one in the cast is as depressingly boring as most of the characters in Godzilla, but that doesn’t mean much. Most of the characters are archetypes, whether it’s Hiddleston’s mercenary with a heart, Larson’s tough-girl journalist who cares about truth, or Jackson’s jingoistic militant who will stop at nothing to destroy the enemy. However, I honestly found this to be perfectly fine. The cast is massive, and it’d run into pacing and length problems if it attempted to fully flesh out its main characters. Instead, the film relies heavily on the actors’ screen presence and charisma to carry things, and that mostly works. The one human character who has some depth is John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow, an American pilot who crashed on the island during WWII and has since been living there with the natives. He’s gone a little bit cuckoo in the 29 years he’s spent there, and this proves to be right up Reilly’s alley, as he plays the character with a balance of eccentricity and genuine emotion.The pace of the film is brisk and rife with action. Given the aforementioned massive cast, there are plenty of people to kill off, and the script wastes no time in doing so. But while the action is great, not every death lands right, and some are certainly not earned. A few of them are particularly jarring, and not in an emotional way. It was more like, “Did that guy really just get killed off? I thought he was important to the story.” Despite this, it fits with the way that the screenwriters decided to tackle the characters as archetypes. If there’s not any time spent developing them, why should they get memorable deaths? It all fits within Kong: Skull Island’s greater theme of fun above all else. The movie is much more interested in gorilla wrestling and napalm than character development, and that may be a problem for some.
There are good arguments to be made that previous iterations of King Kong were either overtly racist or had heavy shades of racism. Whether it be the increasingly common argument that in the 1933 film, Kong is a metaphor for the black man trying to steal away a white woman, or the handling of the natives in Jackson’s 2005 interpretation, ugly thematic connections have followed the property, but none of that is present here. Kong isn’t a metaphor and the natives of Skull Island aren’t caricatures of an era long since passed. Viewers can go see a Kong movie and get exactly what they want: a movie about a giant gorilla smashing things.
Kong: Skull Island screams “crowd-pleaser.” It’s almost exactly what it advertises, and when all you want is to spend an afternoon at the cinema watching an action movie, this checks off all the boxes. There’s an iconic character, decent action, and a cast with an enormous amount of star power. It may not be overly exceptional at anything, but this is not a movie that’s particularly ambitious in the first place. The film only focuses on a few things, and it’s much better for that decision. It’s a step above most big-budget films, especially compared to last year. I’m happy to say that Skull Island is a worthy update of the Kong legend and an entertaining film in its own right.
3.5 out of 5 stars