There are two things I’m very leary of these days in big-budget studio films. One is handing over a giant franchise or otherwise familiar property (like King Kong, for example) to a director who has only one or two, small-budget, indie works under their belt but little experience dealing with the multitude of considerations of something massive and beloved. The other is filmmakers (with any amount of experience) leaning too heavily on nostalgia when attempting to kickstart a new version of something most of us are painfully familiar with. Rather than create something new, these filmmakers (or perhaps their studio overlords) drop in moment after moment, scene after scene that trigger memories of a galaxy far, far away, or a dinosaur playground, or, in the case of filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts, a monster-filled island on which a giant primate is king.
You immediately notice that Vogt-Roberts’s Kong story is not a retelling of a film crew going to an unchartered island in the South Pacific. Kong: Skull Island is specifically set in the 1970s, just as it’s becoming clear that the American war in Vietnam is a lost cause and troops are pulling out en masse. Among those about to take flight (literally) are an assault helicopter team that specializes in air attacks. It just so happens that a special, so-called geographic mapping missing to the mysterious Skull Island needs a military “escort.” But why does this team of geologists and biologists need so many weapons and explosives? Because mission leader Bill Randa (John Goodman) is looking for something on the island that has long been a part of legend but never proven—something he may have some history with. And you get a sense early on that hiring a military escort led by a pissed-off Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who still hates the fact that the job in Vietnam was left unfinished, is maybe not the smartest idea. He’s a soldier looking for a winnable war in this insanely dangerous corner of the world.
To give a sense of time and perspective, Kong: Skull Island actually opens with an aerial battle during World War II, during which both an American and a Japanese pilot end up crashed and stranded on Skull Island, ready to tear each other apart until they realize there’s a bigger and far worse danger to contend with. We then jump ahead nearly 30 years to Randa and his right-hand man Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) begging a senator (Richard Jenkins) for a bit of money to investigate this island before the Russians discover it, and the ploy works. Rounding out the civilian team are hired tracker and former British Special Forces James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), who is confused why he’s being hired to help make maps; “antiwar” photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson); and biologist San (Tian Jing, easily the best part of the recent The Great Wall).
Unlike the most recent American crack at Godzilla a couple years ago, Kong: Skull Island wastes very little time getting to the action. As the military helicopters carrying soldiers and scientists approach the island, all hell breaks loose thanks to a version of Kong that is several times bigger than what we’re used to seeing on film. In fact, at every key moment in this movie, it becomes clearer and clearer that this is not like any version of the Kong story we’ve seen. There are no dinosaurs on Skull Island, but there are certainly a variety of other horrifying, oversized (and creatively designed) monsters. No attempt is really made to take Kong off the island, so we don’t get a scene of him attempting to climb a tall building or even fall in love with a pretty lady, although he and Mason seem to have a connection by the end of the film.
While the banter among the group of scientists does resemble that of the film crew we’re more familiar with, even that dynamic changes with the introduction of John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow character, who apparently lives on the island among the natives, although he is most definitely an American (a fellow Chicagoan actually, who has more than a few questions about the Cubs). More interesting and potentially explosive is the way the military personnel behave. Packard is determined to find his scattered team and formulate a plan to take down Kong, who has already killed many of his men. If nothing else, Kong: Skull Island is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the acting talent on display. Other soldiers are played by the like of Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Jason Mitchell, Eugene Cordero, and Toby Kebbell (a motion-capture expert, who also lends his talents to bringing Kong to life).
With the human invaders split up on opposite ends of the island trying to find each other, a great deal of the film is spent going back and forth between the two groups, while also trying to figure out exactly what the hell is going on on this island where the rules of evolution have gone a bit wonky. I particularly liked the dynamic between Hiddleston and Larson, whose characters treat each other as equals, rather than her needing him to rescue her. Both of them benefit from being given a harder edge, and it makes them more relatable in a way. The military characters are more broadly drawn, and the idea that they need something they can actually defeat in order to feel less broken by what happened in Vietnam doesn’t quite hold together, but that’s hard to argue when Jackson is being a particularly nasty S.O.B., standing up against Kong, whom we know early on is not the real enemy (the real enemy is a nasty bunch of creatures that Marlow labels “Skull Crawlers,” before instantly regretting the choice).
There’s no denying that Vogt-Roberts, working with a screenplay credited to Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly, are channeling Apocalypse Now for a great deal of Kong: Skull Island, from the classic rock music choices and breathtaking shots of a fleet of helicopters descending on a seemingly helpless island, to Marlow bouncing around a group of locals like Dennis Hopper or Packard’s Capt. Willard-like focus (I guess that makes Kong Col. Kurtz?). It’s an ambitious take on the material, providing a great deal of dramatic visuals and more emotional depth than the human characters are often granted in monster movies.
Aside from the great action sequences, the awe-inspiring special effects, and fantastic performances, Kong: Skull Island also looks stunning. After all, this is an island in the South Pacific. Why shouldn’t it be gorgeous during sunsets and sunrises? If you’re looking for deep character development, you might want to look elsewhere, but I’m guessing you’re walking into this film to see giant creatures and mass destruction, so fully formed characters might not be on the top of your list of priorities. Thankfully, Vogt-Roberts doesn’t get lost in dropping in too many easter-egg references to other Kong films and seems perfectly content in making this Kong movie into his own unique experience. More Asian monster movie than American giant-animal attack film, this movie is rich and unfiltered entertainment, and further proof that the summer movie season now begins in late winter.