Kong: Skull Island: Tells a Complete, Coherent, Even Compelling Story

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Editor’s Notes: Kong: Skull Island is currently out in wide theatrical release.

We can thank – or blame, depending on your perspective – the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) for Gareth Edwards’ (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) 2014 remake/reboot of Godzilla three years ago and Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) Vietnam War-era set Kong: Skull Island. Without the multi-billion dollar success of the MCU, studios wouldn’t be so eager to jump into the risky, potentially disastrous shared universe game, but here we are, with a big-budget remake, franchise entry in Warner Bros.’ so-called “MonsterVerse.” Kong is most definitely back and he’s bigger than ever (literally, since he’s roughly four times the size of the 1933 or 2005 version of the character). He’s also a loner, a brooder, and a brawler, preferring peace to violence, but reacting appropriately when interlopers enter into his territory, destroying their machines with extreme prejudice. Like always, he has a soft spot for blondes too, though here, his relationship with Mason Weaver (Oscar winner Brie Larson), an anti-war photojournalist, takes up all of five or six minutes of screen time.

Kong is most definitely back and he’s bigger than ever (literally, since he’s roughly four times the size of the 1933 or 2005 version of the character)  . . .

The CGI Kong (massive, matted-furred, short on personal hygiene) we meet in Kong: Skull Island has enemies, human and non-human. Lt. Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), the senior officer in charge of the helicopter squadron Kong swats out of the sky like toys when they stupidly decide to engage him at shoulder level moments after spotting Kong on Skull Island, tops the list of of hs new foes. Twisted by his experience fighting an unwinnable war, Packard imediately sees Kong as an existental threat, an enemy that must be eliminated before he swims away from Skull Island and causes major property damage in the real world. As a character, Packard has a ready, easy analog in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (Colonel Kurtz) or Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” (Captain Ahab), novels about obsessive, self-destructive, ultimately doomed men. Sometimes, of course, monsters wear human faces. Not that Packard’s point-of-view isn’t relatable. Not surprisingly,  Packard refocuses and rechannels the hatred he’s developed for the Vietcong with the 100-feet-tall Kong. Packard doesn’t realize it yet (the audience does, however), but he’s stepped into the equivalent of “Apocalypse Now” (or “Ape-calypse Now” for the pun-minded).

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Kong doesn’t just knock the helicopter squadron out of the sky, he scatters the helicopters and the survivors across two or three miles. Packard eventually leads one group of survivors, including William “Bill” Panda (John Goodman), the nominal head of the survey expedition funded by the U.S. government, and several soldiers, including Glenn Mills (Jason Mitchell), and Earl Cole (Shea Wigham), a helicopter captain. James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a former British Special Air Service captain turned mercenary (tracker/hunter), leads another group that includes Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), a geologist and proponent of a “hollow Earth” theory, San Lin (Jing Tian), a biologist, Reg Slivko (Thomas Mann), another soldier, and Weaver. Conrad and Weaver eventually encounter Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a WWII pilot stranded on the island for almost 28 years. Half-mad from isolation and surviving on an island crammed with giant monsters eager to make him a mid-day snack, Marlow ends up serving as tour guide (and Exposition Giver) to the island’s newest resident. While Packard hunts down a downed helicopter filled with munitions, Conrad, Weaver and the others head for a remote part of the island for a rendevous with U.S. forces in three day times.

Kong shows up within the first twenty or thirty minutes, a massive silhouette blotting out a giant sun, a stirring, soon-to-be iconic visual . . .

To Vogt-Roberts’ credit – and to be the fair, the production studios, Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, behind Kong: Skull Island – his Kong doesn’t hide in the shadows or sulk offscreen for most of Kong: Skull Island’s running time like Godzilla did three years ago in Edwards’ remake/reboot (you remake a film, you reboot a franchise). Kong shows up within the first twenty or thirty minutes, a massive silhouette blotting out a giant sun, a stirring, soon-to-be iconic visual thanks to Kong: Skull Island’s effects team). Once he’s awakened from his afternoon siesta by Randa and Packard (they drop seismic bombs around the island to the tune of period-specific rock songs), he’s front-and-center, knocking down helicopters, tending to his post-encounter wounds in a nearby river, grabbing a bite to eat (an unsuspecting giant octopus), and protecting his terrority by fighting the island’s giant predators. Kong’s romance with the obligatory blonde, Weaver in this case, barely gets more than a passing nod or mention. Vogt-Roberts pairs up Weaver and Conrad, but the more pressing need to survive takes precedence over romance. In part, that’s welcome since another standard-issue, rote romance would function as a drag on Kong’s re-introduction, but it also leaves Larson and Hiddleston with almost nothing to do except walk at a brisk pace, sweat, and look over their respective shoulders periodically.

Vogt-Roberts and his screenwriting team, Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler, The Bourne Legacy), Max Borenstein (Godzilla), and Derek Connolly (Jurassic World), obviously know their monster movie tropes and hit those tropes hard and often, pitting Kong against one giant monster after another (they also know videogame structure too), but they’re also smart to keep the Packard-Kong feud going until its inevitable conclusion, nodding here and there to Kong’s previous incarnations (the Kong vs. helicopters scene echoes the climax of the 1976 remake, Kong’s knocked out briefly after stepping into a napalm-filled lake, later he’s tangled in the chains and anchors of several shipwrecks), while minimizing the franchise set-up and world-building that can often turn into extended ads for upcoming entries in a shared universe. Minus the “what’s next” end-credits scene, Kong: Skull Island tells a complete, coherent, even compelling story about a giant gorilla who just wants to be left alone to rule his island home in peace. Until he’s inevitably called to save the world, of course, in Godzilla vs. Kong  in 2020.

7.5 GOOD

inus the “what’s next” end-credits scene, Kong: Skull Island tells a complete, coherent, even compelling story about a giant gorilla who just wants to be left alone to rule his island home in peace.

  • 7.5
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About Author

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending New York University as an undergrad (politics and economics double major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco, California, where he's been ever since. Since Mel began writing about film nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.