By: Heather Seebach
With seven previous films, Kong was not exactly begging for another incarnation; but with his lizard king counterpart getting the modern American treatment in Gareth Edwards' Godzilla, we knew the big ape couldn't be far behind. Much like that film, Kong: Skull Island was surprisingly entrusted to a relative newcomer, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Prior to helming Godzilla, Edwards had at least cut his teeth on a big monster movie with Monsters, but Vogt-Roberts' only feature at the time was the independent coming-of-age comedy, The Kings of Summer. While that was a fantastic movie, it's a bit surprising he would be plucked to helm a giant ape action film. Thank goodness for it, though; this trend of giving indie filmmakers the reins to blockbusters is great for artists and films alike.
With Skull Island, Vogt-Roberts draws from very unexpected influences, ranging from nature documentaries to Apocalypse Now. Whereas Godzilla has along been a metaphor for nuclear weaponry and its consequences, this version of Kong touches on war and imperialism. The film is appropriately set at the end of the Vietnam War as U.S. forces are pulling out. When government researchers (John Goodman, Corey Hawkins) are looking to study the uncharted Skull Island, a dejected Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) jumps at the opportunity for one last mission. Joining the crew is a jungle tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and a photographer (Brie Larson). Needless to say, they find more than they bargained for when they meet the island's colossal primate inhabitant.
John C. Reilly also joins the crew and easily steals the movie, at least as far as characters are concerned. Frankly, most of the lead actors are boring and underused. Hiddleston and Larson are both incredible actors, and yet they are completely wasted in this film. Reilly is easily the MVP and brings more emotion to the film than one might expect. Besides him, Jackson is also very good as the Colonel Kurtz-esque soldier with an ape-sized chip on his shoulder. In smaller roles, Shea Whigham and Marc Evan Jackson also steal many-a scene.
Nothing about this movie is subtle. There are primary characters named Conrad and Marlow, just to drive home that Heart of Darkness influence. The film also shamelessly apes (pun intended) Jurassic Park, right down to the moment Samuel L. Jackson exclaims, "Hold onto your butts!" Yes, really. Both thematically and visually, it's about as subtle as King Kong tip-toeing through the jungle. Still, these small transgressions are forgivable thanks to awesome action sequences and the inspired choice to set the story during the Vietnam War, which gives the film a unique look and feel. Expect obligatory (but always awesome) 70s music like CCR and Jefferson Airplane.
The computer-generated FX are top-notch and there is no shortage of giant creatures fighting each other. It is gory and violent in ways that push its PG-13 rating, which is fitting considering the prevalent war theme. Kong's very first appearance is a powerhouse of awesomeness to which the rest of the film never quite lives up but there is plenty more fun thereafter. There is even a bit of humor, though it does not always succeed. For sure, Skull Island's strongest attributes are its 70s-inspired visual style, the war allegory, and some bad-ass gorilla action. It is not a perfect film but it is a damn fun one that should ideally be experienced on the big screen. It is the very definition of a "popcorn flick" plus a little extra food-for-thought, at least for those who remember their history lessons.
(Psst, make sure to stay until after the end credits!)