Full disclosure: the King Kong movies make me emotional. The determination of people to capture the giant ape after barging into his home makes me very anxious for his well-being, rather than that of my fellow humans. It’s a bit of a stressful experience, but I love monster movies, so I persevere.
The latest in the King Kong franchise, Kong: Skull Island, opens on an American soldier and a Japanese soldier crash landing on a remote island in the South Pacific during World War II. As they fight to the death, Kong appears and the film quickly cuts to 1973. Coinciding with the final days of the Vietnam War, Bill Randa (John Goodman) finds satellite evidence of an uncharted island that up to that point had only been know through lore-Skull Island. Using Cold War rhetoric to his advantage, he convinces the government to fund a mission to Skull Island, if only so the Russians don’t get there first. Tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) are commissioned as his escorts. Anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) joins the expedition as part of her pursuit of a Pulitzer, and young scientists San (Tian Jing) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are there to assist Randa with studying the island. As soon as the crew arrives and starts dropping seismic charges (aka bombs), Kong appears, defending his home with a vengeance, and taking the entire fleet of military helicopters out of the sky. Grounded and facing a tight timeline in which they have to get to the other side of the island to meet their ride home, the ragtag team is split between cooperating with the ecosystem of the island or waging war against it.
Writing for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis called Kong: Skull Island a cross between the 1933 classic and Apocalypse Now. This is as apt a description as any, as this movie clearly pays homage to both films. It also, however, takes the story in a different direction than the 1933 movie. Despite the nods to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness via Apocalypse Now and the character names (i.e. Marlow, Conrad), rather than critiquing colonialism, Kong: Skull Island more intensely invites the audience to consider the relationship between humans and nature and the long-term effects of war. The villain is clearly Colonel Packer, who is portrayed as coming unglued at the end of the war. He takes the mission to escort the scientists because he is actually disappointed that the Vietnam War is over, and he brings his conflict to the island, leading one of his men to point out that sometimes there is no enemy until someone goes looking for one. His adversarial and destructive approach proves deadly time and again, whereas the cooperative style of Conrad, Mason, and their guide Lt. Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) saves the day. Knitting together these two themes does not work entirely, but it takes an otherwise average blockbuster and makes it thought provoking. The film also works in a theme of distrust of the government that connects the 1973 setting to our time.
Kong: Skull Island is full of great special effects and some really beautiful, and sometimes scary, creatures. The cast of scifi animals paired with the 1970s period costumes and music makes the movie visually striking and fun to watch.
The performances are solid, led by Tom Hiddleston and recent Oscar winner Brie Larsen. I have long been a fan of Larsen’s because of the micro-expressions she uses to portray exasperation, snark and frustration. It might seem like Kong: Skull Island would not be a good vehicle for this type of acting, but she still makes it work and gets some action sequences in too. Hiddleston is a calm, steady presence in a pretty frenetic movie and as such he anchors a big ensemble well. Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly both play cartoonish characters, which can be tricky. Reilly pulls it off better, but perhaps only because his character is far better written.
For great effects, a strong cast, and an interesting spin on a classic conflict, I rate Kong: Skull Island 4/5 stars. It’s a popcorn movie done really well.
Kong: Skull Island was written by Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. It runs 2 hours and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language.
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