I remember when Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” hit theaters in 2005, even though I was too afraid to buckle down and actually see it, on account that the islanders depicted in the film scared the crap out of me. Still, even when I did see it, Jackson’s three-hour epic was a sight to behold, with its own all star cast and stunning visuals, it was the first time in a long time that we felt the true might of Kong’s power in the modern age. When it was announced that Legendary Pictures was teaming with Toho to reimagine the legendary Godzilla franchise, there was speculation that Legendary would also seek to reimagine the other monsters so iconically tagged with Godzilla, including King Kong, Mothra, etc. Shortly after, Legendary announced their plans for “Kong: Skull Island,” the second installment in their newly coined “Monsterverse,” a cinematic universe much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but instead of superheroes living in one cohesive, universe, it’s monsters. But does “Kong: Skull Island” have the feet to sustain both itself and “Godzilla” as a cinematic universe?
It isn’t perfect, but it’s a good start.
Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are both eccentric scientists looking for funding to lead an expedition to an unknown island where they believe that myth and reality come together. After using jingoistic post-Vietnam techniques to convince their local senator (a funny cameo from Richard Jenkins), they soon find themselves heading to the island via Army escort, led by the hard-ass Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Along the way, they pick up a biologist (Tian Jing), a photographer (Brie Larson) and a tracker (Tom Hiddleston) to accompany them on their expedition. Once through the storm that surrounds the island, the team soon finds that their safety is compromised when they discover they are being hunted by a giant gorilla named Kong, angry at them for their destructive techniques in mapping the island. After discovering a lost WWII pilot (John C. Reilly) on the island, the team soon finds that Kong doesn’t look to destroy them, but to protect the island from creatures far more sinister.
It’s sort of easy to find quite a few similarities between “Kong: Skull Island” and “Godzilla,” even so much so in its stylized opening credits sequence, very similar to that of the 2014 reboot. Still, “Kong: Skull Island” does a good job differentiating itself as both a monster film, and that of a King Kong film. In 1976, an attempt to modernize King Kong came about, but failed to live up its expectations placed before it, citing its modern day setting as a detriment to the overall film. Unlike its 2005 remake, “Kong: Skull Island” doesn’t seek to be a direct recreation of the 1933 classic film, but rather a new tone on a classic monster, using the framework of a “Platoon”-style Vietnam War film to build the base of “Kong: Skull Island,” which surprisingly works. This still gives itself that classic King Kong style datedness that worked so well in the 2005 version, while also carving a space out for itself as its own, separate film.
Above, I only listed the primary cast to the film, which doesn’t even touch any of the expansive supporting cast that the film holds as well, including Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell (reuniting with Hawkins from their “Straight Outta Compton” debuts), Thomas Mann, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Miyavi, and more. This is an all-star cast that works really well together, when they’re given the opportunity to be together. As they’re broken up on the island, you do get a sense of the characters from the team they’re partnered with, which makes the expansive cast seem a bit more manageable, if a bit disconnected from each other. “Kong: Skull Island” takes a shift in its primary characters about halfway through the film, shifting its gaze from Randa and Packard, to that of Hiddleston’s James Conrad and Larson’s Mason Weaver, something I wish had happened a bit earlier in the film. While I don’t think Hiddleston was the best casting choice in the world for this specific film, he knows how to command a screen with his charismatic presence, as well as Larson, who actually was well-cast in this film. I wish we had gotten more time with them.
That being said, “Kong: Skull Island” is a beautiful and unforgiving film, much in the way that something like “Full Metal Jacket” is beautiful, but with the visual splendor of “The Great Wall.” “Kong: Skull Island” is a film with a very yellow hue to itself, echoing that of the films it seeks to honor, but it also finds a way to feel very etherial, using some of the more traditionally beautiful elements of its location to create an atmosphere that something like “Jurassic World” just couldn’t pin down. In fact, I found myself constantly comparing this film to “Jurassic World” for a number of reasons: 1. It was directed by an indie filmmaker who was given a major property, 2. It uses reptilian animals as its primary enemies, 3. It uses its setting to create a sense of hopelessness. Yet, every time I found myself comparing the two films, “Kong: Skull Island” came out on top, despite the slight bit of unfairness that comes with comparing two films in different franchises.
Are there thematic problems in “Kong: Skull Island?” Yes. There are times when characters are killed that felt far more important to the story than their death might insinuate, which makes a bit of the structure of “Kong: Skull Island” a bit jarring at times. At first, this might sound like a complaint, but the film actually kept me on my toes with this element, whether it be intentional or not. The pace for the film is one of the things that worked the best in the film. At only 118 minutes, it doesn’t seek to draw out what doesn’t need to be drawn out any more than it has. While the wrench of unpredictability is thrown into the machine of the film, it surprisingly works as a cohesive, steady-moving film.
Having seen the film in IMAX 3D, it’s easy to say that this is the way to go on this film. I was a bit distracted by a black smudge on the projector of the film, something that never got fixed after multiple people complained to the theater about it, so if you are to see the film in IMAX, see it at an IMAX theater that isn’t AMC Northlake. That being said, the scale is hard to argue with on this film, with the screen size and speaker volume that IMAX has to offer, the film does a spectacular job utilizing it. The 3D in the film is also well-used, if not as amazing as its IMAX counterpart. The film offers a good amount of depth and fun pop-outs that make it worthwhile. Though, if you aren’t to see it in IMAX, 2D would be just as good.
“Kong: Skull Island” continues the powerful start that “Godzilla” initiated three years ago, leading us into a cinematic universe that I’m honestly stoked for. If Legendary can continue its strength in production of these films, I have no doubt that whatever comes next in the Monsterverse will stun audiences once more, even if it polarizes others. It doesn’t do everything correctly, or as completely expected, but it’s a fun, very well made monster film that does King Kong a great, original service. The film is well-off in director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s hands, and he finds a strength in the material that someone like Colin Trevorrow wasn’t quite able to pin down in “Jurassic World.” When it comes to King of the Monsters, Kong might have a stiff challenge in Godzilla, but “Kong: Skull Island” makes him one hell of a contender to be king.
Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, with Terry Notary, and John C. Reilly.
Runtime: 118 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language.
Also available in RealD 3D and IMAX 3D.
Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures and Tencent Pictures present, a Legendary Pictures production, a Jordan Vogt-Roberts film, “Kong: Skull Island”