Hollywood loves giant monsters, and it would seem audiences do too, especially when those creatures carry names they’re familiar with. Even when efforts are done spectacularly bad (remember 1998’s GODZILLA?), or come across as just over-indulgent (see 2004’s overly long KING KONG), they still rake in money at the box office. That’s one of the safety nets of giant monster movies – the spectacle can sometimes make up for the narrative should it be lacking. A few years ago we saw a new take on GODZILLA from director Gareth Edwards, and now Warner Bros. is taking the same formula (finding a smart and respected indie director and handing them a BIG movie) and applying it to the King Kong mythos with KONG: SKULL ISLAND. This is meant to be the first in a series of connected movies that would find several giant monsters fighting each other on the big screen. There’s even a not-so-subtle post-credits tag here that pretty much tells you that’s the plan. So how does this Kong tale stand up to everything we’ve seen before? Individual results may vary, but our audience seemed to be mostly on the same page, which I’ll get into in a bit.
The story opens during World War II, with an American pilot and Japanese pilot crashing over an uncharted island and fighting each other to the death, but just as one is about to see victory, they’re confronted by an enormous ape. This serves two purposes – setting up a major character we won’t meet again until later in the film (played by John C. Reilly), and not wasting any time showing the audience that giant gorilla they came to see. Cut to 1973, and Washington agents Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) asking a higher up (a fun cameo I won’t spoil) if they can head out for one more exotic expedition. Their Government-sanctioned department is on the chopping block, and they need a big discovery if they have any hope of saving their jobs. Their hunt for a mysterious island is given the green light, and a military escort from a team of Vietnam soldiers who now have nothing to do, led by anxious Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). They also enlist a former British agent (now a tracker) named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and respected photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) for their journey. Once they reach the uncharted island, they discover the giant ape in a violent and destructive way, meet some islanders and the aforementioned WWII pilot, and eventually discover there’s a lot of other large creatures lurking in the trees that aren’t very friendly to humans.
While the previous Kong effort by Peter Jackson was a sort of re-telling of the classic film story, this movie is something quite different. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (THE KINGS OF SUMMER) opens the affair with an almost Steven Spielberg-esque flair, bringing the team together for a mysteriously perilous mission, then takes us into an almost otherworldly jungle trek (think ANACONDA but much more expensive-looking). At times the proceedings feel familiar, and at other times very new and unusual. The final act echoes films like APOCALYPSE NOW and even JURASSIC PARK a bit, but the whole thing is pretty exciting and rather nonstop. Roberts knows to use Kong whenever possible, but not overuse him. One of the big problems with the Gareth Edwards GODZILLA from a few years ago was that Godzilla isn’t in the film very much. Here that is not an issue, we see plenty of Kong, and at various stages too. There’s also a careful balance of frightening monster Kong, and serene jungle beast Kong that doesn’t deserve being disturbed the way he is. It’s a careful characterization that makes the most of the monster and really delivers for the audience. One of the things I respected greatly was the ferocious aspects of the scenes involving carnage. While this movie may be PG-13, it’s incredibly violent and brutal at times, almost feeling more like an R-rated horror flick than a fantasy film. Some of the creatures are terrifying and really haunting to look at, and there’s at least one scene I found greatly disturbing and unexpected, but in the best possible way. This is a creature feature that even lovers of classic Ray Harryhausen will appreciate.
But there are some shortcomings, which sadly reside within the cast. For one thing, there’s no clear leading character or characters, rather a mix of personalities that never seem to fully shine the way we want them to. The soldiers all have little quirks that make them fun as buddies, and easy to differentiate during the story, but none of them have much weight as individuals… except one, and he oddly doesn’t last long. Shea Whigham and Thomas Mann get some nice moments, but I was hoping to see more meaty performances from STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON alums Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell. Samuel L. Jackson starts off interesting enough as the squadron leader who obviously needs a mission to feel right again, but as he devolves into having a personal vendetta against the island king, we never get a sense of why he’s become this tortured soul. John Goodman’s role had potential to be something great, almost like Quint in JAWS even, but ends up just sort of being there and delivering his lines in deadpan fashion. Even Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston try to make the most of their potentially romantic pairing, but we don’t find out enough about them to care if they make it or not. That’s not to say they’re not good, just not as effective as characters as I would have liked. Everyone definitely excels at selling the craziness going on around them, considering how most of what’s in each shot is likely CGI-enhanced to a large degree. The definite standout character in the piece is John C. Reilly as the half-crazy WWII pilot that’s been living on the island since his plane crashed, and hasn’t had ‘speaking’ contact with other humans in decades (just the seemingly mute natives he pals around with). Reilly plays it very quirky and fun, and becomes the fan favorite the second he meets our group. This is one of those cases where the cast is so big and has so many players, that none of them really seem to shine. Though in a film like this one, we’re not buying a ticket to see a cast giving award-worthy performances anyway… it’s all about that big ol’ monkey.
As a giant monster movie, this is a return to form that should excite fans of the genre, especially considering what potentially lies ahead. KONG: SKULL ISLAND is by no means a perfect film, but it’s highly entertaining and just imaginative enough to wow us from time to time, which is a pretty good thing in this age of “We’ve seen it all” audiences being so picky. The 1973 Vietnam-era setting also allows for a toe-tapping soundtrack that compliments the film quite well, at times making me feel like I was watching a war story that just happened to have a giant gorilla in it. I would suggest this is probably not the best fare for kids, but it’s absolutely the kind of flick I would have begged my parents to watch at a young age. Take of that what you will.