After the financial success of Godzilla it seemed only natural that Legendary would seek to bring more classic giant monsters to the screen, either in their own movies or in a sequel. Well, that sequel got sidelined when director Gareth Edwards got sidetracked by another little project, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. While that sequel languished (it’s now looking at a 2019 release with Vera Farmiga, Kyle Chandler and Stranger Things‘ Millie Bobby Brown among the cast) — and teased the appearance of more classic kaiju — someone came up with the idea to bring the big ape Kong back to life.
Of course, Peter Jackson had done just that not too long ago but this is not another retelling of the classic King Kong tale of “’twas beauty killed the beast.” Kong: Skull Island is set in 1973. The story follows scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his mission to get Congressional funding for his plan to map a newly discovered island … before the Russians find it. Randa has been at this for years and finally gets what he wants, including a military escort. His plan is to drop seismic charges on the island to test out his colleague’s “Hollow Earth” theory. After flying through a perpetual storm that encircles the island, they find a pristine and lush landscape never before seen. But their presence, and the seismic charges, seem to have stirred up something else never before seen — a giant ape, which swats the military choppers out of the sky like gnats, killing many of commander Packard’s (Samuel L. Jackson) men, leading him to seek revenge on the beast while the civilians, including tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), think the sensible thing to do is get to their rendezvous point and get off the island as quickly as possible. During all the mayhem, it comes to light that there may be another reason for this mission to the island.
If you’re thinking you don’t need to see another King Kong story, just put that thought out of your head. This is not that story, nor is it that Kong which is much, much smaller than this Kong. Kong: Skull Island takes the concept of the original but gives it a totally new spin, and crafts a terrific and logical story (which is where Godzilla came up short) to keep you hanging on the edge of your seat. The film spends just enough time to let you get to know the main and supporting characters, including many of Packard’s men (one of whom is played by Toby Kebbell, who himself has played in ape in the Planet of the Apes movies). These are characters you actually care about, and then as things go from bad to worse, it’s interesting to see someone you think is a hero evolve into a villain.
And that villainous behavior is one things that always bugs me about these types of movies where humans invade a place they don’t belong, the native species defend themselves and then the humans feel like they have to kill the things that killed their people. No! But this issue is addressed when Kong is seen as the enemy after defending himself, and Conrad rightly points that out. A round of applause to the writers for that.
Besides the script, which nicely balances plot with action, the cast is perfection, even in the smaller roles. Goodman, Hiddleston, Larson and Jackson are real pros, bringing the same seriousness to these roles as they would any standard drama. There’s nothing over-the-top about them or their characters, they make you feel like they are ordinary people in one huge, extraordinary circumstance. The script fleshes them out just enough that you feel like you know them and you are on this journey with them as well. Save for Kebbell, most of Packard’s men are unfamiliar faces, but each actor makes you care about their fate as well (and this movie is not shy about killing anyone off, pushing the limits of the PG-13 rating). And then John C. Reilly pops up midway through the movie to bring some much needed, but not out of place, humor to the dire situation and instantly becoming the most likable character in the film, especially when we learn of his backstory. For a big, special effects-filled, giant monster, special effects extravaganza, this cast elevates the material above what you might expect.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does a great job of keeping the story flowing, allowing the pauses in action to let us all take a breath, get our wits about us, and let the characters continue to come up with a solution to aid in their survival. Even with a two hour running time, the film never lags or gets boring. The effects are also outstanding, from the harrowing flying through the storm scene to the first encounter with Kong and the introduction of the other horrific beasties that inhabit the island (including a nightmare-inducing giant spider). Nothing looks cartoony, like the “Fantastic Beasts” of another recent movie fille with CGI creatures. The movie lives or dies on Kong, and he is a fully living, breathing creature with soulful eyes (and the rendering of digital eyes has come a long way since the dead-eyed characters of The Polar Express). Everything about Kong is realistic right down to the hair gently moving in the breeze. It is a truly remarkable achievement. The action scenes are also shot very well, putting the viewer right in the middle of the fray, maybe even causing you to hang on to your arm rests as the choppers are being swatted out of the sky. This is brought to life even more if you take in the movie in IMAX 3D, which really adds quite a lot of depth to the film, helping to immerse you in the action, not making the 3D simply an afterthought.
Kong: Skull Island probably could have been a huge summer event movie, so I’m not sure why Warner Brothers decided to give it an early spring release, but it may eventually see greater financial success in this slot. And the studios certainly have plans for more to come. Be sure to sit through the end credits for a fantastic tease of what the future holds! From start to finish, Kong: Skull Island scores on every level. Don’t miss it!
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