My secret, guilty pleasure is that I love monster movies. Love ’em. Especially the ones that make it a point to portray the main, giant beast as a misunderstood creature. I’ve had a soft spot for monster movies ever since I saw Godzilla 1985 for the first time. Godzilla was the goddamned star of that movie and when they killed him, I was heartbroken.
Kong: Skull Island is similar. Kong, the giant ape of Skull Island, isn’t attacking the helicopters swarming his home because he’s an asshole, he’s attacking them because they’re dropping bombs everywhere, which are sure to awake the subterranean dinosaur creatures that have a taste for blood. He and the indigenous human inhabitants of the island have an agreement: They leave him alone and he leaves them alone. Kong takes care of killing and eating the giant, man-eating monsters of the island and they, in return, let him do his thing… which mostly consists of walking around, enjoying the scenery, eating and jumping from giant rock to giant rock.
Kong is the last of his kind. Beneath the island are a series of passageways that allow ancient creatures to climb up from the center of the earth. When they awake and emerge, they’re angry and kill and eat everything in sight. They killed his family. So, when the United States military shows up, dropping bombs all over the place, which will assuredly wake those things up, Kong is none too pleased and smashes every soldier in sight. But, really, he’s not a bad guy. He just wants to enjoy his life and not have to get into giant rumbles every single day.
The film begins with Bill Randa (John Goodman) verifying a theory he has about an island that is home to real-life monsters only seen in the movies. He convinces Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins) to fund an expedition to an unexplored island with a military escort, a platoon equipped with helicopters, explosives and lots and lots of machine guns. They recruit a professional tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to accompany the expedition.
Things go wrong for the expedition almost immediately. Kong shows up and wreaks havoc on the operation, separating the team into two groups that are struggling to find their way back to each other, and then head north for their rendezvous point to go back home. This is easier said than done. Their trek is plagued at every corner with giant spiders, dinosaur-like creatures nasty enough to have killed Kong’s family, and giant birds capable of ripping people into small pieces to devour.
Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) has some plans of his own–a mission of revenge–before they can leave. After seeing his men wiped out by the giant ape, he wants to see Kong dead. After unleashing a hellstorm of machine gun fire on the beast, he sees that it can very easily be killed.
John C. Reilly as Major Hank Marlow steals every scene that he’s in. He brings a much-needed comedic quality to the film. Kong: Skull Island is thankfully light entertainment (I don’t think I could take a silly monster movie treated with such seriousness again), but John C. Reilly brings the needed laughs to the film. He seems to be very much enjoying the character that he’s playing, a man stranded on the island for decades, since being shot down over the island in WWII, who has lost his mind a little bit. He dubs the dinosaur-like creatures of the island “death skulls” a name he admits sounds kind of stupid, having actually said it out loud for the first time in his life after having it bouncing around in his head for close to thirty years.
Kong: Skull Island isn’t a perfect movie by any means, and it doesn’t have to be. It’s dumb, fun entertainment by design. It has a lot of problems, particularly with characters who are criminally underdeveloped–Brie Larson as as Mason Weaver, the expedition’s photographer, never really does much. The film wisely avoids having her character constantly finding herself in trouble and in need of rescue, but aside from espousing some general anti-war platitudes, she could have been excised entirely. For that matter, so could have Tom Hiddleston’s character, they expert tracker who never really shows why he’s worth five times the asking price of anyone else. The strength of the cast mostly comes from the soldiers, who want to simultaneously treat their situation with a distance from reality in order to keep sane, while sometimes asking questions one might actually ask in this type of situation like, “Is that a monkey?” and “Why aren’t we making a bigger deal out of this?”
If you’re looking for a movie you can shut your brain off to that doesn’t insult your intelligence, Kong: Skull Island is perfect for that. I appreciated a lot of the movie, but it’s far from perfect. It’s a unique blend of monster movie with Vietnam-era military imagery, with some very striking visuals. Some of the shots in Kong: Skull Island are so good they belong in a better movie.
Ever since the original King Kong in 1933, Hollywood has tried time and time again and failed to recapture what made it so successful. Jordan Vogt-Roberts realizes he’s just not going to remake that movie, that somehow a third remake movie is going to be the charm, and instead keeps the action centered on the island, forgetting about getting the beast back to the city. It’s less a remake and more a new story with a familiar character. And for a special effects flick, it’s pretty good. The action is actually engaging, the special effects are good and some of the characters are pretty likable.