Kong: Skull Island is a shared universe launchpad that fulfills its promise of big, goofy, monster mayhem – setting up even bigger things to come.
As the U.S. military begins formally withdrawing from the Vietnam War during the year 1973, the struggling government organization known as Monarch is presented with a golden opportunity – with satellite photos having just revealed the existence of an uncharted location known as Skull Island, long hidden and generally inaccessible to the outside world. With their window of opportunity soon to close, the Monarch employees William Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Jason Mitchell) hastily assemble an expedition to the island to discover what mysterious lifeforms reside there, under the pretense of conducting a basic geological survey of the landscape.
With a team that includes former SAS Captain/expert tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), (anti-)war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and the Sky Devils helicopter squadron, led by one Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), the Monarch-run expedition to Skull Island gets underway. However, almost immediately upon arriving on the island, these humans come face to face with Kong: a massive, ape-like creature that doesn’t take kindly to these outsiders dropping explosives and trespassing on his home turf. And as those who survive the initial encounter with Kong soon discover, he’s not even the most dangerous creature that resides on Skull Island…
Whereas director Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla reboot mostly plays out as a self-contained re-imagining of the Godzilla mythos, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island is very much a reinvention of the King Kong mythology designed to pave the way for a larger shared cinematic universe (a la the MCU and DCEU), known as the MonsterVerse. Skull Island is closer to being a glorified “pilot” for the MonsterVerse than a standalone filmgoing experience as a result, yet it manages to hold up its end of the bargain, when it comes to delivering proper blockbuster entertainment value. Kong: Skull Island is a shared universe launchpad that fulfills its promise of big, goofy, monster mayhem – setting up even bigger things to come. (Literally bigger, as it were.)
Kong: Skull Island, in turn, provides a solid origin story for the MonsterVerse version of King Kong, upon which future movies can build. The film’s screenwriting team of Max Borenstein (Godzilla), Derek Connolly (Jurassic World) and Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), plus John Gatins (Real Steel) receiving screen story credit, tweak the classic elements of the Kong mythos enough to effectively paint the “Eighth Wonder of the World” as being the MonsterVerse equivalent of a superhero, dedicated to maintaining balance in nature and his home territory. Skull Island thus draws clear thematic parallels to the Godzilla reboot’s portrayal of the King of Monsters as a semi-benevolent force of nature and its version of King Kong, simultaneously planting the seeds for these two monsters to both eventually fight and possibly team-up with one another. As with Godzilla, this also means Kong: Skull Island‘s prioritizes world-building and development of its namesake over fleshing out its various human players.
While most of the human characters in Kong: Skull Island never evolve beyond being two-dimensional archetypes, they do benefit from being brought to life by a talented and charismatic cast. As was the case with trailers for the film, the standout in the Skull Island cast is John C. Reilly as Hank Marlow, a former WWII fighter pilot who has been stuck on the eponymous island for decades, by the time the other characters arrive there. The idiosyncratic, but good-natured and funny Hank provides a proper foil to the movie’s other best-developed human player: military man-for-life Lt. Col. Packard, brought to life through a scenery-chewing (in a good way) performance by Samuel L. Jackson. Packard’s descent into madness (fueled by his post-Vietnam state of mind) isn’t as compelling as was seemingly intended, but Jackson makes the human antagonist a fun one and even gets to riff on some of his most iconic movie moments (including, his famous line from another certain “monster” blockbuster).
Like the Packard character, Kong: Skull Island as a whole draws heavy inspiration from Vietnam War movies such as Apocalypse Now, in creating its fantasy version of the immediate post-Vietnam world. While that historical context serves this re-imagining of the King Kong mythos well, the film is more successful at recreating the color palette and aesthetic of Vietnam War films (giving them a modern polish) than channeling their spirit; making Kong: Skull Island more of a surface-level imitation of those movies, rather than a thematically-rich homage. With that said, Skull Island delivers much in the way of visually-striking giant monster spectacle and jungle adventuring, thanks in no small part to the sharp photography by cinematographer Larry Fong (Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice). Vogt-Roberts also succeeds in bringing a quirky touch to the proceedings that recalls his indie film debut on The Kings of Summer – at the same time, balancing the film’s tonal shifts and giving the tentpole proceedings in Skull Island more personality than they might have possessed otherwise.
Skull Island maintains a steady and kinetic sense of pacing throughout its runtime but again, this comes in part at the expense of better developing its human characters. MCU fan-favorite Tom Hiddleston and Oscar-winner Brie Larson do fine work in their respective roles as the movie’s human co-protagonists, but their characters’ arcs here are pretty straightforward and conventional. The same goes for John Goodman and Corey Hawkins as the members of the Monarch organization leading the expedition to Skull Island; though their onscreen counterparts likewise benefit from being portrayed by a pair of capable character actors. Kong: Skull Island has too massive a supporting cast to give them all equal time in the spotlight, but it still carves out enough room for players such as John Ortiz (Silver Linings Playbook), Tian Jing (The Great Wall), Thomas Mann (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and Toby Kebbell (A Monster Calls) to each get a brief moment to shine – with Shea Whigham (Agent Carter) and Hawkins’ Straight Outta Compton costar, Jason Mitchell as members of Packard’s unit, proving to be the most memorable.
Of course, the humans of the MonsterVerse are growing increasingly aware that their planet doesn’t “belong” to them and Kong: Skull Island further drives this point home, in the process delivering a rollicking giant monster adventure that sets the stage for even grander monster brawls down the line (in particular, during the film’s post-credits scene). Those who were not fans of the Godzilla reboot’s slow-burn approach and buildup to its monster battles might even find Skull Island to be a fitting antithesis, seemingly tailored to address their criticisms by Warner Bros. and Legendary. Whatever the future might hold for these studios’ MonsterVerse, there are now firmly-established versions of the icons King Kong and Godzilla to play around with, in this particular sandbox.
Kong: Skull Island is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 118 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language.
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