7.5 out of 10
Tom Hiddleston as James Conrad
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Kong: Skull Island Review
In 1973, satellite images reveal a mysterious island long thought to just be a myth – Skull Island. The island attracts the attention of Hank Marlow and Houston Brooks, two members of the mysterious Monarch program. However, amid the end of the Vietnam War, they have trouble rounding up the resources to check it out. But with the threat of the Russians beating them to Skull Island, they get the funding and manpower they need.
Marlow and Brooks round up a small band to investigate the island. They include tracker James Conrad, war photographer Mason Weaver, soldier Preston Packard and his men, and a small group of scientists. But as the group finally arrives on the island, they discover something unexpected – King Kong.
After Kong destroys their helicopters and equipment, the group finds themselves scattered across the island filled with mysterious threats worse than the giant ape. Their confrontation with Kong threatens to upset the natural order of the island… and possibly the world.
Kong: Skull Island is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language.
As a monster movie fan, Kong: Skull Island was near the top of the list of movies I wanted to see this year. I’ve seen all of the Kong movies, both good and bad, so I was eager to check out this new take on it. In many respects it did not disappoint.
First off, the 1973 setting is a lot of fun and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts makes the most of it. He uses plenty of music from the era. The characters wear the tacky clothes from the ’70s. He uses a lot of the Vietnam War imagery. Then, when you throw that into the Skull Island setting, it’s quite a treat. Seeing Huey helicopters and Vietnam War soldiers attacking King Kong is a blast – literally and figuratively. And for Kong fans, there are nods to the previous films here and there. We see Kong fight an octopus like in King Kong vs. Godzilla. We see the ape hold Brie Larson in his paw like Fay Wray. There are other nods that fans will appreciate.
Kong: Skull Island is also a gorgeous movie. There is one scene after another where you say, “OK, that had to be one of their main concept art pieces.” You see Kong in silhouette against a sunset battling helicopters. You see Kong in the fog and moonlight beating his chest. You see his enormous hand scooping Mason out of the water. If you took a single frame from any one of these scenes you’d have a beautiful photograph. The film has amazing production design by Stefan Dechant as well. There’s an astounding amount of detail in every scene and Jordan Vogt-Roberts takes the time to linger on some of those details here and there. It gives you a great appreciation for the tender loving care that went into every prop, costume, and set.
But it’s not all art and beauty – the action is pretty spectacular, too. Every fight scene has a “Well, that’s pretty cool” moment. You’ve seen a lot of the battles in the trailers. They include Kong’s fight with the helicopters, his battle with a giant octopus, and his fight with the Skull Crawlers. They’re all well-choreographed and exciting. And, like in Godzilla, Kong’s final killing move is pretty awesome. As an added bonus, people die in horrific ways in the film. We see people impaled, ripped apart, and shredded by the monsters of Skull Island. It’s a lot of fun to hear the audience gasp, groan, and shriek at the brutal kills. That alone makes it worth seeing on the big screen with an opening night audience.
The cast is filled with all sorts of great actors and fan favorites, but for me the standout was John C. Reilly as Hank Marlow. He plays a crashed WWII survivor on the island. Not only does he provide a lot of the exposition about Skull Island and its inhabitants, he provides a lot of the comic relief as well. His humor, combined with the insane action, makes the movie a lot more fun. Reilly steals every scene he’s in and makes the moments without the CGI ape mayhem more enjoyable. Samuel L. Jackson as Preston Packard is also cool. He has a slow descent into madness that drives the conflict in the story. And he does throw out at least one line from one of his previous films. It’s also cool to see him in scenes with John Goodman as Bill Randa. One scene in particular is filled with a lot of intensity as the two square off (and more exposition is delivered). It’s a real treat to see them on screen together.
As for Kong himself, this film has an interesting new take on the character. In the past, he was purposely made to look and act like a real gorilla. Kong: Skull Island goes the other way and purposely makes him a gorilla / human hybrid. He walks upright and is one of the biggest Kongs ever (with the promise that he’s still growing). And while he terrorized the natives in previous films, here he’s a benevolent protector. I don’t think Kong has ever been as heroic as he’s been in this story and it’s a fun take. It’s like how Godzilla killed a bunch of people, but by the end he was seen as the hero.
It’s no secret that Kong: Skull Island is set in the same world as Godzilla. There are Easter eggs in the film that hint at this larger world and the impending “Avengers” of Kaiju movies. That adds an extra dimension of fun to the whole movie and bodes well for future Kong and Godzilla flicks. Be sure to stay through the end credits for a bonus scene you won’t want to miss (but is actually spoiled in the credits you’re forced to watch before the aforementioned bonus scene).
What Didn’t Work:
People will understandably compare Kong: Skull Island to Peter Jackson’s King Kong. While they’re both enjoyable and this film is a better popcorn flick, Jackson’s film is an all-around higher quality film. Kong’s battle with the two T-rexes is better than any fight scene in this movie. The visual effects were better. The characters were better. The script and dialogue were better. And I think Jackson’s film gave King Kong more personality than this movie. In Kong: Skull Island, our hairy hero has little to no character. In Jackson’s film, Andy Serkis gave Kong a sense of humor, a sense of curiosity, and heart along with the rage and somberness. You really grew to care for that incarnation of King Kong. That felt like it was missing here.
The other characters lacked personality as well. I love Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston, but they were not used to their full potential. Tom’s character James Conrad is hired as a tracker, yet he barely tracks anything in the movie or shows why he’s better equipped to lead people through the jungle. And most of the soldiers are forgettable and generally eclipsed by Reilly, Goodman, and Jackson. Don’t get me wrong – they’re trying their hardest to be lovable, but it just doesn’t work.
I’ll nitpick a little here – Kong: Skull Island sacrifices realism for the sake of style. For example, in the opening scene, characters land on a beach, run through the jungle for a minute, then pop out on the top of a major mountain. Why? Because it looks awesome. In another scene, Kong stands in front of a setting sun in silhouette. The camera switches angles and it is noon. Why? Because it looks awesome. In another scene, helicopters fly close together through a hurricane. In reality helicopters never fly in bad weather and they wouldn’t do so in formation. Why do they do it here? Because it looks awesome. I fully realize I’m griping about realism in a film about a giant ape, but there it is. It was noticeable.
I was also disappointed that the trailers and commercials showed 95% of the movie. There were very few moments that were brand new to me and it was kind of a letdown. I was hoping there would be some major surprise in store towards the end of the film, but there wasn’t. That being said, whoever is cutting trailers at Warner Brothers deserves recognition. They know how to cut a mean trailer.
The Bottom Line:
I took my 15- and 12-year-old sons to this screening along with my wife. We all enjoyed it a lot. It was an excellent popcorn flick and well worth seeing on the big screen with a vocal audience. After the film, my boys were chatting about it, picking apart the Easter eggs, and wondering where the series would go from here. It was cool to see them so excited. In fact, when it was over, my older son said, “I’m lucky I was born when I was because I get to see all of these great movies I love.” I thought the same thing about the ’70s and ’80s, but if you love monster movies, Kong: Skull Island is required viewing on the big screen.