Despite having a surprisingly large cast, full of big names Kong: Skull Island, actually features the great ape as the main character.
The United States has just announced that they are pulling out of the Vietnam War. Bill Randa (John Goodman) is a scientist working for Project Monarch along with his assistants Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) and San (Tian Jing). They convince the government to let them go investigate a remote island that they claim may hide valuable resources. In reality they’re looking for monsters. Randa is the lone survivor of a monster attack that was covered up and now works for Monarch to uncover the existence of monsters hidden on (or under) Earth. The place he wants to go is known as “Skull Island” because of the shape of the island. It’s a secluded island that is surrounded by an constant storm system that keeps people away from it. Randa is allowed to assemble a crew for this expedition consisting of scientists and a military escort. Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) leads the unit of helicopter pilots tasked with flying the team onto the island and keeping them safe. Randa also brings along former British intelligence agent and renowned jungle tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).
Aside from Randa, no one knows that the true purpose of the mission is to find evidence of monsters and bring it back to the world. They quickly find out when they fly to skull island. Randa claims that they are dropping charges in order to map the terrain. That is true, but the charges are also serving to agitate the local wildlife, the most notable of which is Kong. Minutes after the team starts dropping the charges, Kong arrives and starts knocking their helicopters out of the air. Completely surprised by the appearance of a monkey the size of a building, the fleet is quickly taken out, with many of their members dying in the conflict. The expedition is basically split up into two groups. Packard, Randa and some soldiers are in one group and James, Mason, San, Houston and a young soldier named Slivko (Thomas Mann).
Packard, who is already starved for the conflict of war, is determined to get revenge for his men and take Kong out, even if it means sacrificing the rest of his men. He sets off on a path to recover weapons from one of the fallen helicopters. Meanwhile, James focuses his group on finding their way to the north of the island where they had agreed to be picked up in 3 days. Both teams find out that Kong is not the only beast on this island. Packard’s group is attacked by a giant spider, who’s legs they mistake for tree trunks before they start impaling them. James’ group comes across a much more peaceful creature that seems to be some kind of giant, plant infused buffalo.
James’ group also stumbles upon an indigenous group of people. They also find WWII fighter pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) who crashed on this island 40 years ago. He had been taken in by the native people and learned about the island. He tells them that Kong is the king of the island and that he actually protects the people and the other creatures from things that would do them harm. The most pressing threat are giant lizard-like creatures that he calls “Skull Walkers”. These Skull Walkers killed the rest of Kong’s kind, leaving him as the lone survivor. Hank also points out that Kong, as big as he is, is young and still growing in power (edit: I’m pretty sure this line was included specifically to answer the concern that Kong isn’t big enough to take on Godzilla). He cautions them that if something where to happen to Kong, then these monsters would take over the island.
After spending some time fixing a makeshift boat, James’ group (with Hank) meets up with everyone. Despite James and Hank’s objections, they end up following Packard towards the wreckage of the other helicopter. In order to get there they have to pass through the graveyard of Kong’s family. This is the place where the Skull Walkers come to vomit out the bones of their victims. The party is ambushed by smaller Skull Walkers. They are able to fend them off, but not before Randa and others are killed. After they make it out, they realize what Packard’s planning. Once they figure it out, James convinces Packard to let him take the non-military people back to the boat while Packard sets off to get his revenge.
Packard is actually successful in trapping Kong using napalm, but James’ group is stuck with a crisis of conscience and they go back to try to save Kong from Packard’s trap. They manage to delay Packard just long enough to allow Kong to recover, but not before the giant Skull Walker wakes up and tries to take the chance to take control of Skull Island. Kong gets up, smashes Packard, and a huge battle begins. With the remainder of the traveling party trying to aid him, Kong is able to destroy the Skull Walker. He also saves Morgan, who gets a little too close to the fray before leaving the humans to be picked up by their friends.
In a post credits scene, we see Morgan and James in a Monarch interrogation room. They are met by San and Houston, who explain to them that Kong isn’t the only monster. They show them pictures of depictions of a bird-like creature (Rodan), a giant moth (Mothra), a 3-headed dragon-like creature (Ghidorah) and, of course, the giant lizard himself, Godzilla. This scene all but guarantees that they are gearing up for a battle to see who will be king of the monsters. Then, as the screen cuts to black, we hear Godzilla’s roar.
What did I think?
Well this is another movie that knows exactly what it is and doesn’t try to avoid it. Normally monster movies kind of “flirt” with the monster for a while before revealing him to the audience. That doesn’t happen at all here. Kong is on screen before the title screen is even up. He’s really a main character in this movie which, surprisingly, isn’t common in monster movies. It’s a risk to heavily feature a CGI character on screen for a longer time, but this movie really embraces it. They know it’s a monster movie that really wants to give us monsters, and not just Kong. The water buffalo didn’t do much for me, but that fight with the giant spider is the kind of thing that nightmares are made of and it’s wonderful.
The visuals for the whole movie are great. I’m not sure if there’s anything groundbreaking, but things definitely fit together very well. I will say that the Vietnam/Apocalypse Now inspired shots started to feel overused to the point that I wondered if the director was trying to make an homage. Even so, it really fit with the jungle motif and created some interesting ways of seeing the monsters.
There is plenty of over the top action in the movie. Most of that comes from things like Kong fighting and tearing apart a giant squid, but the people get into the action too. The most notable of which is a sequence with Tom Hiddleston where he goes into a full sprint, grabs a gas mask, snatches a sword out of mid air and proceeds to hack his way through monster birds before saving a downed soldier. Is this ridiculous, yes. Is it fun, absolutely.
They also make sure to pack the movie with plenty of canon fodder, but not just random people screaming in the streets cannon fodder. This cannon fodder has names. Granted, I don’t really remember any of their names because they came to the island with a cast of like 30 people who were all introduced very fast. Most of these characters are one-note and you start to quickly figure out that it’s because they’re meant to be expendable. They also have cast so many big names in the movie, that you can’t really be sure that someone’s going to survive just because they’re “famous”.
I think all the actors who are cast fill in their roles admirably, even if some of those roles don’t require very much. Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston are cast as the heroic leads whose job it is to stand around, look good, and occasionally do something borderline super-human. John Goodman places the obsessed scientist who’s motivations don’t completely make sense, but really just serves to set events for the movie in motion. John C. Reilly is part comedic relief and part narrator when he fills in Kong’s backstory. All of the soldiers had their little moments here and there, and were really more of an ensemble. Then there was Sam Jackson who’s character transitioned from being a war hero into the bad guy in the same way that Kong transitioned from being a monster to the hero. It’s just hard not to love the fact that Jackson spends a good chunk of the movie giving a giant monkey the stink-eye. I’m just like “Sam, why are you trying to stare down something that’s like 8 times your size”. Again, the whole thing is ridiculous and I loved it.
It’s also worth noting that they movie avoids or pokes fun at a lot of other monster movie tropes. For instance they don’t have Hiddleston and Larson engage in a traditional story where they “fall in love” through the ordeal. They are obviously paired together, but no relationship shenanigans are forced. They also avoid the King Kong trope of having him fall in love with the female lead. There is some interaction and he does save her, but nothing like he’s going to kidnap her and climb a building. There’s also a lot of references to just how ridiculous the situation is. Like there’s a recurring joke of characters just pointing out how no one is discussing the fact that giant animals are just randomly killing people. There are so many other tropes that this movie subverts that fans of the genre will immediately pick up on.
BTW, if you want proof of how self-aware this movie is, take a look at John C. Reilly’s jacket. Despite the fact that he’s a fighter pilot, the jacket has the phrase “For your health” on the back. That phrase is a catchphrase of Reilly’s character, Dr. Steve Brule, who’s associated with the Adult Swim show “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and “Check it Out”.
Again, this is a movie that is very aware of what it is and has fun with it. Is the movie good? I’ll leave that for critics to decide. What I can say is that this movie is action-packed, fun and has a lot of good new ideas in it. I don’t know if it will go down in history as anything great, but it was definitely a good time in the theater.
I’m also now very interested in seeing where things go with the planned “King of the Monsters” movies. The 2014 Godzilla movie wasn’t as good as this one, but it was definitely better than the last Godzilla movie we got. If this is the direction that the movies are going to go in, I’m definitely looking forward to the inevitable monster smack-down that’s on the horizon.
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
- Movie gets right to the monsters instead of beating around the bush
- Monsters look good
- Actually creates an interesting backstory/concept for King Kong other than him just being a big monkey
- This Land Before Time island is kind of awesome and has some ridiculous creatures on it
- Movie really bends of backwards to make you believe that there's a reason that these people are stuck on an island with Kong
- There's so much misdirection in the first half of the movie that you don't really know if anything makes sense