Skull Island is paws-down the best Kong movie since 1933.
This isn’t yet another remake of the classic 1933 storyline involving the capture of the Great Ape, a crass commercial display in New York City and mayhem on a skyscraper, all tied together with a Beauty and the Beast undercurrent of animal magnetism. That story was retread in 1976 (set in contemporary times) and 2005 (reset in the 1930s) to varying degrees of success.
This is a fresh story, one that features an interesting hook. The timing is woven into the winding down of the Vietnam War. It’s 1973 and, as noted by Bill Randa (John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane), people will never see Washington, D.C., more screwed up. Never say never, Bill.
Bill is the catalyst for the action to follow. He works for an organization called Monarch, which ties into the 2014 Godzilla. More on that bit in a bit.
Bill needs an escort to accompany his team of crack scientists to Skull Island, a mysterious island in the South Pacific perpetually shrouded in a storm system. It’s described as the land God didn’t finish creating. They want to do some... uh... “research” involving something called the “hollow earth” theory.
Cool. Let’s go!
Enlisted to accompany Bill and his team is a pretty interesting collection of characters who ultimately divide into three camps: kill Kong, study Kong or leave Kong alone.
Leading the charge on the military front is Preston Packard (the omnipresent Samuel L. Jackson, The Legend of Tarzan). He’s trying to figure out what the war was all about and what he’s supposed to do next with his life.
Mason Weaver (Brie Larson, last year’s Best Actress Oscar winner for Room) is an anti-war photojournalist. She wants to share the unknown with the world. But, as Preston coldly observes, the camera’s more dangerous than any weapon.
Then there’s Capt. Conrad (Tom Hiddleston, Thor). Well, he’s a former captain and he’s got mad reflexes. Conrad? Maybe a Heart of Darkness reference? Little things like that add to the surprising levels of texture this popcorn flick has to offer — especially considering it’s ultimately a pseudo-sequel to that less-than-impressive 2014 Godzilla reboot.
Heart of Darkness was also a flashpoint for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Knotting things up further, a rather tongue-in-cheek poster for Kong: Skull Island mimics the famous movie poster for Apocalypse Now, with Kong replacing Brando.
Going someplace where you don’t belong. Disrupting the natural order of things. Imposing one set of values on another set of values. There are just enough loose parallels between this Kong and the Vietnam War to give it an unusual sense of gravitas.
And there’s a surprising heart in this darkness, by way of (wink-wink) Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly, The Thin Red Line). His story ties back to an opening sequence set in 1944. That’s maybe saying too much, so simply keep in mind this seemingly goofy oddball has the best sense of what Skull Island is all about.
Make no mistake about it, the undercurrents are all in service to a “big monster” movie in which Kong shares an island with a lot of other big things. And there are plenty of visuals to capture the imagination, including one particularly awesome scene in which a helicopter is nabbed out of the air by Kong. The crew on board are witness to a confusing view that ultimately reveals why the sky went dark.
Kudos go to director Jordan Vogt-Roberts for keeping it all together. It’s become the norm that these big-budget movies are part of such a large system of machinery that relatively fresh directors such as Vogt-Roberts can deliver a solid product without going to the brink of personal implosion, as is documented in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. Vogt-Roberts cut his teeth on numerous TV projects before directing his only other feature film, The Kings of Summer, in 2013.
Once on This Island
So let’s get back to Monarch.
It seems like everybody wants to get in on the action led by Marvel and create cinematic universes.
This summer, Universal’s rebooting The Mummy starring Tom Cruise and featuring Russell Crowe as on Dr. Jekyll. It’s all part of a plan to reboot the entire classic monsters line.
Of course, Warner Bros. is rather famously struggling to follow the model with its series of movies based on DC Comics. But the DC line is finding a fair amount of success on TV with the Flash and Supergirl.
Even M. Night Shyamalan is creating his own mini-universe with Split tying back to Unbroken and promising more to come.
With the big monsters — Godzilla, Kong and others in their genus — Warner Bros. has another trove of film history to mine and reboot. But, as history proves repeatedly, name recognition can only go so far.
As long as the monsters roar the way they should — and this Kong knows how to roar — there’s hope. And if Kong: Skull Island’s sense of the clever serves as a model, there’s reason to be a little more optimistic for the return of the big creature features.