The film takes place in 1973, just as the Vietnam War is winding down. The head of the research agency Monarch, William Randa (John Goodman), has managed to get the US government to fund a mapping mission to one of the last unexplored places on Earth: a previously unknown island in the South Pacific nicknamed Skull Island. He puts together an expedition including former British special forces operative James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), famous anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and US Army Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) to provide security. But once they reach the island, everyone realizes that theirs is not a simple mapping mission after encountering multiple giant monsters on the island. And the biggest of them all is an ape, called Kong.
Kong: Skull Island is an odd beast. One the one hand, the film gleefully indulges in every kaiju movie trope imaginable and never takes itself incredibly seriously, much like the aforementioned Pacific Rim. On the other hand, the film’s setting, visual style, music and character archetypes are reminiscent of Vietnam War movies, with multiple references to Apocalypse Now in particular. And then sprinkled on top of both of those are slivers of Heart of Darkness (Hiddleston’s character is named Conrad for frak’s sake) and Moby Dick (Jackson’s character quickly proves to be an expy of Captain Ahab). It’s a bizarre mixture that actually works a lot better than it has any right to, as the film’s period piece elements give it a unique feel, at least in the realm of kaiju movies.
But, let’s get to what everyone really cares about: the giant monster fights. Yes- Skull Island has lots of them. And yes- they are pretty cool, even to someone who isn’t a huge fan of the genre. The island is home to a variety of bizarre fauna, almost all of which either the human characters or Kong himself have to fight over the course of the film’s 118 minute run time. Therefore, we get a mixture of ‘traditional’ giant monster fights and gunfights, which helps to keep things interesting, though I was getting a bit weary of them by the two hour mark. Though, like I said, I’m not a huge fan of the genre.
The film has a number of drawbacks though. The film’s large ensemble cast, though allowing for a large number of characters to become tasty monster snacks, keeps everyone fighting for screen time and prevents all but a few of them from getting any meaningful characterization. A few of the actors, such as Jiang Tian and Thomas Mann, barely get to do anything at all, begging the question of why the screenwriters even wrote their characters.
All in all, Kong: Skull Island is a giant monster movie for people who really like giant monster movies. And that’s fine- it’s just not my cup of tea. But maybe it’s yours because you grew up watching old King Kong and Godzilla movies. Oh, and in case you didn’t know: this film and the 2014 Godzilla take place in the same fictional universe, and Godzilla vs. Kong is already scheduled for a May, 2020 release.
As Samuel L. Jackson would say: “Hold on to your butts!”
Grade: A (if you like giant monster movies)
Grade: B-/C+ (if you don’t like giant monster movies)