King Kong is a film icon. Debuting first in 1933’s King Kong, the image of a giant ape atop a tall skyscraper swatting at biplanes has since been seared on our cinematic consciousness. There have been six King Kong films in the decades since then, but none have ever managed to live up to that 1933 classic. This is partially because that film will always hold a special honor for its then groundbreaking visual effects, but also because each subsequent Kong film has either been a poorly planned sequel, a gonzo Japanese production (like my personal favorite, 1962’s King Kong VS Godzilla), or a retread of that now all-too-familiar story.
Kong: Skull Island, for all its missteps, is something different. Existing in the same universe as 2014’s Godzilla reboot, this film is the next chapter in Legendary Pictures’ Monsterverse — a shared universe of movies starring, you guessed it, monsters of the kaiju variety. However, unlike Godzilla, Skull Island is set not in the present day but in 1973, during the very tail end of the Vietnam War.
Posing as a geological study, Monarch — a secret government organization which researches these massive mythical monsters — arranges an expedition to a remote and newly discovered island, the titular Skull Island. Their real mission is to return with evidence that monsters exist, something which at the onset only Monarch agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) believes, having had a previous encounter. He doesn’t share this any of information, however, with the rest of the team — which includes Lt. Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), leader of the Sky Devils helicopter squadron; his soldiers: Chapman (Toby Kebbell), Mills (Jason Mitchell), Cole (Shea Whigham), and Slivko (Thomas Mann); photojournalist and peace activist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson); former British special forces officer and now hunter/tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston); among many others. Unaware of the true danger the island poses, not everyone in this massive cast is making it off Skull Island alive.
This is Kong’s origin story, explaining how humans (specifically, the Monarch organization) became aware of Kong and setting up his role in the Monsterverse movies to come (hint, he’s fighting Godzilla in 2020). And like all origin stories that must also juggle the responsibility of establishing the narrative threads which will later tie this shared universe together, Kong: Skull Island simply has too much to do, resulting in characters developing little beyond their archetypes and a plot which is, at times, painfully transparent.
That being said, no one can accuse Skull Island of being boring. Again, unlike Godzilla, Skull Island makes sure to put Kong in the picture from the very beginning, and after establishing him, the film frequently brings him back for more giant ape action. That action is spectacular, whether it be Kong wiping out an entire helicopter squadron or battling the other terrible beasts on the island. The visual effects works, too, is excellent, bringing to life a motion-capture performance from Terry Notary that really makes Kong as compelling a character (if not more, in some cases) as any of the dozen or so human characters. Skull Island is genuinely thrilling, continually surprises, and is most importantly, fun.
That Kong: Skull Island is set around the Vietnam War may matter in the bigger picture of the shared universe, but in just this film, its purpose extends little beyond allowing an Apocalypse Now-vibe to saturate the entire film. From color to score to even the arc of Jackson’s Colonel Packard — Skull Island is the heart of darkness, exposing everyone’s true nature. The movie also throws around the idea of people creating their own enemies when they go looking for them, a parallel drawn between the war’s Viet Cong and this Kong, but there’s just not enough time for the idea to be fully explored.
Nowhere does Skull Island suffer more than with its main characters. Hiddleston and Larson look pretty, are doing some fine acting, but they are without a doubt the least interesting people in the movie. They are the leads because the movie tells us so, not because we care for them more than anyone else. Jackson brings his usual A-game, giving Packard a magnetic screen presence as he descends into vengeful madness. Packard’s soldiers make for good fodder and have a believable camaraderie, most notably Whigham’s Cole and Mann’s Slivko. Goodman, too, makes a limited role memorable, and the rest of the cast is pretty good, even when doing little beyond filling the screen.
The real standout performance (besides Kong, of course) is John C. Reilly’s Marlow — a crashed WWII pilot who’s been stranded on Skull Island ever since, living among the few indigenous people as the world passed him by. Marlow provides the much-needed backstory of how Kong came to be king, worshipped like a god, and protector of the island. He’s also incredibly funny and endearing — a bright spot amongst a mostly forgettable sea of faces.
Kong: Skull Island is great fun, elevating a predictable plot and flat characters with exciting action and entertaining performances. And even though this film as whole suffers because of it, Skull Island does make the promise of the forthcoming Monsterverse all the more interesting. This Kong is a worthy interpretation, bringing us into his world while still revealing a lot about our own.