The following review does NOT give away any major plot points or surprises, but as with any full review please be aware of spoilers!
What a raucous, adventurous, and gorgeous yet outrageously violent film Legendary has given us. If you were nervous the studio would pull some of the same punches they did with Godzilla in 2014, rest easy: Kong Skull Island is completely its own beast.
There are a few similarities between the two films, the most obvious of which being their titular giant monsters are both film icons treated as the “good guys”within this budding film universe – and they’re tasked with keeping a much more grotesque, aggressive species at bay as part of nature’s balance. They are also two movies most certainly not made for young children, each serving very-adult takes on their sometimes-campy star monsters. Yet this is where the parallels end. Legendary and Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ have each gone on record stating they recognize King Kong as his own film icon, and making his feature film its own unique entity was paramount to them. Kong should shine in his titular film, right? Not just be a stepping stone for Godzilla. Thankfully, this is exactly what we receive and their planned Monsterverse, as well as audiences, will be much better for it. While Gareth Edward’s Godzilla was an exercise in Jaws-like suspense, awe, and restraint – Vogt-Roberts’ KONG is as non-stop, in-your-face bloody and beautiful as they come; and the film is just that – beautiful and violent. KONG was shot on location in several landscapes known for their unique splendor, including Hawaii, Australia, and of course: Vietnam. What this delivers is an immersive, enchanting trip to a forbidden island: Skull Island becomes a very real, very visceral beauty that is untamable and completely unforgiving.
Vogt-Roberts’ and Legendary made many brilliant creative decisions with this film, one of many being the aforementioned decision to shoot almost completely on-location. This, no doubt, stemmed from an earlier stroke of artistic inspiration: Setting a Kong film in 1970’s Vietnam. The raucous impurity of the 70’s mashes phenomenally well with the fanciful ideas of giant apes and vicious insects, and allows for everything from the mostly alien-looking inhabitants of Skull Island to the military gear and uniforms of the film’s characters to become grounded in a sort of hyper-historied past. These bizarre beasts are, as foreign as they may seem, very much a reflection of nature as it is. Some creatures are benevolent, some kind, and some just really love blood.
Skull Island is full of inspired creature design, something that should please giant monster fans. The trailers highlight most of these, but each of their scenes are only glimpsed there – and the film delivers creature-on-human gore the likes of which is rarely seen in Hollywood these days. The giant spider, Skullcrawlers, and flying pterannodon-like creatures are all standouts, and are given wonderfully-unique designs that are grounded just enough in reality to not be distracting. The Skullcrawlers themselves become a very threatening presence in the film, and each action piece featuring their unique design sells them even more. A lot of monster fans have been unsure of their design, but once you behold how they move and fight and think – it all comes together very nicely (and very violently).
Kong himself has never looked better, and the decision to give him his classic brown fur was another excellent artistic choice; right alongside giving him his more-creature-than-just-a-giant-gorilla bipedal stance. As a monster, Kong seems to be at his best when he’s just as much “monster” as he is “beast” – and KSI nails this, taking heavy inspiration from past Kong designs used famously by Toho studios for King Kong vs Godzilla & King Kong Escapes, their duo of classic King Kong films. The design team also drew from the film icon’s original appearance in his classic 1933 debut, giving him many of the same facial features and shapes. All of this, combined with Terry Notary’s tremendous performance as Kong and Industrial Lights & Magic’s magnificent animation give us the absolute best version of the King yet, and he elevates the film every time he’s “on camera”. He displays a full range of familiar emotions, from fascination & hunger to indifference & rage.
Some of this rage is sparked by co-existing creatures in the film; Kong giving many an epic beat-down to the Skullcrawlers and their kin. Most of his anger, however, is pointed directly at Samuel L. Jackson’s wonderfully over-the-top Colonel Packard. The film’s invasion-based plot sparks a fantastically entertaining rivalry between Packard and Kong, and it serves as an absolute highlight of the film’s story & resolve.
There are plenty of other performances to relish in alongside Jackson’s, who gives us a sort of culmination of all his best roles with Packard (even going as far as to perfectly cameo his most famous Jurassic Park line in the film, as well as several other standard phrases he’s become infamous for). Tom Hiddleston’s expert tracker, Captain James Conrad, is a bit of a loner, sure, but Hiddleston never swaggers as any sort of Rambo-wannabe, and for this the film is much better. He plays a real thinking-man’s ex-militant, one who actually possesses a set of highly-trained skills and uses said skills instead of tropes to master the wild. His character forms a strong bond with Brie Larson’s photojournalist, Mason Weaver, who has a blast stepping on all the sexism that came with the 70s. Weaver is no damsel in distress (thankfully), but the script still has a hard time figuring out exactly what to do with her. Larson is enchanting regardless, of course, and does a wonderful job with what she is given. Both her quiet and intense moments with Kong are some of the best in the entire film. Many will be thrilled to know there is also no contrived love story between these two talented actors to bog down the plot, another strong decision that serves to move the fast-paced proceedings along.
You’ll recognize a lot of the other faces in Skull Island, and that’s because it sports a huge supporting cast that relies on plenty of well known character actors – most of which very obviously had a blast with their roles. Some are completely forgettable, though, and this is where a lot of the film’s criticism stems from. Unfortunately, one such performance comes from the legendary John Goodman. He seems to sleepwalk through the entire film as William “Bill” Randa, a Monarch scientist who most have viewed as a crackpot his entire career. For a character who is completely responsible for the plot’s proceedings, you’d expect a lot more. Instead, we’re treated to a very paint-by-numbers Goodman delivering a one-note, muddled performance. His partner, a geologist played by Corey Hawkins, is the slightly more interesting of the two. Hawkins’ Huston Brooks delivers real scientific presence and plenty of theories to the film that elevate this idea that the creatures of the Monsterverse have had somewhere to hide – and just why they might all be emerging with recent tides in human history.
The best character we’re given, though, is John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow by a landslide. He’s been on the island for over twenty years, and the resulting performance from Reilly is equal parts hilarious and unnerving. He’s a great time to behold, and elevates the entire film’s joy and heart factors. The dynamic between Shea Whigham’s Cole and Jason Mitchell’s Mills is another highlight, both characters serving up a lot of laughs and a lot of soul to the Vietnam-esque proceedings.
We’re also treated to a mesmerizing Toho-inspired civilization on Skull Island, one that is ancient and wise and completely in tandem with nature. Their relationship with Kong and the history of the island’s beasts is brilliantly intertwined, giving both weight and purpose to Kong’s presence on the island – and his nemesis – the Skullcrawlers.
An absolutely killer soundtrack stems from the 1973 setting as well. It’s so good it brings to mind perhaps the most successful pop-sountrack of modern cinema: Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. The score from Henry Jackman blends seamlessly with the soundtrack, and serves the film well yet never gives Kong any sort of theme for us to hum or remember, which is a huge missed opportunity reminiscent of Alexander Desplat’s Godzilla score.
All of this considered, SKULL ISLAND truly delivers in almost every department and pushes to the absolute boundaries of what a PG-13 rating will allow. While Peter Jackson’s 2005 effort was a massive study of character for both Kong and all of his human counterparts – Skull Island brings the focus back to nature and her monsters, and the result is a relentlessly-fun and intense giant monster film with plenty of rewatchability (and if that wasn’t a word before it is now). If you’ve been waiting for a worthy modern resurgence of film’s most iconic giant ape, then Legendary has delivered and promises to continue doing just that with their MONSTERVERSE (be sure to watch through the credits for a phenomenal tease concerning this). Just beware for your trip to Skull Island, as it is not a forgiving one.
Jon D. B.
Images courtesy of Legendary & Warner Bros.