As a big-budget B-grade monster movie, Kong: Skull Island is a home run. It offers all the tropes and clichés one expects from this sort of endeavor, sparing no expense when it comes to special effects. As a King Kong movie, however, Skull Island is less successful. The supersized ape stomping around this tropical atoll isn’t recognizable as any Kong we have previously seen. Call him "Kong in Name Only." Superficial physical resemblances aside, it’s hard to find much of the Big Guy’s personality in this incarnation. The Kong of Skull Island is a hulking force of nature who exists exclusively to wreck helicopters and beat up other monsters. Forget all that Beauty and the Beast crap. At 300+ feet tall, he’s about 10 times the size of his 1933/1976/2005 "little brother" — a change that was made so he can eventually go toe-to-toe with Godzilla — something that wouldn’t work if he was only in the 30-50 foot range. For the producers, the end game is 2020’s King Kong versus Godzilla, as is made evident in a post-credits scene.
Kong: Skull Island isn’t a sequel, prequel, or reboot. It’s a completely new story set in a parallel universe where nothing that happened in any previous King Kong movie has transpired. Why use the name Kong when so much is different and previous continuity has been thrown out the window? Marketing! The name "King Kong" has tremendous name recognition. How many millions of people will see this movie because of "Kong" that wouldn’t see it if was about "ApeX"?
Unlike Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, which kept its title creature under wraps for half the running time, it doesn’t take Kong long to get into the action. After a brief cameo during a prologue set in 1944 (which has two World War 2 pilots crash-landing on Skull Island), Kong makes his grand entrance about 20 minutes into the main story. Set in 1973, this allows for countless nods to Apocalypse Now and a few references to the 1976 King Kong. Ignoring the time period, Skull Island has a Jurassic Park 3 vibe.
The movie follows the travails of a group of scientists and soldiers who become trapped on Skull Island after Kong smashes their transport helicopters to smithereens. They’re a diverse lot: mission leader Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his assistants, Houston (Corey Hawkins) and San (Tian Jing); Vietnam vet Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson); tracker and ex-British operative James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston); anti-war photographer and feminist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson); and the Rip Van Winkle-inspired Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), who has been marooned on the island for about 30 years.
Some aspects of Kong lore have been retained. As in the 1976 version, the island is obscured by clouds. It’s also inhabited, although the natives don’t speak (a clever way to avoid the language barrier). The iconic wall is there, although it has been repurposed since there’s no way it would be much of a deterrence to a 30-story ape who can swat helicopters out of the sky. The dinosaurs of the 1933/2005 movies (DeLaurentis opted to go with just a giant rubber snake) have been replaced by lizard monsters since a T-Rex wouldn’t be much of a challenge for this Kong. The movie collapses into three basic elements: Kong vs. people, Kong vs. animals, and lots of running.
The special effects are extraordinary considering the low bar set by the screenplay. This is a wise decision and a case of the producers understanding the audience. No one goes to a King Kong movie expecting well-developed characters and a complex narrative. They go for adventure, excitement, and kick-ass monster battles and all three are in place. As I wrote earlier, this is a good monster movie. It has all the elements. 13-year old boys will be in heaven. It only disappoints when one considers that Kong, distinguished in earlier incarnations as one of the most anthropomorphized of all the big monsters, has been diminished in concept.
For director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, this is an introduction to the big time and he handles it well. His focus is where it should be and the various human actors (including an Oscar winner, two Oscar nominees, and a former Taylor Swift boyfriend) do their best to provide background color. Despite having the best stare of the cast members, Jackson is out-overacted by Reilly, who ends up being the only person we care about.
There have always been pro-environmental themes in the King Kong movies (most clearly emphasized in the 1976 version) and it’s impossible to miss the inclusion of those ideas here. Sticking with the tenet that subtlety has no place in a monster movie, the screenwriters get out the sledgehammer and slam home their commentary about humanity’s (negative) impact on the world around us. They also throw in some anti-war stuff as well, although the frequent call-backs to Apocalypse Now become tiresome after a while. We get the point from the poster’s homage; no need to keep beating the dead horse.
To be fair to Legendary Entertainment, there have been worse representations of King Kong. The two Japanese movies with their laughable production values and man-in-a-monkey-suit approach top the list with the (thankfully) forgotten kids’ cartoon not far behind. Compared to these, Skull Island, despite genericizing the legendary ape, comes across as deeply respectful. And if the ultimate point of this movie is to get Kong into the ring with Godzilla, this isn’t a bad appetizer.