Kong: Skull Island

I’ve got a soft spot for lost worlds in general, and Skull Island in particular. I love the idea of worlds that time forgot, wrapped up in mystery, mysticism and maybe a touch of the occult. In many ways, King Kong’s stomping grounds of Skull Island is the epitome of that: a land filled with dinosaurs, a lost civilization, and — of course — a giant ape.

It’s a place I love to visit and hate to leave; in the previous King Kong movies I usually checked out once they started heading back to New York. I get that NYC is an iconic location for the movies, and it sets up the man-vs-nature tragedy … but my heart was always on Skull Island.

Kong: Skull Island delivers on much of what I want from a Kong movie while simultaneously expanding the Monarchverse set up in 2014’s Godzilla. It’s got giant monsters duking it out in a prehistoric wilderness. It’s got hints of a lost world, and teases of more monster goodness to come. Unfortunately it also has an unhealthy fixation on Apocolypse Now.

King-sized Smackdown

First, the good stuff. The movie is set in the waning days of the Vietnam War, decades before Godzilla. As America withdraws from Siagon, a satellites detects a mysterious island with a persistent weather system that makes it all but unreachable (except, of course, for the best Army helicopter pilots).

The movie doesn’t waste much time getting us to the island. We have a little exposition in which we’re introduced to a science team led by William “Bill” Randa (John Goodman). The team is part of a government agency called Monarch, founded in the 1950s to study Godzilla and his ilk (remember those nuclear “tests” … yeah, they were using those bombs try and kill the giant lizard).

Randa convinces the government to mount an expedition to the island, with a U.S. Army helicopter squadron led by Col. Preston Packard (Samuel Jackson) providing transport, protection, and end-of-war angst. Randa hires an expert tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to round out his own science team.

After some obligatory scenes in Vietnam to setup Packard’s Captain Ahab-like obsession with losing the Vietnam War, and then we’re headed to the island, helicopters surging through the storm wall to find the lost island beyond.

They find a prehistoric wilderness rich with flora and flauna … and immediately start bombing it (for science!) It seems that young geologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) has some ideas about the unusual subterranean structure of the island, and he needs a few dozen well placed explosions to record data about what lies beneath.

It’s not a massive spoiler to say this doesn’t go well for them. Kong, who doesn’t take kindly to people blowing up his home, shows up and starts smashing helicopters in classic giant-ape-vs-biplane form. This serves the movie by forcing the humans from the air and onto the ground while simultaneously splitting their group into several contingents (the two biggest ones being the Army, led by Col. Packard, and the researchers, led by Conrad).

The rest of the movie unfolds as you might expect. As alluded to in Godzilla, Earth’s ancient past was filled with super-sized horrors. Several of those live on Skull Island, giving Kong non-human enemies to smack down. There is (of course) a scene involving Kong and the blonde haired photojournalist Weaver, and (of course) there is aboriginal tribe who worship Kong as a god.

The single best character in the movie is Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II pilot who crashed on the island 29 years earlier. He’s Greek chorus, comic relief, and obligatory infodump mechanic all rolled into one and he does an excellent job of counterbalancing the pragmatic tracker Conrad and the increasingly unstable Col. Packard.

Kong’s fight scenes are suitably epic and pit him against a variety of gigantic opponents, the best of which are the “skullcrawlers” (named by Marlow) which are large reptilian creatures with two forearms and a long, snake-like body. Kong. There are one or two scenes that stretch even my credulity — Kong protecting the female photojournalist by holding her in his fist, a napalm filled lake — but for the most part I enjoyed it. Maybe not as much as Pacific Rim, but I got my money’s worth.

Losing Vietnam. Again.

I get the reasons for setting this movie in the Vietnam era and agree with them — it gives you some road to setup the Monarchverse, and allows for other standalone movies set in the 1980s or 1990s. The problem is that the film’s Army-centric imagery and music is a messy mashup of a half-dozen Vietnam movies, with the granddaddy of them all, Apocalypse Now, looming as its own cinematic Kong.

This slavish devotion to those films leads Kong: Skull Island to turn Col. Packard into a bloody-minded, revenge-seeking caricature who needs one more win, no matter what the cost. As someone who grew up in the 1980s, I get that Vietnam was a blow to the national psyche, and that we spent decades looking for a win as a way of getting past it, but having this sort of overwrought revenge story in a Kong flick seems misplaced.

I came to this movie to see giant monsters fight, not watch an Army colonel descend into madness.

As for the rest, I enjoyed it. I personally enjoyed Peter Jackson’s Skull Island a bit more because it was a more realistic lost world, with a giant ape that wasn’t too giant, and evolved dinosaurs that provided an adequate challenge for Kong. That said, that’s not what these movies are about.

The Monarchverse is about resurrecting the classic giant monster movies of old. Kong: Skull Island enables the fledgling series to go back and lay the groundwork for the rest of the movies, providing with fanboys and girls with glimpses of future threats and establishing Monarch as the organization that will protect us (or, more likely, watch helplessly from the sidelines as giant beasts destroy major cities).

In that, Kong: Skull Island succeeded, and I left the theatre wanting more. That said … I’m a giant monster guy. I love these kinds of movies; if you’re looking for something more subtle with well-developed and thought out characters … you should be watching a different movie.

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