Kong is bigger, stronger and rules his own island!
Written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly
Story by John Gatins
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
*spoilers contained within*
When the first posters and trailers began showing up for Kong: Skull Island, I thought it was just going to be another way to make more money off the legendary ape and went to it with the mindset that it would be nothing more than a fun movie with Kong fighting monsters and getting the girl like he normally does. The movie opens with the sounds of a dogfight with the caption, “Somewhere in the South Pacific, 1944.” The camera pans to a beach where a pilot has just landed after his plane is shot down. As he gets his wits together, he sees another downed pilot, who happens to be Japanese. They empty their guns but miss each other so the Japanese pilot pulls out a katana. The two jostle each other to the ground on the edge of a cliff when a gigantic paw appears. As the opening credits roll, we are transported to Washington, D.C. in 1973 where monster believer Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his new partner Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) pitch an expedition to the island to Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins) who reluctantly agrees to fund it and provide them with what they need. When they get to the island, they encounter all kinds of odd, large and even very dangerous creatures from the gentle water buffalo draped in grass to a gigantic flesh-eating spider with legs as sharp and hard as bamboo.
I thoroughly enjoyed both the original 1933 Faye Wray classic and the 2006 Peter Jackson re-make starring Naomi Watts which was enough to get me enthusiastic for Skull Island. After the opening scene mentioned above, I could not help but be enthralled by the movie. The casting for this movie was excellent and the characters were fantastic. Samuel L. Jackson was, well, Samuel L. Jackson as battle-hardened yet battle-damaged Col. Preston Packard. There were stern faces and one-liners everywhere as Jackson put his wise-cracking mentality we all know and love into another one of his characters. Brie Larson played Mason Weaver, a wartime photographer who brought a sense of innocence to the group of fresh-off-the-battlefield soldiers. She bonds with nature, even trying to save a water buffalo that is pinned under the wreckage of a downed Huey chopper. Two of the soldiers in the unit stuck out with me the most, Mills (Jason Mitchell) and Cole (Shea Whigham). They were polar opposites of each other yet played off of each other so well. They had a mutual respect and understanding. John C. Reilly added comic relief to the otherwise serious tone of the film. He played Lt. Hank Marlow, the pilot who is shot down in 1944 when the movie opens. He and the Japanese pilot who were found by Kong lived on the island and helped each other survive as long as they could. Last but not least of the main characters is former SAS member-turned-mercenary James Conrad, played by Tom Hiddleston. He may look like he’s out of his element when he’s not wearing Loki’s horns, but he is superb and is very good with sharp objects.
As the movie went on, I came to realize there was more to this film than Kong fighting monsters and getting the girl. There were plenty of subtle messages and underlying themes that go beyond the plot of the movie with Randa going in to try and prove monsters exist. While I was waiting on line to get into the theater, I saw a Kong: Skull Island poster that looked like the poster from Apocalypse Now and thought to myself, “Hmmm…interesting.” The creators of the poster knew what they were doing because this movie invoked the spirit of not only Apocalypse Now (minus Ride of the Valkyries) but the book it was based off of, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. We have Conrad who is a mercenary being paid to go to a remote jungle environment to help a group of men find something and Harlow, who is trapped on the island with no knowledge of the outside world since the time he got there. He even learns to be one with the island and its inhabitants. Just as we saw in Apocalypse Now, we see in Skull Island what war does to people. Col. Packard starts off just doing his job taking the team to explore the island but changes when he sees what Kong does to his men as they arrive. He may seem like the villain in the movie, but it’s not completely by choice. He has seen war and the loss that comes with it so he only knows one way to handle it which is to go after the cause of his loss. Cole is loyal to Packard and Mills and the rest of the men respect Cole so they go forward with the mission. Little by little, Packard is consumed by his quest for revenge and he takes his men deeper and deeper into the jungle. One of the filming locations was Vietnam itself which makes the movie that much more real as it takes place right after the Vietnam War ends but before the soldiers can go back home.
While the Apocalypse Now overtone is quite obvious, there’s another movie that Kong: Skull Island reminds me of and that is-hold on to your butts-Jurassic Park, mainly The Lost World. To me, Randa and the Landsat team that supplies the “research” equipment, remind me of John Hammond and InGen when they go down to Isla Sorna. He withholds information from everyone and it all comes back to haunt him. Just as in The Lost World, there is always the one group who sees the malicious intentions of the other groups and fight to save the day. In this case, Conrad, Harlow, Weaver, Brooks and scientist San (Tian Jang) see Packard’s descent into madness and his intentions for not only Kong, but the island in general. While Brooks and San stay behind, the others go in under the cover of night to stop Packard.
The crew behind Kong: Skull Island did an amazing job with this film and set the stage nicely for the newly-formed MonsterVerse (stay after the credits and you’ll know what I mean). It reset the Kong timeline while preserving the legacy and timelessness of the original film. While they did a good job with 2014’s Godzilla, they got it right with Kong. The soundtrack of Vietnam-era songs sprinkled throughout the movie added to the setting of the film and made the setting a character itself. Kong behaved realistically like a wild gorilla would, using tools to hunt and defend himself and beating his chest and showing his teeth as signs of aggression. Brie Larson wasn’t the damsel in distress but rather the voice of reason who connects not only with Conrad and Harlow but with Kong and the water buffalo. This is more than your average Kong movie. It is a story about morality, the cost of war and a lesson that humans don’t own the earth, we share it.
(Joe Grodensky – @JoeGrodensky)