With so many screen versions of King Kong, how does 2017’s Skull Island set itself apart? For one, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts doesn’t hold back on the reveal of the giant ape, refreshingly opting to show Kong within the movie’s opening minutes. Skull Island also reshapes the Kong mythos to fit the modern blockbuster paradigm, setting up this movie as only one cog in a clockwork narrative that will be a “shared universe” of multiple monsters that will eventually do battle. And if that comes as a surprise to you, then maybe you haven’t seen a big-budget action movie in a while, most of which seem overly beholden to executives with dollar signs in their eyes rather than the need to spin a good yarn.
The good thing is that while King Kong is a [L]egendary property, it still lends itself to periodic remakes that can comment on the times. Ironically, filmmakers have recently opted to set Kong in the past, with Peter Jackson’s faithful 2005 version set in 1933 and Vogt-Robert’s Skull Island set in 1973 at the tail end of the Vietnam War. That means that Skull Island can have its cake and eat it too, slyly commenting on modern politics through the lens of the 70s while cramming in Vietnam movie references as well.
After a brief WW2-set prologue, the audience catches up with geologists played by John Goodman and Corey Hawkins who are headed to a protest-beset Washington to beg for funds for their scientific expedition (history is cyclical, no?). After some arm-twisting they’re on their way to the mysterious Skull Island of the title, a Bermuda Triangle-like oasis untouched by man that potentially hides great riches. Naturally, they carpet bomb the place as soon as they arrive.
Before that point they’re joined by a motley crew of cannon fodder – I mean characters – that round out the sprawling cast. A helicopter platoon led by Samuel L. Jackson (in a Colonel Kurtz-esque role) provides the military muscle, while the movie bends over backwards to provide the justification for Brie Larson’s photojournalist and Tom Hiddleston’s British SAS Captain to join the expedition. Regardless, part of the fun becomes guessing who’ll be the next notable character actor to be picked off by either Kong or one of the creepy-crawlies that populate his island.
The body count starts strong and doesn’t let up, as a spectacular dusk attack by Kong on Apocalypse Now-like invasive helicopters (“Flight of the Valkyries” is replaced here by Black Sabbath, one of many familiar but welcome needle drops) proves Vogt-Roberts’ commitment to a relentless pace – one of the movie’s main strengths. Skull Island’s other secret weapon is one John C. Reilly, an actor who can readily switch between comedy and drama but is in goofy Steve Brule-mode here. Skull Island nearly becomes a full-on comedy in his presence, as Reilly seemingly ad-libs non-sequiturs while a monster movie rages around him. He is the reason to see the movie.
And what of Kong himself? The giant ape is well-realized here, more regal and violent than Jackson’s sincere 2005 version. Kong is a lonely king in Skull Island, the last of his kind and a reluctant protector that doesn’t take kindly to strangers swooping in and shooting their guns at him. Man’s tendency towards violence and destruction is once again set up as the true enemy, though the more kind-hearted and pacifist heroes must eventually team up with Kong to face the greater threat of “Skullwalkers” (ugly lizard-like creatures) from deep within the Earth’s core.
That leads to a fairly epic final battle in which we get to see Kong strut his stuff, ending in much the same way that 2014’s Godzilla and Pacific Rim did. For the movie to really land we need an emotional crux on which to hang our hats and Skull Island – despite a highly capable cast – doesn’t really provide that. John C. Reilly’s Marlow (Heart of Darkness reference alert!) is the closest the movie comes to an emotional centre, but everyone else barely registers. The ride is certainly fun while it lasts (and features a blessedly bright colour palate), but it doesn’t linger with the sense of tragedy that previous Kong iterations have. That’s in large part due to the fact that Kong must return to protect humanity once again, and giving him a noble and heartbreaking death simply wouldn’t jibe with the studio’s ten-film plan.
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Runtime: 118 minutes