“This planet doesn’t belong to us. Ancient species owned this earth long before mankind. I spent thirty years trying to prove the truth: monsters exist.” ~ Bill Randa
“An uncharted island. Let me list all the ways you’re going to die: rain, heat, disease carrying flies, and we haven’t started on the things that want to eat you alive.” ~ James Conrad
“Kong’s god on the island, but the devils live below us.” ~ Hank Marlow
“It’s time to show Kong that man is king!” ~ Preston Packard
“We don’t belong here.” ~ Mason Weaver
The monsters return in a big way in Kong: Skull Island, a new take on the King Kong mythos from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. The film is the second in Legendary Entertainment’s monster-verse, also serving as a prequel to the 2014 Godzilla, which is yet to come as far as the film’s timeline is concerned, but is referenced during the film. Bringing together a diverse cast for an adventure tale involving fierce monsters on a lost island, the film presents the cranky gigantic ape while evoking the Vietnam War era in which the story is set.
The story opens in 1973, where a government agent, Bill Randa (John Goodman) hires a former British SAS captain, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to lead an expedition onto an uncharted island in the South Pacific, known as Skull Island (which ought to be the first notion to make one reconsider making the trip). A helicopter squadron led by a grouchy Lieutenant-Colonel, Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) is brought in as an escort, and the expedition also includes a photojournalist, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who has her own agenda, believing the expedition is little more than a military operation that needs to be exposed. Things of course quickly go wrong on the island when it becomes clear that Weaver’s suspicions are true, and that the island is home to more than one irritable giant beast.
The film is a reboot of the King Kong franchise, offering up an origin story that stands out well on its own but also gives nods to things to come. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen the big ape on the big screen, in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which was set in the 1930s Depression and ranged from the mysterious lost island to the lights of New York City. The story here does not take the ape off the island, doomed to meet a bad end by falling off a huge building as has been the habit in previous Kong films. Instead it keeps things squarely on the island. The film has been in development for awhile, with acknowledgements that it would tie into Godzilla, something that it does in bringing Monarch, the secretive agency of that film into the mix, or giving us glimpses of familiar beasts in the lore of that oversized critter.
The screenplay is by Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy) and Max Borenstein (Godzilla), from a story conceived by Gilroy and John Gatins (Flight). Setting the narrative in the dying years of the Vietnam War is creative- the tone of the story evokes Vietnam era movies, like Platoon or Apocalypse Now, with the dread of what’s up that river and the underlying tone of impending madness that you’d find in films dealing with that war. The story also deals with the dangers of obsession, most characteristic in the characters Randa, who seeks to confirm his own beliefs about the existence of monsters without taking into account their danger, or especially Packard, who comes across as a Captain Ahab of sorts. And the story thoroughly plays around with the thrills and chills of the monster genre, giving us a fearsome titular beast but turning things around by adding in creatures even more ferocious- requiring Kong to be a hero of sorts.
Location filming took place in Vietnam, Hawaii, and Australia, all tropical settings that do a good job of bringing to life the mysterious, exotic look of Skull Island, as well as lending an underlying menace as the film goes along. Several directors were considered in pre-production; Vogt-Roberts is a curious choice for the job, given that his previous experience is in part, in television, as well as two features- a documentary on stand up comedy and the 2013 film The Kings Of Summer, which is hardly the sort of resume you’d expect for a big budget adventure director.
And yet his film works well. Vogt-Roberts paces the film well, slowly building up tension, handling the character dynamics, particularly differences, in just the right way. He takes things in just the right way as he introduces the characters, many of whom won’t live to get off the island (again, what were you all thinking signing on to go to a place called Skull Island?). And then, when it’s time for the ferocity of the film to be unleashed, the director’s style is bold and well done. His visual style and camera work allows us to keep track of the action both on the human scale and the oversized monster scale. The setting is largely lighter than the overly dependent on night time filming of Godzilla, which also helps.
The special effects are well done. As was the case with Peter Jackson’s take on Kong, where people certainly appeared to be in the same space as these giant monsters, that applies here as well- Kong and the other monsters, the Skull Crawlers, as they are called, do appear to be occupying the same terrain, as opposed to looking stilted. Kong himself is a mix of CGI and motion capture work (done by Terry Notary, following in the footsteps of Andy Serkis, who’s made a career out of showing up on sets in motion capture suits). He certainly looks like a behemoth, a force of nature not be under-estimated. And he looks like you’d expect King Kong to look like.
I like the cast choices. It starts with actors like Toby Kebbell, Thomas Mann, or Jason Mitchell, all of whom play loyal soldiers under the command of Packard- perhaps too loyal, as the colonel proves to be a bit too obsessed with getting revenge. Jing Tian and Corey Hawkins get good roles as scientists, both with what might seem to be implausible ideas and hidden agendas, but both likable in their own way. It’s common of the whole cast that the characters are, in one way or another, misfits.
John C. Reilly, who’s spent time in a wide variety of roles as a character actor, including inexplicably a couple of comedies with the profoundly obnoxious Will Ferrell (side note: if Will Ferrell were clinging to the side of a cliff, I’d step on his fingers). Here he gets to play an interesting and eccentric role- Hank Marlow, an American pilot who’s been stranded on the island since World War Two and has gotten to know the place more than he’d have liked to. Marlow offers up some needed expository dialogue (and wry humour) during the calm between the storms, but also leaves us wondering how a man lost to civilization for decades on end would cope with it all.
John Goodman is another one of those character actors you’ve seen in countless roles- I tend to like his film work. His Bill Randa is a good role, a somewhat secretive official who heads up the entire operation and omits vital details until the party is well and deep into trouble. He’s a man who plays his cards close to the vest, only revealing his associations with the Monarch organization and the existence of monsters after the fact. While he is duplicitous in that regard, he’s still brave enough to go out there in the field and take part in a dangerous operation, something you wouldn’t expect in someone who’s higher up in such an organization.
Brie Larson (Room) gets the leading lady role as Mason Weaver- and yet unlike Naomi Watts, Jessica Lange, or Fay Wray in previous Kong outings, she’s not the damsel in distress and object of affection by an oversized ape. Instead she’s capable and resourceful, altruistic and a pacifist by nature. She comes into the expedition with her own agenda, fuelled by cynicism and suspicion over the true objectives of what’s supposed to be a scientific expedition, and proven right by events as they unfold. She’s someone of conscience, driven by a respect for nature, and so she ends up viewing Kong in a completely different way than the colonel, accepting that the beast is not an enemy.
Samuel L. Jackson gets a whole lot to do as the relentlessly driven and perpetually grouchy military career soldier Packard. He gives the role a sense of authority- we can see why his men are loyal to him- and then invests it with a whole lot of obsessive crankiness as he becomes consumed with the idea of getting even with the over sized primate that killed some of his men. It’s a Captain Ahab sort of character, and we all know that Captain Ahabs of fiction never meet good ends. But Jackson gives him depth, showing an intensely driven man as the film goes along.
Hiddleston gets the leading man role as James Conrad (surely not a coincidence that he shares a surname with Joseph Conrad, who wrote Heart Of Darkness, the source material for Apocalypse Now, which in and of itself has an influence on this film). He's an interesting character- a veteran of the British Special Air Service, the sort of person you definitely don’t want to pick a fight with. We learn he’s also served in the Vietnam War, an odd touch since that was an American conflict, and we get the sense that his life’s experiences has left him broken inside. Conrad brings a certain skill set to the story vital for the expedition as a tracker and soldier. He’s a man who’s caught between war and nature; he understands conflict intimately, but can step outside that and view what seems to be an antagonist- a cranky giant ape- as something to be sympathetic about. The actor certainly carries himself well in the role and makes Conrad compelling, and it’s interesting to see him opposite Jackson in a completely different dynamic than their previous roles in the Avengers world (with Larson still to turn up in that respect in a future installment).
Kong: Skull Island is a satisfying adventure tale, with an interesting choice as period settings- we’ve seen the Vietnam War often in films, but never in the context of a monster movie. It establishes a shared universe with another monster, setting the stage for a future clash with Godzilla (and other gigantic beasts yet to come). The film is well paced, with suspension building in just the right way before unleashing action. It gives us a formidable leading beast with his own enemies, and a human cast of misfits who keep us interested and engaged. And the film leaves us wanting more. We’ll just have to be patient.