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In 2014, Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures brought back the monster movie in a big way with Godzilla, a modern day reboot that brought the prehistoric beast to life for a new generation. The movie was a smashing success, which meant that it was time to build a new franchise around the King of the Monster’s homecoming, as many studios would do. But you can’t just build a franchise these days, you have to build a cinematic universe! So a course was laid out for a new monster universe that would would find that Godzilla wasn’t the only monster in the world, and not only that, he wouldn’t be the only King either: Enter Kong, everyone’s favorite sky scrapper climbing primate, the star of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ new monster mash film, Kong: Skull Island.
We’ve seen many iterations of the Kong character since his debut in the 1933 classic, King Kong, the original Hollywood creature feature. So it’s easy to write off a new film featuring the character as just another Kong film, but film’s director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, clearly wants you to know this is a completely new take on the character. The film, set in 1973 at the end of the Vietnam War, is a big B monster film through the eyes of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It’s a truly fascinating mix, one that could go terribly off the rails, but in fact, ends up being the film’s greatest strength. This is a Kong film like we’ve never seen, and this fresh new style and aesthetic ends up being the perfect back drop for the story. As with any good creature feature, the story revolves around an expedition to Skull Island, the last uncharted piece of land on the planet, and the crew that goes to explore it. But of course, they have no idea what they’re getting into, as the man behind the mission, Bill Randa (John Goodman), has kept all the secrets of the island to himself for fear of being called a crack pot. Simply put, Bill believes that monsters are real, and he’s hellbent on proving it. Together with a team that consists of a war photographer (Brie Larson), an ex-British Military Officer (Tom Hiddleston), and a group of U.S. military officers led by Samuel L. Jackson’s Col. Packard, they set out to explore this uncharted terrain known as Skull Island, where Kong is king.
If the above synopsis of the film is any indication, it’s clear that we’ve seen stories like this before. More so, you’ve seen these characters before, and really they’re not the most interesting or most fleshed out. While something like that would normally be detrimental to a film, here it actually works to Kong: Skull Island‘s advantage. The characters do their job bringing us into this world, but the real star of the film is Kong himself, and all the monsters that surround him. Vogt-Roberts wastes no time getting into action with Kong, as the crew arrives in Skull Island twenty minutes into the film, dropping bombs as they first arrive, only to be met by an angry ape who doesn’t like people bombing his territory. Not only is this a Kong film we’ve never seen before, but this is a Kong we’ve never seen before. This Kong is huge, about as big as the mountains around him, so you can see they’ve sized him up considerably. Now he’s closer to the size of Godzilla, for many obvious reasons, but it works. This Kong is a true monster, one that you don’t mess with, as he’s powerful, and really a full on badass. As king of his land, he’ll protect it at all costs, no matter who, or what, you may be.
There’s something to be said about the simplicity of the story and the characters, and letting them be there to strength our bound with the land and Kong, without taking away from the film itself. All the characters are classic archetypes of adventure and monster films, like the lone hero who doesn’t work with people, the strong and brash female who can fend for herself, the man who loves the beast, and the other who wants to destroy it. Each plays a specific part, but outside of John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow, who steals the movie from everyone around him, the characters don’t really add to the film. Samuel L. Jackson’s Packard is a fun play on Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, down to the man not born in war, and the thought of no war driving him mad, but it’s also just Samuel L. Jackson being Samuel L. Jackson. We know what we’re getting from him, and he’s fun as hell to watch, but his character isn’t groundbreaking or different than anything we’ve really seen before. It’s amazing that the film can be so entertaining, and dare I say fun, with characters that are more there to push the story forward than to be the film’s sole focus. This is a pulpy creature feature at its finest, and the filmmakers embraced that head on in they’re handling of the film. It can’t be understated though how great John C. Reilly is in this film, as he’s the one character who knows this is a big B monster extravaganza, and he plays it up to great effect.
But what Vogt-Roberts does so perfectly with this film is he brings the big monster mayhem beautifully to life with cinematographer Larry Fong. This film looks gorgeous from the opening moments, capturing the 1970’s aesthetic and feel, while also really bringing that Apocalypse Now vibe vividly back to life. Every scene has shots that should be freeze framed to just stare at and explore, as they’re just perfectly captured moments that you can’t keep your eyes off. This is exceptionally true when we get to the film’s many action sequences, that are just gorgeously composed, where you can really relish in the majesty of these giant creatures fighting. Every action scene is new and exciting, and looks absolutely gorgeous, you have a hard time not wanting to stand up and cheer when Kong starts knocking these monsters back into the ground that they came from. One moment in particular really stood out to me, that was clearly an influence of Akira Kurosawa and his samurai films, and it’s played in such a cool way here that it felt fresh and new. All this comes together under Fong and Vogt-Roberts’ watchful eyes, and is fleshed out by Henry Jackman, whose score strengthens the film throughout. This is a brilliant score that completely melds with the film, adding fun, adding dread, and really just oozing off the screen, completely encapsulating the audience.
Honestly, the best thing about this movie is it embraces the heart of the creature feature, and goes completely for broke. While we’re so used to seeing Kong in the city, this film leaves him in his element on Skull Island, surrounded by many beasts and monsters that are not only extremely cool to look at, but also extremely dangerous at well. Every creature is fascinating to look, and the fact that there’s so many creatures to look at makes this feel like a whole world. Not only that, but as stated before, the big monster fights are fun as hell, as well as truly mesmerizing and monstrous. Many parts throughout this film will go on to become classic monster movie moments, no doubt about it, and that’s much to Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ credit. By simply embracing that this is a monster movie, he’s given Kong new life by letting him really tear up the screen, as well as the creatures around him. This is a no holds barred look at the original creature feature king, and it’s a welcome new direction for the character. One that is sure to have an even bigger payoff in the future. With all the references and hints towards Godzilla throughout the film, part of that being what’s pushing Goodman’s Bill Randa, it’s hard not to get excited about seeing the King of Monsters himself go toe-to-toe with Kong down the line.
Kong: Skull Island is a massively entertaining return of the B movie creature feature, but with new paint, and a great cast. Though the characters are more there for story purposes than to be real characters, it works in the film’s favor, as it gives Kong time to shine as the film’s real star. Action packed from beginning to end, and featuring some incredibly awesome monster mash style battles, it’s hard not to fall head over heels for this new take on the classic character. This is a huge step in the right direction for the franchise, and will go down as one of the best additions to the Kong pantheon. This is film that will leave audiences cheering, and wanting more from this world and character, which is really the biggest compliment you can give it. There’s so much more to explore, and here’s hoping that we get to spend more time on Skull Island with Kong, and the creatures that inhabit his island. Kong truly is king, and it’s great to have him back and better than ever.