Not every movie has to have character arcs! Like many monster movies, Kong: Skull Island knows this, but unlike, say, 2014’s American Godzilla movie (which is still great regardless, fight me), there’s an abundance of humans worth watching too. The second movie from Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who jumps to a budget over a hundred times that of his indie debut Kings of Summer avoids the slide into generics that plague most indie-to-franchise filmmaking leaps resulting in a sentence you probably never expected to hear: the King Kong prequel, or reboot, or whatever, is good.
Kong Skull Island boasts a mega-star cast
As you may have guessed from the marketing, there’s a bit of Apocalypse Now in there, and the setting is no exception. Taking place in the literal last days of the Vietnam War, Skull Island sees Bill Randa (John Goodman), head of an oddball government organization called Monarch, start an expedition to a newly discovered island, alongside a giant cast. There’s former SAS Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), hired to track; Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a renown, anti-war photojournalist; and a whole squadron of US soldiers lead by Perston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who doesn’t seem to want the war to end.
The expedition immediately goes wrong when upon arrival, they immediately encounter Kong. Skull Island doesn’t save it’s giant monster, it his you with it immediately, and its for the better. The different reactions among the split up, surviving parties, who variously want to get off the island, and get revenge on Kong, form the thematic spine of the movie, which (in a non-cloying way) spins some classic monster movie themery on humanity’s relationship with nature, violence, and itself.
The monsters and their fightings are requisitely cool, and Vogt-Roberts action is some of the rare cinema to show clear video game influence in ways that are actually good. His direction in general, too, maintains the kind of distinct style that’s usually bludgeoned away in movies like this, with Edgar Wright-esque montages, human vs. monster scale shots that might remind you of some anime, and some very unexpected slo-mo.
But it’d be meaningless were it not for how strong and well-managed the whole massive ensemble is.
The script, by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connoloy, from a story by Gilroy and John Gatins, could easily descend into a lot of generic scientists and military types providing mere broad stroke shadings behind Hiddleston and Larson’s star power. Instead, from veteran Shea Whigham (whose brusque grumbliness always elevates small parts in everything from Furious 6 to Non-Stop) to Jason Mitchell (continuing the greatness he started as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton) as a more uneasy young officer, they’re almost all unique and effective characters you can get into even as they share the screen with dozens of others. Best of all though, is the introduction of John C. Reilly as island-strandee Hank Marlow provides not just the most humor, but the movie’s emotional core—though Jackson continues to mount the evidence that he might be underappreciated at this point (and is somehow 68 years old what).
While we never get very deep into any of these characters, we get enough, and the decision makes Kong: Skull Island feel different from most blockbusters. It’s not about any one person, or about heroically taking control of the situation. Instead, it’s about knowing when not to fight, and how to try to get along with the unknown instead of destroying it. By taking a different than usual path (and managing to put aside most of racism and sexism of the original), Kong: Skull Island takes one of the oldest characters in film and manages to do something fresh.
Film Review by Charlie Heller, exclusive to LAWestMedia.com
Images from Warner Bros.