Kong: Skull Island – A Big-Budget Sandbox

By Ezra Stead 

Kong: Skull Island, USA, 2017

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Nothing can destroy one’s enjoyment of a new movie like anticipation, and this type of (sometimes) misplaced enthusiasm is never more likely to occur than when it is attached to a new version of a beloved property. As excited as audiences might have been about, say, Jurassic Park in 1993, the anticipation for its sequel a few years later was bound to be even higher, leaving open the road for diminishing returns down which that particular franchise has been barreling ever since. 60 years before that first Jurassic movie, there was a little black-and-white classic without which Spielberg’s masterpiece likely never would have come to exist; that, of course, was the original King Kong, and if you’re not a pretty huge fan of that one, I’m kind of surprised you’re even reading this.

Needless to say, going into Kong: Skull Island, I had mixed feelings of hope and despair, balancing out to a sort of cautious optimism. Kong’s last big-screen outing, at the hands of Peter Jackson and company in 2005, was certainly reverent of the source material and technically impressive overall, if perhaps over-ambitious, and certainly a bit bloated at over three hours. Luckily, Skull Island has all the technical prowess of its predecessor with none of the awkward self-seriousness. It is a wildly entertaining romp from start to finish, and without a doubt my second-favorite Kong movie yet (I’m pretty sure most fans of the 1976 version are really just fans of young Jessica Lange). 

I think it’s safe to say most real Kong fans agree the best part of all previous iterations of the story are the sequences that take place on Skull Island, the great ape-King’s homeland. This is where you get all the best giant monster action; besides Kong himself, there are dinosaurs, huge bugs, and all sorts of other terrifying creatures on the island, and that’s what we’ve come to see. Skull Island wisely sticks with its titular location and all the nightmarish but strangely beautiful happenings there.

The other smartest decision made by the filmmakers is the fact that this is in no way a remake of anything that has come before. This is an alternate storyline, in which Kong was never forced to leave the island and then subsequently killed by the Air Force in 1930s Manhattan. Instead, he has been living in relative peace on the island since who knows when, all the way up to the 1970s—the Vietnam era in which this one takes place.

Kong’s peaceful existence is shattered when a bunch of stupid humans come crashing in and blowing things up, as is our wont. The team of stupid humans is assembled by Bill Randa (John Goodman), a scientist who has endured years of being called a quack for his belief in the existence of MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms—this is same acronym used in the latest English-language version of Godzilla—more on that soon), and now he’s out to prove it. In order to do this, he’s enlisted scientists—Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Corey Hawkins—and, in far greater numbers, military personnel—Jason Mitchell, Toby Kebbell, the scene-stealing Shea Whigham, all led by Samuel L. Jackson—on an expedition to the mysterious, hidden island, where a disproportionate number of ships and planes have gone inexplicably missing over the years.

The perennial complaint about monster movies is that the Big Bad tends to have extremely limited screen time. At the hands of a master like Spielberg (Jaws, Jurassic Park), or Ridley Scott (Alien), this is actually much more effective than showing too much, and no one ever complains, for example, that there aren’t enough dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. The other advantage those three films have is good human characters in whom an audience can actually invest, something sorely missing from recent efforts like Godzilla or Jurassic World. Skull Island has the best of both worlds, giving us a glimpse of Kong himself practically right off the bat—and then not skimping on the monster action in the slightest for the rest of the movie’s running time—and also providing some pretty terrific humans to care about. The best of these is John C. Reilly as a WWII fighter pilot who’s been stranded on the island ever since accidentally crash-landing there during that war; he provides both comic relief and some unexpected poignancy.

Even before the real action begins, though (and long before Reilly’s appearance), director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Kings of Summer) shows a flair for sight gags that is more than welcome in the all too homogenous field of blockbuster moviemaking. As the military helicopters are flying over the island near the beginning of the movie, for example, we see them in silhouette through the trees, and then a surprising thing happens: one of the choppers lands on a tree branch, the lighting shifts, and we see that this one was actually just an ordinary dragonfly foregrounded against the background choppers. It’s a great visual reference to the relative nature of scale, underlined moments later when the actual choppers are dwarfed by Kong, and throughout the movie, as we see plenty of bugs that are decidedly not of ordinary size.

To avoid the risk of gushing too much about a movie that is—in case you haven’t already figured out my opinion—thoroughly awesome, I’ll admit that there are a fair number of clichés, particularly of the war movie variety, in some of the dialogue and character choices, but when the sheer spectacle is this engaging, considerations like that tend to fall by the wayside. If you want to feel like a kid again, playing in a big-budget sandbox, this movie is easily the best thing for you since the airport fight in Captain America: Civil War.

Oh, and while we’re making that connection, be sure to stick around past the end credits for a bonus scene that ties Skull Island together with the latest American version of Godzilla in a way that already has me more excited for the coming MUTO Cinematic Universe than I ever have been about that other, already established MCU.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper, and occasional stand-up comic who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in New York City, where he is working on his first novel.

For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com

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