Back in the mid-fifties, the American distributor of Godzilla (Gojira) attached “King of the Monsters” as a subtitle. A bold claim, sure, but more importantly, a slap in the face of the giant gorilla, Kong, crowned King two decades earlier. Kong might have been born and bred on fictional Skull Island, but he was for all intents and purposes, an American creation. A potent, if unintentional, riff on American slavery, racism, and lonely, misunderstood outsider, albeit an outsider with a thing for screaming blondes and deadly skyscrapers (they reminded him of home), King Kong hit the zeitgeist mother lode, entering pop culture where he’s remained for the better part of a century. A sequel followed, Son of Kong, a couple of low-rent, embarrassing appearances on the Japanese side of the Pacific Ocean, a lightly regarded remake (1976), a sequel, another remake directed by Peter Jackson 12 years ago and now, finally an all-new origin story, a Kong for the 21st century, but still a part of the late 20th century.
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer), Kong: Skull Island plays out like a prequel to a film that hasn’t been made yet (and won’t be), the middle-film in a trilogy, and set-up/world building for a potentially vast shared universe comparable to Marvel and DC (more the former than the latter, obviously). Scrapping the original’s early 1930s setting or the 1976 remake’s contemporary one, Kong: Skull Island takes a time-turner to Kong’s origin story, opening in 1973 at the tail end of the Vietnam War. Mixing a war film, especially a war film about a still divisive, controversial war, with a giant monster (kaiju) movie risks alienating moviegoers who prefer their monster mayhem without real-world parallels or political/history lessons, but apparently that’s a risk Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures didn’t mind taking. Though the characters tend toward the one-dimensional, stock, or stereotypical, Kong: Skull Island delivers more than enough monster-related goods to satisfy even the most skeptical of kaiju fans.
Jordan-Vogt and his screenwriting team deserve credit – likely a result of the backlash that accompanied the 2014 Godzilla remake/reboot – and show Kong in all of his CGI glory 20 minutes into Kong: Skull Island. He’s just minding his business as giant primates are wont to do when a helicopter squadron, freshly emerging from the constant electrical storm that hides the island from the rest of the world, bear down on him, machine guns blazing. Kong does what any pissed off in his place would do: He swats the helicopters out of the sky (a nod to both the original and the 1976 remake), killing most of the men, soldiers and pilots by trade, meant to protect a geological survey team led by William “Bill” Randa (John Goodman), a high-ranking executive with a super-secret government agency, Monarch. A believer in monsters and a “hollow earth” theory posited by a young Yale grad/geologist, Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), Randa’s cajoled a senior U.S. senator to fund one last trip to prove his ideas right.
Rand might be the nominal leader of the expedition, but it’s Lt. Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who emerges as the central character and antagonist. Eager to re-fight an already lost war, Packard sees Kong, rightly or wrongly, not just as an immediate threat, but a long-term, existential threat to humanity (i.e., alpha-predator supremacy). Packard’s military mentality and wartime experience color his perception of Kong (he’s fighting Kong, but he thinks he’s still fighting the Vietcong), eventually putting him into conflict with two other members of the expedition, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a British Special Air Service officer turned tracker-hunter for hire, and Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), an anti-war photojournalist eager to capture the find of the century and win a Pulitzer Prize in the process. Conrad and Weaver eventually come around to seeing Kong less as a threat than a protector, especially after they encounter a half-mad WWII veteran, Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), who’s been stranded on the island for 28 years with only Kong and the island’s mute inhabitants for company.
Marlow functions as Exposition Giver, tour guide, and comic relief, often at the same time. He’s quick to warn the survivors of greater, more monstrous threats on the island that all but wiped out Kong’s kind (as always, he’s the last survivor of his species). They don’t listen, of course. Where would the fun be if they did (listen, that is)? A short cut through a massive, burning boneyard gives Vogt-Roberts and his CGI team the perfect opportunity to stage the film’s first, truly memorable, exhilarating set piece. It’s filled with sound, fury, and a smaller, fleeter cast of characters. And Kong is nowhere to be found when Marlow’s warnings turn out to be more right than wrong. Despite his encounter with the island’s other inhabitants, Packard remains fixated on eliminating Kong from the food chain, setting up a nighttime set piece pitting Packard vs. Kong that’s far less absurd or ridiculous than it sounds.
The last 30 minutes devolve into monster-on-monster-mayhem with non-monster characters standing around, staring in wonder and awe while they try to avoid getting trampled, but then it’s called Kong: Skull Island, not Packard: Skull Island or Marlow: Skull Island. Vogt-Roberts and his CGI team deliver on the explicit promise of a new Kong, bigger, stronger, but just as fierce and prone to bouts of violence (if only in self-defense) as his eighty-year-old, stop-motion counterpart. He’s a bit of a disengaged moper and a loner too, probably the result of that whole “last of his species” thing. Kong develops the obligatory bond with the obligatory blonde, Mason, but it’s far more tangential and marginal here than in previous iterations. Points for not following the remake/reboot road most traveled, especially keeping the Conrad-Weaver romance a non-starter (no time for romance when you’re trying to survive a monster-pocalypse), though the lack of character depth tends to offset story-related variety.
Not surprisingly, Vogt-Roberts plays the Vietnam War reference game hard, but he’s less interested in the actual war than in Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinogenic, surrealistic depiction of the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now. From the name checks (Conrad, as in Joseph Conrad, the author of “Heart of Darkness,” Apocalypse Now’s source text), to the visual iconography, specifically the helicopters in formation as they approach the island before their first/last encounter with Kong, down to the slow-motion escape by river in a cobbled together boat that signals the start of the action-oriented third act, Vogt-Roberts owes a major debt to Apocalypse Now, though anyone expecting a political history lesson from a monsters-first, themes-last entry in a corporate-owned franchise will be sorely disappointed.