In 1973, after centuries of whispers and expeditions lost in uncharted seas, the latest in satellite technology unveiled the last unspoiled region of our planet, a primordial island chain that is rife with potential. Thanks to impassioned Monarch researcher Bill Randa (John Goodman), the program bought itself one final voyage before it’s shut down to finally prove the existence of ancient species. Not only does Randa and his team find the proof they seek but witness a diversity of primal horrors thriving in our modern age. Unfortunately, during their risky endeavor, no one received the memo that waking a sleeping giant is never, ever a good idea.
Kong: Skull Island is only the second theatrical feature of director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who received considerable acclaim for his debut, The Kings of Summer. No question this project was the complete antithesis of his coming-of-age dramedy yet Vogt-Roberts’ penchant for drawing the vulnerability and determination out of internally conflicted players is present throughout Kong. The god-like behemoth is the star of the show and Kong’s strength is on full display nearly every time he’s on screen. Concurrently, Kong displays a fierce protectiveness towards the island’s fauna, and his empathy is returned by some of his newfound friends. Where Gareth Edward’s Godzilla faltered in sustaining a sense of adventure amid the destructive torrent of the kaiju, Skull Island gives you all the outlandish eye candy and ham-fisted action you could ever desire in its two hour run time.
Joining Randa in his extremely hazardous misadventure are his bright-eyed Monarch contemporaries Houston Brooks (24: Legacy’s Corey Hawkins) and San Lin (Tian Jian). Along the way they pick up battle-weary tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), opportunistic photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and an Army helicopter squadron led by Lt. Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). All but Randa are unaware of Kong’s existence but his presence is immediately felt with thunderous rage as they naively despoil his territory. Displaced and unable to retreat to safety, the crew have no other recourse but to venture deeper into Skull Island and pray their retrieval team will arrive at the designated coordinates.
In short time this ragtag group of shifty-eyed grunts and desk jockeys learn the island is a merciless ecosystem where every fantastical beast they encounter is in another’s food chain. While Skull Island is invariably rendered as a wilderness full of death, Vogt-Robert’s vision imbues the mythical land with unexpected serenity as these wary explorers can’t help but stare in awe at their extraordinary surroundings. Unlike Jackson’s 2005 homage which presented the island as a jagged tomb gushing with bones, bugs and wild-eyed natives, this Skull Island exhibits a fragility within its spanning lavishness. Naturally, the military wing of the expedition is led into peril by Jackson’s Col. Packard but Conrad, Weaver and the remaining survivors understand this ancient land holds more significance to the whole of the world. And Kong is at its center, the lone protector for their continued existence.
While Kong saunters and swings across the island to save these interlopers from potentially gnarly deaths, we’re introduced to Lt. Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a fighter pilot that has survived on the island since the last days of WWII. After months of tv spots featuring Reilly as the uneven comic relief in Skull Island, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Marlow’s somber profundity after suffering decades of isolation. Reilly wouldn’t be cast without a few comedic elements peppered throughout the script – and there are plenty of gags centering on Marlow inquiring about world events and ribbing his new friends about leaving the island alive.
However, Marlow also becomes the locus for our wayward team. No one among them knows the pain of loss more than the old G.I. In the earliest moments of the film, we witness a younger Marlow battle a Japanese pilot (Miyavi) who would become his ally out of desperation and ultimately, a brother that gained his respect. If there’s a lesson to be learned in this CG spectacle, it’s this: the true measure of a man is revealed in the face of death. Jackson and Goodman’s characters essentially place their subordinates in greater danger because of their relentlessness. Yet the worn-down soldiers and traumatized researchers persist by clinging to each other in a truly organic and believable manner. A handful of lives will be lost – after all, there are plenty of hungry creatures out there. Yet most of the supporting cast will elicit a bit of sentiment as each one meets their demise.
All in all, moviegoers who want to see a towering pissed-off ape fight equally intimidating grotesquerie in Skull Island will get that in spades; Kong wastes no time beating his chest in defiance and bludgeoning the guts out of giant monsters. Fans of Toho’s classic film library and kaiju in general will enjoy the overall spirit of the film as it’s strongly reminiscent of the golden age of monster films. Given that Legendary and Warner Bros. are going full throttle into a Kong/Godzilla crossover, one only hopes Skull Island successfully reinvigorates fans’ excitement for the inevitable kaiju showdown. After a dark and generally underwhelming reimagining for the King of the Monsters in 2014, Skull Island assures us that the best is yet to come.