Coming out of last year’s Comic Con, I thought Kong Skull Island was the most impressive looking film of the bunch, and I had high hopes for cinema’s ape emeritus going into his first outing since the bloated mess that was Peter Jackson’s King Kong. This film takes place in the MONARCH Universe (I’m not sure if there’s an official name) along with Gareth Edward’s Godzilla and the upcoming-wait for it-Godzilla vs. King Kong. Like Godzilla, the film gets the monster right. This is an interesting take on Kong, and one that does him justice. The problem, like in Godzilla, are the humans surrounding him.
Kong Skull Island is set in the closing days of the Vietnam War, and is not only our introduction to Kong, but serves as an origin story for the MONARCH organization. Far from the military/science hybrid machine we saw in Godzilla, this MONARCH is really a concept awaiting their first discovery and they think they have it when they find Skull Island. Throwing a desperation plea at a Senator lands them a helicopter squadron commanded by Col. Kurtz (played here by Samuel L. Jackson). There isn’t even a subtle nod to Apocalypse Now in this film. To every extent possible, this film tries to make SLJ’s character Marlon Brando and the entire scenario Apocalypse Now. If this sounds like an idea that would intrude unnecessarily into what should be a cool monster movie, then you are right on every note EXCEPT for the cinematography. This film is absolutely stunningly shot, and-yes-very Apocalypse Nowly shot, but brilliantly enough that I would seriously consider it Oscar caliber (FOR CINEMATOGRAPHY).
You don’t have to wait long to meet the new Kong when you get to Skull Island as he has been waiting for the people who have been carpet bombing his island with sonic bombs to map it to show up so he could throw their helicopters through a mountain. This thins our team considerably in short order. SLJ spends the rest of the film trying to find a way to kill Kong in his quest to get some kind of “win” out of the Vietnam War. Thank God for Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston, who are there to get the team off the island. They are (along with John C. Reilly’s crazy stranded pilot) THE only likable human characters. You’re rooting for them to make it off the island. Kong can have the rest.
The villain monster isn’t Kong though; it’s a bunch of lizards that have literally burrowed Skull Island hollow, terrorize the tribal inhabitants, and killed Kong’s family, leaving him the last of his species. The Kong in this film, get ready to want to see Godzilla vs. Kong, IS NOT FULLY GROWN YET. That’s right, this is a broody still-growing Kong, who is more of a protector of what he sees as his island and the people on it than a monster. He’s definitely the most interesting character in the film, and when the final showdown comes between Kong and the monster who killed his parents, you’ll genuinely be rooting for him.
The look of the film, the unique take on Kong, and the spectacular F/X are enough to push this over the edge as a rental for me. Both Godzilla and Kong have, in these films, been reinvented as awesome monsters for a modern audience, but the problem is if they can’t find some human characters who don’t talk like crazycakes, then I don’t see much of a future to the MONARCH-verse. They nailed the monsters, but no one cares without a human element.