This week in blockbusters, it’s mutants vs. monsters. Logan is already breaking records, but here comes competition, with Legendary Entertainment and Warner Brothers offering the next big release of their new MonsterVerse. Kong: Skull Island is, like the lead mentioned in the title, a big, lumbering, but huge-hearted creature you can’t help but love. Approach the film with a desire to have fun and get swept up in the action, excitement, and suspense of it, and you’ll walk out with a smile on your face. If you’re a cinephile expecting Godard or Antonioni, go home, and throw on one of your Criterion Collection blu-rays. You’ll find Kong: Skull Island silly and slight. The eye-popping, classic-rock fueled ‘Apocalypse Now Meets Mighty Joe Young’ is like caffeinated cotton candy for monster movie fans.
Kong: Skull Island mostly takes place in the Vietnam era 70s. Non-specific government employee Bill Randa (John Goodman) enlists the expertise of former British Special Forces agent Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston, stretching to play a lead action hero) a helicopter squadron, led by war-weary Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to take part in what he tells them is a geological expedition to an uncharted island in the Pacific. It doesn’t start well, and within a few minutes of breaking through the wall of dangerous weather, they experience a large number of casualties. Surviving members of the helicopter squadron, scientists, and researchers have to live long enough to get back off the island after explosives used in the expedition draw the ire of the island’s resident behemoth ape “Kong”. There are local natives, giant land and sea creatures, and a species of terrifying monsters called Skullcrawlers that reveal Kong to be one of the kinder, gentler animals on the island.
When it comes to King Kong, there are those who are pro-ape, and those who are not. You all know who you are. I”m decidedly pro-ape. That’s why it’s always been hard for me to watch movies like King Kong. Even as a little kid I asked myself why those who shot him off the Empire State Building felt the need to do so. He seemed like such a sweet, big-hearted guy. Gratefully, Kong: Skull Island is tailor-made for true Kong fans like myself. It is Kong who has kept the natives and other animals on the island from all becoming Skullcrawler kibble. He’s, also lost his entire family to them, and is the last of his kind. Knowing that, how can we not be on Team Kong?
Telling more about the plot will spoil the fun, but mentioning the American pilot stranded on the island since World War II, Hank Marlow, played by John C. Reilly, is essential. Every time he appears onscreen he lights it up. Reilly does that a lot in other films, too, and in Kong he brings a delightful unpredictability and charm to the film that might otherwise be missing. Marlow is this weird, loony character basically playing what Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now would be, like if he was a mensch and a sweetheart, instead of a homicidal maniac. Indeed the screenwriters are clearly in love with Coppola’s classic film, and wear that love on their sleeve. There are a number of traits from those we know from Apocalypse Now mixed into the characters in Kong: Skull Island. That, along with the blasted music we all recognize from about a dozen Vietnam-era films, like Creedence’s Run Through the Jungle, the many shots of helicopters blasting said music, and the fatigue-attired squadron traipsing through greenery and chest-high water, leaves little question of one of their biggest influences.
As to the production design, it’s as if every shot has been storyboarded, and that’s not a bad thing. It creates the sort of slick, composed film that informs its audience if we forgive the cliches, we’re in for a visual treat, both in the effects and the flamboyant action set pieces. The actors are secondary to Kong, the star of the movie, but that doesn’t mean we don’t become attached to them still drawing air through to the credits. Know that the Skullcrawlers are going to put the survival of all these characters into question, which is just fine with me.
Overall, Kong: Skull Island is a worthy popcorn flick where you can easily cheer for both human and creature. If you’re looking for an antidote for the relentless bleakness and overall sadness of Logan, you’ll find it on Skull Island.