There’s something about a classic monster that audiences just love. Whether it’s Dracula feasting on necks, the Mummy terrorizing a reckless archaeologist, or Frankenstein’s Monster just looking for a place to fit in, each of these characters possess within them tales audiences long for. But when audiences want real terror and destruction, they go for the big guns: Godzilla and King Kong. 2014 saw the return of Godzilla in the Gareth Edwards-directed (Rogue One) modern reboot Godzilla. Unfortunately, critics and audiences alike didn’t warm to the latest retelling of the mythic beast – perhaps due to its human-centric story and veritable lack of monster fighting – yet there’s no denying that the film possesses moments of real cinematic joy (see: the final battle). Clearly having learned from the experience, Legendary Pictures worked with director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) to craft a monster story that contains the essence of the classic epic monster tale of King Kong, while utilizing a modern sensibility. Loud, violent, and just ridiculous enough to warrant a return to Skull Island as soon as the credits finish rolling, ladies and gentlemen, for your utter delight and pleasure, Vogt-Roberts presents: Kong: Skull Island.
In 1973, a joint scientific expedition made up of a small group of geologists, two Monarch scientists, and a military convoy travel to a previously unknown remote island hidden within the Pacific Ocean. The intent is to discover what untapped resources the island may hold, but what is found threatens to disrupt everything man knows about the world. Neither skeptical scientist nor heavily trained soldier is ready for the monsters that reside on Skull Island.
If the name Monarch rings a bell – and it should – it’s the name of the company Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (portrayed with grace by Ken Watanabe) represents in the “present-day” Godzilla story. It’s a clever nod to the film that precedes Kong, while also serving as the entry point for the larger Monster Cinematic Universe (connected universes are all the rage now) that Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. want to create with all the monsters of old. While the company itself isn’t a main player in Kong, John Goodman’s Bill Randa and Corey Hawkins’s Houston Brooks – both Monarch employees – are critical to the mission to Skull Island, thereby making Monarch’s involvement integral to the cinematic universe as a whole. It’s a clever way to create a focal point for all the monster films to revolve around as they enter into the larger, modern canon.
After the dour experience of Godzilla, audiences really want to know whether Kong is any fun. The answer is: Y-E-S.
Many times throughout Kong, audiences are treated to exactly what they want to see: monster fights in varying length, scope, and scale. Unlike in Godzilla, there are no quick cuts away from the action. In fact, it’s safe to say that the camera lingers. Hell, if you’ve seen the trailers, then you know that Kong shreds through a military convoy like a toddler through cotton candy and all it does is set the stage for what’s to come. This is but one of several monster fights and it successfully wets the appetite for more. Gratefully, each subsequent monster battle entertains while moving the story forward. Though the concept of a cinematic 100ft tall ape seems to invite wanton destruction, Vogt-Roberts tempers each fight into a specific purpose. More specifically, each fight highlights how Kong’s willingness to fight comes from necessity and not out of purposeless rage. It adds an element of humanity to the character seen in past incarnations: the peaceful warrior.
Before the film can feel too grounded or heartfelt, Vogt-Roberts turns up the volume by cranking classic seventies rock n’ roll hits through the theater speakers and into your ear holes, as characters shoot, stab, kick, punch, and generally do everything they can to survive on an island that modern man is not prepared for. Impressively, Vogt-Roberts and the four writers – John Gatins, Derk Connolly, Max Borenstein, and Dan Gilroy – created a jungle adventure that feels tangibly real, even at its most ambitious (read: ridiculous). By grounding the narrative with characters whose own individual stories are compelling and interesting, Vogt-Roberts creates an opportunity for a real connection to the larger Kong narrative, which is essential to audience engagement when the action verges on the unreal. Love them or hate them, the human element is critical in maintaining audience interest when the monsters go to their respective corners. The aforementioned Randa and Brooks need to get to Skull Island because the scientific community and government connections think they’re crackpots, so finding any evidence of their theories would set them up for larger missions. Goodman and Hawkins don’t play either of these men as desperate; instead, their eagerness and excitement becomes contagious as they get closer and closer to the answers they seek on the island. In need of guide/tracker, Rand and Brooks seek out Tom Hiddelston’s James Conrad (whose name is a not-so-subtle reference the classic jungle tale The Heart of Darkness), a former British Secret Service member with exceptional skills and a high price-point. At first he plays the brackish rogue, but as the truth of Skull Island is revealed, so is Conrad – a soldier who sees his mission as the survival of his unit, not the destruction of his enemy. This, of course, comes in direct contrast to Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Packard who initially appears as the atypical heroic solider before revealing himself as a war-mad warrior whose bloodlust can only be sated by mutual destruction. This is where Kong: Skull Island reveals what lies at its vine-covered, monster-ridden jungle heart: the real monsters don’t wail, scream, slash, and thrash, they are the kind that end worlds with no regard for the ultimate consequence.
A classic adventure tale wrapped in the bombast of a 70s war picture, Kong: Skull Island will rattle your senses while clinging to a straight-forward narrative that becomes more and more flimsy as it progresses. Will you particularly care who lives and who dies? Probably not. Will you spend subsequent days and nights digesting the central themes of the warring hearts of man? Not even a little. As much of a rollercoaster as Kong: Skull Island is, the thrills will call to you until you return. Fun has returned to the cinema, ladies and gentlemen, and it has arrived on the back of the King of All Monsters: Kong.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.