Kong: Skull Island is set in 1973 in the waning days of the Vietnam War. Government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his seismologist partner Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) convince the Nixon administration to back their expedition to map out an unchartered island in the Pacific known as Skull Island.
Randa then recruits former British Special Air Serviceman Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as a guide and a military helicopter squadron led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) to escort the group. They are joined by pacifist photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who suspects that the scientific expedition is in fact an illegal military operation and seeks to expose it.
Little do they know that they’re actually encroaching on the domain of monsters including the mythic Kong and his archnemesis, the Skullcrawlers, which are reptilian monsters that live underground (sound familiar?).
Kong’s celluloid career may be sporadic as compared to some other prolific movie franchises but few have made as big an impact in popular culture than when this gargantuan primate climbed the Empire State building in his 1933 debut King Kong. His last silver screen appearance was in a visually stunning but conservative 2005 remake by Lord of the Rings director, Peter Jackson.
To all outward appearances, director John Vogt-Roberts and the screenwriters have reinvented the Kong mythos. Rather than being captured and dragged back to New York City to be exhibited like in the previous movies, this time it’s as if Kong was plucked and dropped right in the middle of Apocalypse Now (1979).
But upon closer inspection, Kong: Skull Island is not so much a reinvention but a clever update by way of combining various elements from the different King Kong eras. There’s classic Kong, which forms the base note of the story and the environmentalism of the 1976 Kong. Not to mention the pulpy monster-on-monster action of 1960s Toho Kong, a series of films in which he was reimagined as a kaiju that fought formidable monsters including Godzilla.
Visually, Skull Island is a STUNNER with several mesmerising vistas of Hawaii, Australia and Vietnam where the movie was shot. These, together with the epic set designs, creature fx and, of course, the colossal primate himself are worth the price of an IMAX ticket.
But all of these things can only become meaningful if we are able to relate to the characters and they are, thankfully, well-written enough for us to get behind. Plus, the studio has managed to assemble a cast packed with talent. You’ve got a few of the hottest actors working today in Hiddleston, Larson and Jackson, so there’s a mini MCU reunion going on too. And as always, Goodman and John C. Reily, who plays a stranded World War II fighter pilot, are a joy to watch.
Personally, I thought the most inspired decision the filmmakers of Skull Island made was to flesh out Kong’s origin story against a jungle warfare backdrop. The striking homage to Apocalypse Now has a deeper thematic purpose – it references the fact that King Kong is often read as an allegory for imperialism and the slave trade.
Apocalypse Now itself is based on the 19th century novella “Heart of Darkness”, which examines the horror of colonialism. If you think this link is a stretch, consider the name of Hiddleston’s character James Conrad, which serves to evoke Joseph Conrad, the author of “Heart of Darkness”.
Skull Island is by no means perfect so don’t expect it to be The Dark Knight or Logan of monster flicks. It’s still as pulpy as you’d expect but at least the result is an arresting creature feature that won’t insult your intelligence.
Also, there’s a great post-credit clip that alludes to another iconic king of monsters so best to stick around after the movie.
There’s more to come come as well. We’ve known for a while now that this incarnation of Kong shares the same movie universe as the recently rebooted Godzilla (see our review) and these iconic creatures are set to clash in a crossover movie in 2020.
Kong: Skull Island is out in cinemas now. Have you seen it? Let us know what you think!