Movie review: ‘Skull Island’ builds on the legend of Kong
–It’s been more than 80 years since King Kong, the giant, powerful gorilla first swung into our lives. He famously made his debut in 1933 in a feature film, and has been part of the cultural landscape ever since.
King Kong has been on the stage, a part of the studio tour for Universal Studios, in the comics, in video games and a featured player in subsequent films in 1962, 1967, 1976 and 2005. Each time the stories have changed but the basic essence of King Kong has remained the same. And he’s remained a vibrant cultural symbol since his first appearance in 1933.
Now, Kong is back in another feature film — “Kong: Skull Island,” which opened last Friday. The film, set in 1973 at the tail end of the Vietnam War, takes a group of soldiers, scientists and explorers to a previously unknown island where they find more than they bargained for.
The film centers on a pair of monster hunters, Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), who convince the government to support an expedition to the island. They pitch it as the last, great, undiscovered country that could contain anything from the cure to cancer to other magical finds. Really, they believe it’s home to something else.
To aid in the journey the government assigns a helicopter brigade under the command of Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). In addition, Randa and Brooks recruit a tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), to aid with the expedition. Finally, a decorated war photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), gets attached to document the journey.
From the moment they arrive, it’s clear the island is more than they bargained for, as King Kong emerges and wreaks havoc on the soldiers. Once on the ground, the survivors regroup and try to formulate a plan. Meanwhile Col. Packard is bent on vengeance.
A group of survivors led by Conrad discover a native population and a World War II pilot, Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), who has been trapped on the island for 29 years. They also learn that Kong, though formidable, isn’t the one to be feared. He’s merely protecting the island from a greater threat that lurks beneath it.
Conrad and the group then have to find a way to survive the island while protecting Kong from Col. Packard’s revenge plan.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who previously directed the smaller independent film “Kings of Summer,” does a nice job with the scope and spectacle of this story. While at the same time, “Skull Island” is a film that is mostly interested in building its characters.
But it is still a King Kong movie. There’s plenty of action, plenty of destruction and many characters who meet and untimely fate. It also diverges from some of the typical clichés — including the forced love story between Kong and the only major female character in the cast. That’s a welcome change.
And rather than bringing the battle to New York or another major metropolitan city, “Skull Island” feels a little more like a “Jurassic Park”-type film. It’s contained on the island of wonder, and the major players come, endure a struggle, and make their way home at the end.
The film is blessed with a star-studded cast who all do a nice job with the action and the story. I liked Hiddleston and Larson in the lead roles, Reilly adds plenty of comic relief and Jackson is always a welcome sight in these kind of films.
“Kong: Skull Island” adds a new chapter to the lore of King Kong. It doesn’t seek to re-create earlier films, but rather to use an iconic character to put its own spin on the genre. And it does so in an breezy, entertaining way. It’s not deep, but it’s like a little bit of summer movie season come early. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon in March.
“Kong: Skull Island” has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language.
Three stars out of four.