Kong: Skull Island ★★★★½

A triumphant and thoroughly entertaining throwback to big, brash, and bold blockbuster popcorn cinema, Kong: Skull Island is loaded with an all-star cast, brilliantly-realized CGI action, stunning cinematography & production design, and topped with the perfect mix of outright horror and humor, earning a spot as one of the best examples of the giant monster genre with a uniquely American twist on the material.

When this first hit theaters I had no desire to go and see this at the time after the laborious experience that was watching Peter Jackson's take on Kong back in 2005. That film has its fans, and is certainly lovingly crafted, but for me it was about an hour too long, and didn't add very much to the mythology of Kong. So when this came out, I skipped it and didn't end up watching it until I was on a transatlantic flight without very many other interesting viewing options available onboard. I was shocked by how much I loved this film, as it just tickled and thrilled me throughout just about its entire run time. After going through my Godzilla-thon, and preparing for Godzilla's vs. Kong, I thought I'd give the film another watch, fresh on the heels of the first two Legendary Big-G films.

I was psyched to see upon re-watch that it still holds up, and is in fact better than I remembered. There are a couple things that this film does really well. First off is the look and feel of the movie. The marketing campaign made clear to moviegoers that this film is set during the tail end of the Vietnam War, and its iconography borrows heavily from the imagery about that war that we've seen in other movies, perhaps most obviously, Apocalypse Now. So in this way, the film is very meta in that it plays upon our preconceived notions about what that war looked like, sounded like, and felt like from a popular culture perspective, especially in terms of the music that we normally associate with that conflict, featuring songs from bands like Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Stooges, among others.

In addition to excellent aesthetics, the film did a great job in presenting the soldiers, led by Colonel Preston Packard (an excellent and terrifying Samuel L. Jackson), as living and breathing human beings who are differentiated from one another, but still behave like a team of soldiers would in real life. I particularly liked Shea Whigham's Captain Cole, and even enjoyed Toby Kebbell as Chapman, who was Packard's second in command. That said, all the soldiers were great, but none greater than Samuel L. Dude's a champ in this film. I love in the opening act how the script subverts expectations a bit when Jackson's Col. Packard gets the call to provide a military escort for a team of Monarch suits and Landsat folks through a stormfront surrounding the mysterious Skull Island to see what might be hiding there. In any other script, Packard would "refuse the call," but here he promptly says yes to the mission, despite the fact that his boys are just days away from going back home. He's a man on a mission and wants nothing more than to keep the war going because it's all he knows.  Further, he’s the kind of military leader that’s driven not only to complete the assigned mission, but to also serve his men. Even when he falters from a moral perspective, his men demonstrate undying loyalty and respect for him, which drives conflict and tension into the story. 

The movie does a pretty cool thing in terms of its antagonist as well, which is a great note for screenwriters studying film structure. We all know it's important to have an antagonist in any film, but what's interesting is that the antagonist can change or transfer from one character to another, depending on the needs of the script. So when the soldiers first infiltrate Skull Island, they are the antagonists against nature, dropping bombs all over the pristine countryside to test one of the Monarch researchers' "Hollow Earth Theory." But given the great performances from the endearing crew of soldiers, we already like these guys and are somewhat torn as an audience when they start unleashing hell on the natural world. Then the big guy makes his first appearance in one of the most diesel Kong moments ever captured on film, and explodes in a fit of unbridled violence to wreak absolute havoc upon the squadron of military helicopters. Now Kong's the antagonist, killing the men we may already have a soft spot for. Then, later in the film, as Col. Packard comes to terms with the destruction let loose by Kong, he becomes overcome with exacting vengeance on the huge ape and now he takes on the antagonist mantle, becoming essentially the "big bad" of the back half of the film, even in the face of the much bigger and badder presence of Kong. This transfer of roles is effectively realized during a brilliant moment about halfway through the film in which Packard literally faces off against Kong. Jackson expertly sells the idea that if there's anyone who can take Kong on, it's him. Perfect casting. Of course, later in the film, some pretty grisly-looking monsters steal that antagonist role from Jackson in a satisfying way.

Speaking of casting, I loved literally everyone up and down the callsheet in this movie. Given its large cast, this film could have fallen prey to one of the limitations of Legendary's Godzilla: King of the Monsters, in that the ensemble in that film was populated with mostly unrealistic, uninteresting, and exposition-spouting talking heads. Here, while some of the characters might be clichéd (Tom Hiddleston as the grizzled ex-spook with a heart of gold or John C. Reilly as a comic-relief version of the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now), given the charisma and commitment the actors bring to their performances, along with the solid arc for each character that the script provides, the acting here far and away outshines what was arguably the weakest aspect of GKOTM. In addition to the marquee names I already mentioned, the film is made better by the likes of John Goodman as a Monarch operative with an ulterior agenda and Brie Larsen as an anti-war photojournalist who is able to see the soldiers with greater empathy at the end of the film after walking a mile in their shoes.

Finally, this film knocks it out of the park in terms of tone. It has legitimately horrifying moments that are deftly balanced against its ample humor and occasional lightheartedness. Though it is packed with action and contains sci-fi elements while sporting the DNA of a cinematic war film, it is truly a monster movie at heart and never forgets to live firmly within the tropes of that genre.

Thematically, it steers clear of the issues of race, gender politics, the male gaze, and overt sexualization from the 1933 and 1976 versions, and instead leans in on the thematic conflicts stemming from the rise of the American military industrial complex and the violent intersection between Western industrialization and the natural world. The movie doesn't beat you over the head with these themes, but they are clearly operating in the background.

Further, in this film the native culture on Skull Island is elevated from the one-note savage characterizations from the '76 and '33 films, and reconfigured into more of a shamanistic or magical interpretation of a "lost" civilization so interconnected to the natural world that they have eschewed communicating through the spoken word in favor of what appears to be a form of telepathy. Instead of offering human sacrifices to Kong like their counterparts in the earlier films, they coexist symbiotically with Kong, in which he serves as their true protector who doesn't require gifts or offerings to fulfil that guardian role. And Kong is further "humanized" by being the last of his species, with his ancestors and family members having been previously killed off by the fearsome "skullcrawlers" that lurk the terrible island. Through this more richly textured characterization, we as the audience develop more pathos for Kong and view him with a true sense of awe and wonder, which is made clear in a great scene in which THidds, Brie Larsen, and the big guy come face to face.

Bottom line, this movie is a near-perfect expression of the giant monster genre that was made with a tremendously palpable attention to detail. A bunch of great actors are clearly having a lot of fun and it's difficult to point to an aspect of the film that I would say needs improving. I suppose the lack of character depth might hold this back from being a "great" film, but as I said, it delivers soundly on the promise of the premise. Kong himself is beautifully rendered and the film features shot after shot that wonderfully demonstrates his epic stature and unrelenting power. I also think this film is quite re-watchable and I found myself either laughing or reacting out loud as if I were seeing this all for the first time. This might be sacrilege but I think I like it even more than the original. Highly recommend for kaiju fans or anyone who's in the mood for fun and thrilling popcorn cinema. Highly recommend!

KONG RANKED

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