Reel Talk

Kong Skull Island: A Monster Movie With Something On Its Mind

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The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has really lead to some weird developments in Hollywood. When the industry sees something that works they decide to just throw anything they can think of at the wall, hoping that it will stick. It’s lead to some real hilarious movies that expect to be the first entry in a sprawling series, and it’s often pretty embarrassing when you can tell that that was going to be a swing and a miss. But it’s getting a little ridiculous. The properties that people are deciding should be linked together in a cinematic tapestry are often quite unexpected. And one of the more “out of left field” properties that is currently trying to be launched is the Lionsgate MonsterVerse. Now, the plan here is to tie up that Godzilla flick from 2014 with a new King Kong movie, and eventually add in a whole bunch of other giant monsters, who I suppose will start beating the hell out of each other soon. I have absolutely no idea if this idea will ever actually work, and it sure seems like a trainwreck of a premise. But I was at least interested in the idea of getting a new King Kong movie. I really love King Kong, and it’s a property that Hollywood really loves to revisit. But typically we get a King Kong movie when we’ve made some technological breakthrough for special effects, where the point of he movie is more a showcase of the technology more than a new narrative. But despite all of that, I like King Kong quite a bit, so I was excited to see what they would do with him. And then things started coming out about the movie, and I got immensely excited. It was going to be some crazy period piece that fully took place on Skull Island, and the marketing was aping the aesthetics of Apocalypse Now. It looked absolutely insane, which was kind of exactly what I was hoping for. And it did not disappoint.

The film takes place in 1973, and begins with a mysterious man named Bill Randa who works for an organization in the government called Monarch that’s tasked with finding crytozoological creatures. He’s obsessed with an island in the Pacific called Skull Island that’s surrounded by a perpetual storm. Randa convinces a Senator to schedule a expedition to the island along with a helicopter squadron lead by Captain Packard, a professional tracker named James Conrad, some scientists, and a photographer named Mason Weaver. The crew set sail for Skull Island, and after a bumpy and nearly catastrophic journey through the hurricanes surround the Island, they make it through. And once on the island they promptly begin dropping bombs. Apparently Randa and his science buddies believe that the Earth is hollow, and that Skull Island is a particularly hollow area where the believe monster are residing. And the bombs accomplish two things. They prove that there are massive caverns below the island and they draw the ire of a giant ape named Kong. He shows up and starts swatting helicopters out of the sky, killing off most of the soldiers and scientists, and scattering our protagonists into three groups throughout the island. There’s a group of soldiers lead by Captain Packard and Randa, a group with Conrad, Weaver, and most of the scientists, and one singular soldier named Chapman who landed with most of the weapons.

Packard and his group become convinced that Kong is a horrible monster that’s trying to kill them, and they begin planning on how to kill him. Chapman is almost immediately killed by some horrible lizard creature that was also summoned by the bombs. And the third group quickly comes across a group of natives to the island, and an unlikely citizen. A man named Hank Marlow who was an American pilot in World War II that crashed on the island and has lived there ever since. He dumps a bunch of exposition on the group, telling them that Kong is a good creature who was just trying to protect the island, and that it’s Kong’s job to keep a race of horrible lizards underground. Marlow then shows them a boat he’s created from his old plane, and he joins the group to venture to the North side of the island to get to the rendezvous point. Along the way they run into Packard’s group, and make a startling discovery. No matter what Marlow says, Packard is  convinced that Kong is their enemy, and orders them all to find Chapman (not realizing he’s dead) so that they can get the weapons to kill Kong. And the only way to get to Chapman is to cross the mass-grave that holds all of Kong’s family members who were killed by the lizards. They head into the grave, and immediately have to start fighting the lizard, losing Randa in the process. And after that botched mission they decide to split up again, with Conrad leading all of the sane people to the rendezvous point while Packard and the soldiers continue their quest. Conrad and his team end up doing pretty well, and even manage to find Kong, where they have a sweet moment with him. But it’s spoiled when Packard and the soldiers start setting off napalm to summon Kong. Kong and the soldiers then spar for a while, and the soldiers end up getting the upper hand. They knock Kong out, and Packard is getting ready to cover Kong in explosives when the alpha lizard shows up and scares them off. Kong frees himself, kills Packard, and the rest of the humans flee to the North. Along the way Kong continues to try and fight off the giant lizard, and eventually starts a giant monster WWF match, where Kong is finally helped by the humans. And after a long and brutal fight Kong is able to kill he lizard, and the humans get to the rendezvous point in time to get saved, vowing to never return. Which is just how Kong likes it.

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I had a complete blast watching this movie. It’s an incredibly enjoyable and crazy movie, and I had an all around great time with it. There are some huge flaws with the movie, primarily with the characters, but nothing distracted me from the complete insanity going on. None of the characters really had anything to them, and were more just a bunch of archetypes rather than characters. No one really had any arcs and there wasn’t really any characterization. Which is usually a big issue for me. But for some reason this movie worked fantastically for me. It was a big, colorful, and crazy popcorn movie that was unabashedly dumb and goofy. I found the Peter Jackson King Kong movie to be by and large fine, mainly because it took itself far too seriously. The plot and concept of King Kong is a silly one, and when you lean into that silliness and embrace it, it works better. And this movie fully embraces it’s insanity. We see Tom Hiddelston running through a fog of neon green smoke killing monsters with a katana. This is a bonkers movie.  It doesn’t try to be serious at all, but at the same time it’s not a complete joke. It found some sort of sweet spot that should be impossible. I know that not everyone has clicked with this movie, but it was right up my alley and a complete joy.

And mixed in with all that goofiness and insane action was something I wasn’t really expecting. A lot of opinions on the nature and futility of war. When I first saw that this movie was being marketed with a bunch of references to Apocalypse Now I assumed it was just an aesthetic choice. But this movie is completely saturated with a cynical and bitter view of the entire concept of war, in a way that I was really not expecting. Randa convinces Conrad to join him on the mission by saying that “Men go to war in search of something,” implying that Conrad never found what he was looking for. And all of the characters became focused on finding something from this war. Packard was a soldier who couldn’t stand not having an enemy to fight, and it lead him to volunteering his men for the mission, and eventually his death. Randa found the mystery of monster in his war, and it consumed him to the point of dooming everyone on the mission. Mason found purpose in war, becoming a photojournalist who tried to explain to others the futility of war. And poor Marlow had to find a whole new life thanks to war. He crash landed on the island with a Japanese solider, and the two were ready to continue killing each other when they’re stopped by sheer awe at seeing Kong. They then became lifelong friends until the Japanese soldier’s death, leading to Marlow explaining that the only difference between them was their uniform. You wouldn’t have expected such a theme to be threaded throughout this movie, and it was a very pleasant surprise. A movie about a bunch of soldiers going to war with King Kong didn’t need to have any depth to it, and while aspects of the movie were certainly shallow as hell, its opinions about war were much deeper than it needed to be, and really made the movie something special.

Kong: Skull Island was written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2017.

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