On the podcast a few weeks ago, I had a rather strong feeling that I would enjoy Kong: Skull Island. When the first trailer released, I thought the film looked like a big, dumb film that struck a tone closer to the DC Universe and 2014 Godzilla (a film I was mistakenly low on upon its release). To be honest, I’m done with the “gritty” reboot. Batman was fine, Star Trek seemed rough, and Bond fell off the rails with SPECTRE. Let’s not even start with the nonsense in the DC films, which combine bad filmmaking with a misunderstanding of their characters. We already live in a tough and gritty world. Why do my films need that tone to be considered “grown-up?”
However, the cast always intrigued me in a way I could not quite shake. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson made for strong young Hollywood leads. Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly are actors that perpetually fascinate me with the projects they choose. John Goodman remains one of my favorite actors in the history of cinema. New favorites from Straight Outta Compton, Jason Mitchell and Corey Hawkins, could further show off their talents. It’s a deep cast, and ultimately this persuaded me to give it a chance. What I got was one of the best popcorn blockbusters in the last five years.
While some films aspire to become part of the history of cinema, some films are fine with settling for being a fun and entertaining ride for a couple of hours. Movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, Magic Mike XXL, and Jurassic World have all found their audiences for embracing the insanity of their premises. No franchise did more soul-searching than The Fast and the Furious before it settled on being the most batshit insane franchise. This is the avenue that “Kong” chooses. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts more-or-less concedes the film is here to be a monster flick and indulges the audience with said monster. Are the people on the ground important? Kind of. Do you know what really makes the film work? When the giant ape monster destroys stuff. And he does not disappoint when given the chance to destroy.
The film’s backdrop lends itself to some fun choices for those involved. The camera often utilizes Larson’s camera lens as a way of gaining a candid understanding of Skull Island. Vietnam music blares through the speakers whenever possible, giving the film a fun musical backdrop to match the tone. Using “I’d Love to Change the World” perfectly establishes the tone Vogt-Roberts seeks, delivering on the poppy sound Skull Island strives for visually. Still, it also acknowledges that this is not the story to actively change the blockbuster business.
Perhaps the best thing about setting it in the 1970s is that we don’t have to worry about modern tech. Instead of sending people, you would send drones today. Satellites would get more information on the island before you went in. Cell phones or mobile hotspots would make it easier to reach a rescue crew. Instead, we get an old fashion truck through the jungle. The setting gives us fun music, nostalgic tech, and perhaps the easiest way around modern conveniences.
As an ensemble piece, the actors are willing to do what they have to make it work. Good actors die, and ridiculous characters do ridiculous things. Jackson pushes the envelope on Heart of Darkness homages while referencing his past filmography. One of his early lines calls back to Jurassic Park. Acknowledging the audience’s relationship with these actors, allows Skull Island to utilize their reputations as character shorthand. It’s an easter egg to those in the know rather than an outward attempt at cashing in on nostalgia. It also allows us to see more giant ape versus monster smackdowns.
One of the most curious things I’ve seen in the discussion of this film is that Skull Island‘s departure from the source material was disconcerting for some. Multiple podcasts and reviews have directly questioned why this film exists when Peter Jackson made his version of the film in 2005. For starters, Jackson basically remade the original, but with modern technology and a 3-hour runtime. He adds to the story, but it’s mostly identical in the story. Second, why not play in the same universe with the fun toys? Isn’t this exactly what we want in the new Star Wars films? Let’s bring some originality into tired franchises.
Finally, this line of thinking did not come up when Jackson’s came out. We knew he was coming off the incredible achievement, The Lord of the Rings. Also, he was not the first remake of Kong. In 1976, John Guillermin remade the story, using emerging stars Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges in the principal roles. Thank god this new film is not another remake. I would literally cry from boredom.
I enjoyed Kong: Skull Island, and it is easily one of my favorite monster films in recent memory. It’s a fun blockbuster romp through the jungle. Will it have a huge cultural footprint? Probably not. Will you enjoy every minute in a theater? Enjoy it for what it is, a popcorn movie with awesome action scenes. You get lots of Kong, and it’s all just awesome.