If ever there was a movie with a dorky name, here it is. I’m sure Kong: Skull Island is meant to be intimidating, thrilling, and a bit nostalgic, but all I’m feeling is drama on a Hollywood backlot. Picture Dracula laughing maniacally behind his cloak. Mouahaha. And yet, sometimes you just have to roll with it. When Kong: Skull Island was released, I heard a lot of eye rolls. That’s right, I heard them. People hesitated to watch this movie because it sounds like a flop. But, if you just go with it and take the 75% Rotten Tomatoes score at face value, you may be pleasantly surprised. I know I was.
Rewind a bit. America has just decided to abandon the Vietnam war. All soldiers are ordered home which means that Bill (John Goodman) and Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are about to miss their opportunity to piggyback off of a military that’s already overseas. Bill wants to explore an uncharted island, shaped auspiciously like a skull, that he believes may be home to some hitherto undiscovered species. Bill and Brooks hire Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) an ex-CIA tracker, Mason (Brie Larson) a photojournalist, a team of sacrificial scientists, and one military squadron including the patriotic Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) to plant a flag on the island before the Russians learn of its existence. The group sets sail and flies a fleet of helicopters through the perpetual hurricane circling the island. After a brief celebration, they waste no time marking their territory by dropping seismic readers – bombs – on skull island. While the storm was a thrilling challenge, it was nothing compared to the giant, man-eating ape awoken by the blasts and now determined to smack down every helicopter like a cat after a house fly. When the rampage is over, not a single chopper is left and the team is scattered across the island. They must navigate uncharted terrain filled with all kinds of Nope to get to the rescue rendezvous within three days.
Kong is a big, mean, killing machine. He’s not pleased with the invaders blowing up his island and he isn’t afraid to show it. But when the helicopters are down and the fire is out, he retreats. Job done. This is the first clue that Kong isn’t the biggest, meanest, most murderous beast in the neighbourhood. Thankfully the team runs into Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), an American WWII pilot who was marooned on the island 20 years ago. Marlow shares his decades of experience with the newcomers and teaches them all they need to know to survive for three days. As the only English-speaker on the rock, Marlow has had 20 years to name the monsters that stalk his reality. Most notably, the skull crawlers. Now, you’re probably thinking, “What a dumb ass name.” I’m with you, and so is everybody else on screen. That is, until you see them. These ugly, rejected Pokémon have two legs, one tail, and a skull for a head. They are the velociraptors of this situation and Kong is the only one equipped to handle them.
It’s just too bad that Kong made such a poor first impression. Colonel Packard declares it his mission to avenge his lost men and bring Kong down as only Samuel L. Jackson can: with lots of cursing and a mean, dead-eye staring contest. What would a proper Kong movie be without a narrow-sighted military commander?
And what would it be without a blonde civilian who connects with Kong on a personal, empathetic level? Thankfully, Mason isn’t your typical beige-pumps-in-the-jungle blonde. In fact, she’s almost as tough as her camera, but it’s still hard to ignore the feeling that it wouldn’t be a Kong movie without a pretty blonde getting stuck underneath something. At least there’s Tom Hiddleston. Mason and the highly skilled Conrad have excellent chemistry and are the first outsiders to believe that Kong is just doing his job. They are our dramatic heroes. Just in case Skull Island starts to feel too actiony with too many crushed, maimed, eaten, flung, pierced, strangled, and digested victims, we can always lean on the budding romance between Mason and Conrad.
Yes, it’s a little cheesy. How could a Kong movie not be? Do you remember rolling your eyes at the concept of another Jurassic movie? And yet a record number of us saw it anyway. Twice. We drink this kind of swamp water right up. Like a skull crawler swallowing a flash camera. So long as there are romanticized characters and a hint of a well-oiled plot to carry us from one victim to the next, we are perfectly comfortable to surrender to the entertainment. Sure, Skull Island is the kind of dumb we’ve seen before. So. Many. Times. But the soundtrack is pretty fly and it’s actually quite artistically filmed. It even dumps a post-credits scene to line up a sequel, which of course I’m going to watch. Obviously. Monster movies are a niche, but like that pair of crocks you “only wear in the garden” we can’t seem to let them go. Kong: Skull Island is another giant monster flick, but it embraces what it is and feeds our obsession. For a wincing good time, Kong: Skull Island is 6.5/10.