Set in 1973, the “Kong: Skull Island” is unrelated to the Kongs that came before. There’s no Empire State Building, no Jessica Lange, no romance between damsel and beast.
John Goodman is Bermuda Triangle conspiracy theorist William Randa, a man with some wild ideas about an uncharted island in the South Pacific. “This planet doesn’t belong to us. Ancient species owned this earth long before mankind. I spent 30 years trying to prove the truth: monsters exist.” With government funding supplied by a senator (Richard Jenkins) Randa leads an expedition to prove his ideas about certain life forms on the planet. Along for the ride are a military helicopter squadron, a handful of scientists, U.S. military commander Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), former British soldier turned mercenary James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and antiwar photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).
Arriving at the island they are greeted by the tallest King Kong ever. “Is that a monkey?” gasps Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell). Some monkey. At over 100 feet he dwarfs his cinematic brothers—1933’s Kong was 24 feet, the 1976 version was 55 feet while Peter Jackson knocked him back to 25 feet for his 2005 adaptation—and easily knocks many of Randa’s helicopters from the air.
The survivors hit the ground running, only to meet up with Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II fighter pilot stranded on the island for decades. “You’ve probably noticed a lot of weird things on this island,” he says in the understatement of the century. As they try and brave the treacherous landscape to meet a refuelling team at the north end of the island the motley crew soon realizes Kong isn’t their only or even biggest problem.
At its furry heart “Kong: Skull Island” feels like an anti-war movie. At least half of it does. The opening section, roughly half the movie, suggests the unintentional and deadly consequences that come from dropping bombs were you shouldn’t. “You didn’t go to someone’s house and start dropping bombs and less you’re looking for a fight.” It’s a timely message about unleashing powers we don’t understand in the name of war wrapped in a Vietnam allegory. “Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist until you show up at his doorstep,” says Cole (Shea Whigham).
Then Reilly enters and with him comes a new shift. What was once a message movie is now a story of survival and giant beasts. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts pivots at this point, staging a series of action scenes with cool creatures, and it works as pure creature feature entertainment. It’s cool to see Kong tossing military helicopters around as though they were Tonka Toys and another scene will make you think twice about sitting on an old hollowed out log. Fans of bigly beast action will be more than satisfied with the final battle between Kong and a massive subterranean people eater.
“Kong: Skull Island’s” social commentary doesn’t fade away completely but Kong’s mighty roar does drown most of it out. Just below the roar, almost out of earshot, is the idea that displays of force aren’t always the way to deal with conflict, a rare sentiment for an action movie laden with WMDs. Mostly the flick provides a fun romp with some big budget beasts and (secondarily) an Oscar winner or two.