What’s the big surprise of Kong: Skull Island? No, it’s not a secret sequel to Peter Jackson’s 2005 film King Kong; the two movies are not connected in any way. And no, in fact, this Kong is not a sequel to 2014’s Godzilla, either, though the two are both part of the shared universe that’s being called the MonsterVerse; coming soon: Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 2019 and Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020.
No, the big surprise — and it’s not a spoiler because this fact is instantly obvious from the opening moments of Kong: Skull Island — is that this is actually a prequel to Godzilla. After a brief introductory sequence set in 1944, the action jumps to 1973 and stays there. Which lends a delicious retro analog vibe to the goings-on, despite all the the CGI. (The FX are pretty seamless, and suspending disbelief is not at all an issue here, but to the great disappointment of our geeky little hearts, our heads know that monsters aren’t real.) There are really good practical storytelling reasons to keep our latest high-tech toys out of the hands of the people here, and good reasons that create suspense and intrigue and that aid character development. But mostly it simply allows the film to harness a feeling that isn’t quite nostalgia; to these people, all their gadgets are supermodern and you know they think they are the shit hoisting field phones the size of bricks up to their ears, and lugging around portable turntables for their traveling vinyl. Maybe it’s that their sense of their own coolness infects us even as we snort a little at their tech.
(Also worth mentioning with the 70s setting: this movie bears no resemblance to the deeply terrible 1976 King Kong. Thank goodness.)
A good reason to set this tale in 1973: It allows for mysterious Skull Island to have been recently discovered in the South Pacific by the first Earth-mapping satellites, even though it is hidden by a perpetual storm system. Scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman: Patriots Day, Ratchet & Clank) finally gets permission to take his team (Tian Jing [The Great Wall] and Corey Hawkins [Straight Outta Compton, Non-Stop]) on a mission to the island to find out what’s there… and he has a pretty good idea what’s there via his top-secret government project, Monarch (referenced in Godzilla), which is trying to document the existence of “massive unidentified terrestrial organisms.” (It’s like an X-Files for monsters.) So off they go accompanied by “tracker” and black-ops vet James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston: Crimson Peak, High-Rise), photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson: Room, Trainwreck), and an escort of US military who are about to be demobilized from Vietnam. Once on the island, they meet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly: Sing, Guardians of the Galaxy), who was shot down over the island in 1944 (that’s the opening sequence) and has been stuck there since.
Boiled down to its bonkers essence, Skull Island is a Vietnam war movie with monsters. (Kong is far from the only one.) It’s Ape-ocalypse Now, with a war-addicted, possibly insane Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, The Legend of Tarzan), who is quite upset about the whole not-winning in Vietnam thing, going full Ahab and fixating on Kong as a “war” he can win. (He might be underestimating the capabilities of his squad.) So while Skull Island has ironic fun with a running motif about how war can make a man see enemies everywhere, including in a giant ape that was just minding his own business until you started dropping bombs on him, there’s also a man-versus-nature thing running alongside it: mess with nature, and nature will mess right back, ferociously. (Sample dialogue, almost verbatim: “What the hell is that?!” “I don’t know!” “Let’s kill it!”) It’s like Jurassic Park with a lot less wonder and a lot more horror. Oh, the gruesome, intense ickiness here! This movie is really pushing the boundaries of a PG-13 rating… or maybe it only feels that way when you’re watching in 3D IMAX and it feels like the jungle bug slime and the gore and the monster vomit is all over you. (That’s right: I said “monster vomit.”) This is a rare instance of 3D being put to actual use onscreen rather than just serving as an excuse to hike ticket prices: there is real depth in the jungle, real dizziness to be found looking down from a high cliff. Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose only previous feature film is the unpleasantly snide ultra-low-budget coming-of-age dramedy The Kings of Summer, has acquitted himself well with his first massive FX movie. (The screenplay is by Dan Gilroy [Nightcrawler, The Bourne Legacy], Max Borenstein [Godzilla], Derek Connolly [Monster Trucks, Jurassic World], and John Gatins [Need for Speed, Flight].)
All the horror and the black comedy and the monster battles and the homages to a slew of other films: it all works, even crammed in like this, thanks in large part to the fine line the terrific cast walks between treating it with just enough taking-it-seriously under the lashings of nonsense. Reilly steals the show as the lost-in-time pilot, but Hiddleston is a close second, plausibly rougher and tougher than we’ve seen him before in his first true action role (Loki doesn’t count; he mostly just stands around scheming and looking evil). Larson’s role could be meatier, but she is not a damsel in distress, and she is not there for Kong to inexplicably fall in love with. (In fact, the most offensive Kong tropes have been excised, though they are alluded to.) One or two groans are necessary in response to an obvious choice or two on the soundtrack of mostly awesome 70s rock tunes, but that’s not much to complain about when so much could have gone badly wrong here. I would have said, after Peter Jackson’s Kong, that he didn’t need another reboot. But I’m glad we got this one: it’s a helluva lotta fun.
IMPORTANT NERD NOTES: Not only is there a post-credits scene you won’t want to miss, but also be on the lookout for a new Kong-themed IMAX promo before the film… you know, the one that invites you to “watch a movie, or be a part of one.”