There’s nothing wrong with making or enjoying a big, fun action movie. The problem is that most films that aim for this area tend to get lazy with their execution, whether it’s having that sense of “fun” or making its action truly exhilarating. Thankfully, Kong: Skull Island – the second film in Warner Bros. and Legendary’s MonsterVerse, following Godzilla – knows that it’s ultimately a big-budget B-movie, and manages to craft a film that’s a blast from beginning to end while also taking aim at pro-war forces.
As American involvement in the Vietnam War comes to a close in 1973, a group of scientists for the Monarch organization, led by Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), secure a government-approved trip to discover Skull Island, a mysterious place that’s among the few locations left on Earth that mankind at large knows nothing about. The group is accompanied by a military troop led by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), as well as a British military officer-turned-tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and an antiwar photographer named Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).
Once the group gets through a deadly, stormy cloud that surrounds the island, they begin to set off seismic charges over the island in order to map out the terrain – at least, that’s the excuse. What they end up doing is setting up their first encounter with Kong himself, who’s infuriated by these strangers who have awoken a number of other terrifying monsters lurking underneath the island.
Much like how Godzilla saw the elevation of a director with one previous (and much smaller) film under his belt to a film with a much bigger budget, Kong: Skull Island is a big shift from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ previous film, The Kings of Summer. Like that previous film, Kong in Vogt-Roberts’ hands manages to have some much-needed roots in its human characters, giving them some humor and heart that make it easier to accept the insanity surrounding them – and at times, the insanity that they themselves create.
By setting the film in such close proximity to the Vietnam War, the film underlines the intensity of the military officers on the mission, particularly Packard, who seems embittered by the American decision to withdraw rather than claim victory. With Kong responsible for taking out some of his men, regardless of reason, Packard is determined to enact revenge – even if the consequences of his actions could prove far more devastating to the world.
On the opposite end of the spectrum of understanding Kong is a man first seen in the film’s prologue – a World War II soldier who crashed on the island in 1944 named Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), and who in the time since his crash has come to learn about Kong’s relationship with the island and its people. (Reilly, for what it’s worth, delivers the best performance in a cast filled with top talent. He steals the screen when he finally appears.)
With Kong: Skull Island serving as the second entry in Legendary’s creation of a MonsterVerse (yes, that’s the name they’re going for), it’ll be interesting to see how they plan to bring this franchise together with the Godzilla series for the inevitable showdown in 2020. Tonally, they’ve created two very different films. Both films work on their own merits, though, so they may have a solution for getting these two crazy kids together.