To be perfectly honest, I sometimes want to grab Hollywood executives by the collars of their suits that cost more than the most expensive car I can afford, and scream at them to stop with the dreaded tendency I call the RRS Syndrome – remakes, reboots and sequels. They are rarely very good, and often are unbelievably unwatchable. Yet, every time I get disillusioned with Hollywood’s tendency to rest on laurels of past victories, a film like Kong: Skull Island comes along and surprises me. I wasn’t expecting much from this film, and I watched it simply because I had the opportunity to do so. I came away having seen a truly entertaining film.
Now first things first – if you go into Kong: Skull Island looking for something along the lines of previous versions of King Kong (whether it be the 1933 version, the 1976 version or the 2005 version), you are going to be sorely disappointed. It does share the same titular character, and it also features the same journey to an obscure land, but that’s where the similarities stop. I’m not sure where this stands in the King Kong canon (I wouldn’t consider it an origin story), but I do know that they took this character in a very different direction, and for those who love the original incarnation of King Kong may be a little disappointed with this. But we’ve seen the entire “it was beauty that killed the beast” trope played out several times now – it is time for something original, and that is exactly what Kong: Skull Island achieves.
Let’s just look at the story, first of all – it is set in 1973, and is about a group of people all venturing to the mysterious Skull Island, where they are very soon acquainted with the titular Kong, who is evidently a god of the people of the island. Amongst those people are conspiracy scientists William Randa (John Goodman) and his associate, Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and military commander Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is accompanied by a bevy of his soldiers. These characters all enter onto the same island, but find their own perception of the world affecting how they act and react to the fact that they are in a world very different to our own. While previous versions of King Kong are structured as a capture mission for the titular character, in a way he is less the subject of the film, rather serving as a framing device for the characters and their own development.
I don’t necessarily want to be someone that looks into every piece of art and finds a social message behind it, but Kong: Skull Island certainly did have a very subtle way of being both anti-imperialist, and also a scathing statement against the Vietnam War.
The presence of native tribes on Skull Island, peaceful and undisturbed from the rest of the bustling world, living in complete harmony with nature, worshipping a massive and benevolent creature as their god – it presents a utopia of sorts. The political message in this film isn’t overtly expressed, but it is certainly there. Setting the film in 1973, in a period between the end of the Vietnam War and in the middle of the Cold War, was an inspired choice – and any film that makes the effort to actually set itself in a different era when it easily could have been set in the modern day will always be looked upon positively by me.
Talking about opposition to the Vietnam War, and anti-imperialist sentiments displayed in this film, let’s talk about the fact that Kong: Skull Island is evidently hugely influenced by Apocalypse Now and the novel that birthed that iconic film, Heart of Darkness? I finished reading Heart of Darkness only a few days ago, and I found myself seeing such evident comparisons between Kong: Skull Island, and Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness. First of all, the use of rock music in this film is clearly inspired by it, as is the fact that there is a scene where military helicopters descend upon a rugged, jungle-like terrain to the sound of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” – and the process of setting out into a strange new land to find a figure results in the protagonists finding themselves questioning their own morality, and human nature is put on full display. It is pretty obvious that Kong: Skull Island may be a wildly entertaining film, but it certainly draws inspiration from very dark and meaningful places, which is the main reason why I loved the film so much – it may be entertaining, but it still has an extraordinarily deep meaning and is incredibly cerebral. Let’s also not mention that a character in this film has the surname “Conrad” – I can’t be the only one seeing the parallels here?
Let’s talk about the cast. I had one problem with this film – it was yet another chance for Tom Hiddleston to show that he is an utterly vapid and dull actor when it comes to playing heroic roles. He was good in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Loki because that sniveling, sinister waif villain suited him. He was good in Only Lovers Left Alive because the role of a detached, cold vampire suited him. A heroic role just doesn’t work for Hiddleston – I have no idea why Hiddleston was the choice to play the role of Conrad, a supposedly brave and intelligent tracker who is anything but, if Hiddleston’s performance has anything to say about it. Luckily, he was counterbalanced by Brie Larson, who was terrific as Mason Weaver. I have got a ton of hope that Larson is using her post-Academy Award career very well, and while she may not be the most important character in this film, she certainly does very well, unlike Hiddleston, who wasn’t dreadful, but he wasn’t good either.
Our saviour Michael Keaton was supposed to be in this film, as was legendary character actor J.K. Simmons. Both dropped out, and were replaced by John C. Reilly and Samuel L. Jackson respectively. I can’t say they downgraded, because both Reilly and Jackson are pretty great actors, and they bring the necessary star power to this film. John Goodman is also in it, and is as wonderful as he normally is. The best part about Kong: Skull Island is that I actually wasn’t sure who the villain of this film would end up being, right up until the end – it could’ve been Goodman or Jackson, and that just credits this film with its attention to not being so completely obvious. There is very little doubt that Goodman and Jackson are wonderful actors, and while they need to sometimes be a bit more selective with the films they choose, they are almost always very good. Kong: Skull Island is no different, and they bring everything to the roles that were needed. Kong: Skull Island is just a little bit better because these actors were in it, because they made it even better by just doing their thing and being the reliable actors we know them to be. The rest of the cast is good, if not unremarkable. Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell reunite after Straight Outta Compton, in very different roles from each other.
The music in Kong: Skull Island is absolutely incredible. I credit whoever selected the soundtrack. It added so much to the film without ever taking away from its story or being a distraction. Being the music lover I am, how could I resist a film that includes Black Sabbath, David Bowie, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane and the greatest band of all time, Iggy and the Stooges. The soundtrack is beautifully placed into this film, and creates a unique experience. Music is inherently important to film, and Kong: Skull Island is far more than just a film that uses rock music – it is a film that uses rock music well. It was absolutely genius to use some of these songs in the way that they were used, and had me shaking my head in disbelief at the perfect serendipity where film and music met so perfectly in this film.
On the surface, Kong: Skull Island may seem like a standard blockbuster adventure film – but trust me, it is so much more. It is beautifully composed, and has some amazing cinematography, and the locations were used well. The performances were mostly excellent (with the exception of Hiddleston) and the story itself was compelling and unique. Most of all, it was as far from brainless escapism as you can get – it certainly is a radically fun film, and entertaining to a fault, but also manages to be thoughtful and fascinating much of the time. I was so pleasantly surprised with Kong: Skull Island, and don’t be put off by the blockbuster sheen of the film – it is far deeper than what its appearance would suggest. I really did love it, and I suggest everyone gives it a chance. I am not a big fan of these kinds of blockbusters, but Kong: Skull Island is something special.