“Kong: Skull Island” (2017): This Kong is King

The summer movie arrives early! Kong: Skull Island features a version of the furry king that literally towers above its predecessors, nearly one hundred foot tall. The film looms as large as the King in its scope, ferocity, and action. This is a monster movie in every aspect. It never pretends to be more than that for better or ill. In most respects, Kong: Skull Island is a roaring success: exhilarating, exhausting, and a hell of a lot of fun with just enough character motivations to move the plot from its mystery-driven start to its survival-mode conclusion. It matches the best monster movies in its action and monsters (King Kong ’33, Jurassic Park) but pales when it comes to the characters themselves. This Kong, while impressive in scale and execution, is lacking in its own motivations with its purpose barely hinted at with exposition. The human characters often get less than that. While the cast is superb with Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, and John Goodman all giving their characters more personality than their actions and dialog suggest (esp. Reilly), the number of characters that fill the adventure threaten to over-stuff the run time and time allotted to full flesh them all out properly. However, the script should be complimented on the fact that the characters are drawn above and beyond being simple cannon fodder for Kong or the other monsters on the Island. The effects of the monsters, the Island and Kong are superior and full immersing. Rounding out the great direction, the impressive cinematography, and fantastic set and costume design is a brilliant soundtrack littered with early Seventies classic rock. Kong: Skull Island satisfies the monster movie itch and teases the eventual Kong vs Godzilla match up with great success despite some issues with characters.

San (Tian Jing), Weaver (Brie Larson), Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and Slivko (Thomas Mann) in Kong: Skull Island.

Taking place in 1973, Kong: Skull Island follows an expedition to the newly discovered Skull Island hidden from view and access by a continuous storm surrounding the island. Government Agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) weasels his way onto the excursion hiring James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as a guide and Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) as the photographer. Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) leads the armed escort to the island. Seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) has the team drop explosives to records the landscape. This draws the attention of Kong, a 100-foot gorilla protecting the island. Kong attacks the helicopters containing Randa, Packard, and the rest, knocking each to the ground before stomping off. Scattered across the island 40 miles from each other, the survivors make their way to a rendezvous point for extraction; however, Packard is looking for a little revenge before he leaves.

The main reason to see Kong: Skull Island is to witness Kong battling the helicopters, a giant octopus, or giant subterranean creatures called “Skull Crawlers.” To this, Kong Skull Island delivers. The action in the film is amazing, breathtaking, and remarkable, often exceeding the jaw-dropping effects in Jackson’s King Kong (2005). The scale alone is stunning. When Kong strolls by the characters, the film captures the creature’s impressive size, not only to Jackson, Hiddleston, and the rest of the cast  but to the island landscape as well. His interaction with the terrain, the humans, and the other monsters is flawless, always convincingly conveying his presence in the scene despite his immense size and stature.

The only slight the beast has against him is that his side of the story, his emotions, which have historically been given a fair shake, are carelessly tossed aside here. John C. Reilly explains that Kong protects the island and is the last survivor of his race but never provide Kong the opportunity to show the audience what that means, even when a long scene is staged in what appears to be his family’s burial ground. The Kong in Kong: Skull Island is more a force of nature, a raging beast looking out for his island and the people on the island he has sworn to protect. The film provides glimpses of what that means but never supports the idea to its fullest.

The cast in Kong: Skull Island is all fantastic with John C. Reilly stealing the entire film. While Tom Hiddeston and Brie Larson are intended to be the main focus of the film, the script never does enough with them to have the film be about them as King Kong would with Jack and Dwan in 1976 or Jack and Ann Darrow in 2005. Instead, the motivations behind Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard drive the majority of the film and consume much of the story’s focus. Hiddleston, Larson, and Jackson are all admirable in their roles and bring more to their roles than much of what the film suggests their characters would be. Larson is provided a wonderful scene to connect with the natives on the island as the photographer, allowing the film a short break from the action to explore their culture, their attire, and their home. Hiddleston is the typical Hollywood hero, leaping to protect and save his fellow cast whenever needed and not much more. Great catch with the Samurai sword, just saying. Reilly, however, is the most fascinating of the leads as his character, trapped on the island since the forties, deals with the concept of finally going home, reuniting with his family, and the changes in society as he remembers. His sense of humor helps keep the film lively as well and is far more welcomed than one would initially think needed.

John Goodman leads a supporting cast that includes Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Tobey Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Eugene Cordero, and Thomas Mann. Most are the members of Packard’s squad of soldiers taking on one last assignment as they leave Vietnam for the States. Each character is provided just enough to tell the characters apart but the story struggles to fully flesh them out in the time the film allows the script to do so. Even so, Shea Whigham manages to provide his character with enough quirks and quiet motivations to have his character stand out, whether it be his joy in dropping explosives on the island (as seen as the blasts go off in his visor as he grins with joy), taking the time to eat when all looks lost  or taking that last stand to save his fellow soldiers. Most of the soldiers are very similar in make while Whigham, Kebbell and Mann are able to stand out from the crowd. Hawkins and Jing, as scientists, are sidelined for much of the film, but are, at least, given their one moment to shine. Goodman drives much of the first act but gets lost in the second act once the need for him to explain that “monsters are real” has expired. After that, he is simply stumbling along waiting for his turn to be monster bait. For the most part, the action of the film drowns out this lack of character but that same action and its effects on the characters prevent Kong: Skull Island from being a superior film.

The film is driven by the effects and the creatures. Kong: Skull Island is a summer blockbuster film landing in theaters in March. The effects are impeccable and astounding, never has Skull Island been so terrifyingly well rendered and realized. Jackson’s Kong came close and the ’33 Kong is special in how it tackled the island, but this film breathes its island integrating it fully, completely with its cast and the landscape. It begins with the storm itself and opens up to the lavish coastal seascape. The monsters in addition to Kong are equally impressive from the small pterodactyl-like birds to the giant oxen creatures. A giant octopus makes a quick but impressive turn against Kong – leaps and bounds above the snake in King Kong ’76, for certain. The “skull crawlers,” while somewhat familiar in their design, are savage and brutal, making for effectively frightening foes for our furry hero.

Kong: Skull Island succeed by the pure force of its action set pieces. The film is pure summer Hollywood blockbuster aiming its sights low but never skimping on delivering action, monsters, and thrills. In that respect, Kong: Skull Island is a terrific, must-see monster movie that should be experienced in the theaters on the big screen. The film is large, loud, and monstrous but lacks in character development and motivations. Tom Hiddleston’s James Conrad suffers the most, causing his character to be far less effective than desired. Once they establish him as a bad-ass, they leave most of his conflicts to deciding when and how to be that bad-ass. Brie Larson’s character is nearly wasted, ending up more of a participating observer than a driving force in the story itself. Samuel L. Jackson’s character is provided far more meat to his tale as he becomes driven to defeat the big hairy beast, turning his role into a personal vendetta. This is effective enough for the film. Kong: Skull Island accomplished the task of giving the audience what it truly wants: monsters. The film is non-stop monster after monster once Kong makes his appearance as Skull Island is revealed with every scene. The film turns into a bit of an amusement park ride through Skull Island as each terrain and each creature is revealed during the second act. While it borders on repetitious, the visuals are stunning with every turn. Kong, standing nearly 100 foot tall, is up for everything the Island and the film makers throw at him. He is magnificent. And so is Kong: Skull Island.

Kong: Skull Island 3.8 out of 5 stars (3.8 / 5)

Doc Rotten
Editor-In-Chief / Founder / Podcast Producer at Horror News Radio
Doc Rotten is the founder of Gruesome Magazine. He is also a film critic for Gruesome Magazine and the podcast host & producer for Horror News Radio, Monster Movie Podcast, Decades of Horror: 1970s, The American Horror Story Fan Podcast and Hannibal Fan Podcast. He is also co-host of the Dracula podcast on TV TALK and is a contributing reviewer for HorrorNews.Net and Widescreen Warrior.

Doc a lifelong fan of horror films, sci-fi flicks and monster movies first discovering Universal Monsters and Planet of the Apes as a young child in the 1970's searching out every issue of Famous Monster of Filmland (and, later, Fangoria). Favorite films include Jaws, The Car, The Birds, The Tingler, Vampire Circus and The Exorcist. Still a huge fan of horror films from the 70s, Doc continues consuming horror films to this day for the site, for the podcasts and for the fun of it all.