King Kong has always been one of cinema’s favorite stories. Ever since the original was released in 1933 there have been numerous sequels, remakes, spinoffs and monster mashups based on the property, and none of them have ever really tried to change the basic premise. The premise of the original is nothing special but it works thanks to some fantastic direction and groundbreaking effects. Since then the franchise has only really ever worked when that formula was used again with Peter Jackson’s King Kong in 2005. That is what makes Kong: Skull Island so interesting. It is far from being one of the better King Kong films but it is easily the most different. That is just enough to get this messy film by.
Kong: Skull Island takes place at the end of the Vietnam War (a far cry from the 1930s or the present day which is where most Kong adaptations take place) as a tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and an army colonel (Samuel L. Jackson) are recruited by a little known government agency to help find something on a remote island. When they get to that island, they discover that something is none other than King Kong, and when they upset the beast they become stranded on the island. That’s where they learn that Kong is not the thing they should be worried about.
This film is really all about world building. It’s about showing you a new world, showing its inhabitants, and showing you how many more opportunities there are to explore these creatures, characters and settings. A lot of this ends up as disappointing set up for Legendary’s new Monsters Cinematic Universe, though. While we occasionally see glimpses of interesting creatures designs (such as the gigantic water buffalo), a lot of the settings we see don’t inspire any sense of awe and the antagonistic creatures of this film have an extremely boring design.
That being said these new visuals make it clear that this film is not beholden to the typical Kong storyline. The film really makes this clear with some of the characters in the film. While Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson’s leading couple are about as stereotypical as they can come, Samuel L. Jackson’s Packard and John C. Reilly’s Marlow are very interesting characters. Samuel L. Jackson excels in the role of a Captain Ahab type bent on destroying Kong in revenge for the soldiers he killed, and John C. Reilly gloriously hams it up in every second he’s in (to the point that he becomes distracting when compared to everything else going on around him even if the performance remains impressive).
All in all, Kong: Skull Island is quite a mess. It’s trying something new but it does that through stereotypical leads and some bland world building. It has an interesting set of supporting characters but they cause a constant struggle between humor and darkness. Had there been some more consistency, this would have been a worthy follow-up to the latest Godzilla film. Instead it’s fun but forgettable.