RECAP: Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island (2017): Jordan Vogt-Roberts

King Kong has a long film tradition of beginning his movies at home and later finding himself climbing some concrete edifice in Lower Manhattan. Poor guy’s endured that a few times.

Rather than bringing the giant to civilization, Kong: Skull Island brings civilization to the giant ape. A detachment of soldiers from the Vietnam war and some scientists from Washington descend on Kong’s native habitat. Many die for it, but does that make Kong the bad guy?

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Many humans die after they discover Skull Island and its 10-story-tall ape protector, Kong. 

Hero (5/10)

Several humans populate the screen in Kong: Skull Island. Doesn’t matter. This is Kong’s home, and this is his movie.

Floating inside an unrelenting storm front, Skull Island (for it resembles a skull) is an escape point for large tunnels beneath the Earth’s surface. Such places allow ancient, enormous animals to roam the surface.

Untouched by the outside world for millennia, gigantic animals have roamed the island for unknown lengths of time. We don’t know if Kong is one of these ancient creatures or not, but he guards the world from more dangerous ones.

Kong is the last of his kind, once a family of apes 100 feet tall. With orange eyes and triple claw marks on his chest, Kong’s hatred for the slithering skull crushers knows no bounds. They killed his parents.

Kong first appears in the film’s present when a team of scientists and American soldiers ending their Vietnam War tour bomb Skull Island to take readings of its subterranean geology. Explosions caused by the helicopters awaken Kong, and he debuts by killing American soldiers.

Bombing Skull Island

It’s hard to win an American audience by killing American soldiers, but Kong does win us over. We know that the troops bombed his home for no reason. That’s clear from the start. The native humans on Skull Island explain (through an American interpreter) that Kong protects the island and, it’s inferred, all humanity, from the lizard-like skull crushers.

Kong’s fighting skills are well known to filmgoers. He fights faster, stronger and smarter creatures this time out. Kong displays a knowledge of tools and compassion for his closest genetic cousins, humankind. If Kong weren’t the last of his kind we might have to watch out for his species.

Kong proves to be the planet’s most adaptable and fearsome warrior. Sliced by helicopter blades and burned with napalm, Kong nearly succumbs to advanced human technology. It’s a deep-seated hatred of the skull crushers that fuels his fighting skill, and he uses it to protect the human natives. For that, they treat him as God.

Villain (3/10)

Ninety minutes pass before the villain of Kong: Skull Island appears. That’s OK, because it’s a large reptile, and it’s hard to characterize voiceless reptiles.

Dubbed skull crushers, younger ones fight Kong and the Americans a few times, but it’s the mother or father that nearly kills them all.

Big Mama or Papa Skull Crusher

The skull crushers stand on two legs and use tails two or three times their torso lengths to balance. The result is a scaled creature that crawls in front like a lizard and slides in back like a snake, making their movements familiar enough to be scary and alien enough to be scarier still. Their eyes are behind their large nostril pits on their long snouts.

The biggest skull crusher matches Kong in size and exceeds him in ferocity. Several times in the final battle the skull crusher appears down for good, but it’s only when Kong literally tears its guts out that all the island’s apes (large and small) can breathe easy.

The skull crushers are scary, but they lack personality, and that hurts the film, though it’s hard to see any way around it.

Action/Effects (8/10)

Kong: Skull Island‘s first action comes when you least expect it. The nerds working for Landsat have ordered their seismic bombs dropped, and the army goons are getting off watching the fireballs leap from the jungle. These explosions are meant to aid the mapping of the island.

You know who doesn’t enjoy human intrusion into his calm island paradise? Kong. From nowhere an uprooted palm tree flies into a gunship, exploding it. Kong slaps another chopper, and the camera follows it as it spins out of control to the ground. Kong then lifts the wrecked helicopter and eats one of the surviving troops. That’ll teach him to invade Skull Island.

Kong about to eat a soldier.

The camera pulls back to silhouette Kong in front of the bright orange ball in the sky. In slow motion the remaining choppers fly toward Kong. Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), leader of the soldiers, gets real mad real fast.

The air cavalry surround Kong and shoot him with guns. Kong has the sense to block his eyes, but the bullets appear ineffectual against him. Except they make him mad. Kong jumps and punches a chopper. He beats his chest and growls until the crashing chopper’s blades cut his right arm.

As some soldiers safely reach the ground, others die when Kong smashes them. Kong runs toward another helicopter and leaps over it. The helicopter trailing Kong doesn’t see the other and they crash together.

Packard’s bird crashes. Kong, at the Landsat landing site now, rakes a hand through the dirt and throws another man into an airborne ‘copter. Kong was warming up before; now he gets into the damage.

The world’s largest ape grabs Packard’s ‘copter and throws it into a flying one. He punches another with two fists, then grabs one of the larger Sea Stallions to use as a bat, swinging it in circles to smash a gunship.

Packard watches all this and doesn’t forget, but Kong’s work is done. Thumping his chest again, he roars and retreats to nurse his wounds.

There’s terrific fighting from Kong and the other creatures on Skull Island. The effects team had its work cut out, and succeeded. Kong is a fully realized character, and had to be, but the effects people don’t skimp on the other wildlife. Today we describe elephants, buffalo, rhinos, etc. as megafauna. Skull Island’s creatures should be called Super Duper Megafauna.

Kong and the skull crushers roam the island sometimes, but don’t sleep on the towering spiders with legs like bamboo poles. They’ll impale you when you aren’t looking up. Sitting on a log? That could be an insect that’s 15 feet long. My favorite creature was the enormous ox dripping with moss from its horns. Poor thing was crushed by a downed chopper until Kong saved it.

A friendly ox friend

Kong appeared real enough, except when other entities interacted with him. Weaver touches his face in a scene that could have been made with a tactile surface and not pixels. Later, Kong is wrapped with chains that don’t resonate with his body.

Given the degree of difficulty, the effects in Kong: Skull Island wowed.

Sidekicks (3/8)

Many, many humans fill out the cast of characters gracing Skull Island.

Randa: A scientist long discounted by the greater community, Randa (John Goodman) subscribes to Hollow Earth theory, which states that the Earth’s insides are not solid but are crisscrossed by large tunnels. Throughout these gaps roam giant monsters, the ancient and true owners of the planet. Turns out he’s right. Randa didn’t know Kong existed and would kill several American GIs, but he did know about the giant monsters. Randa dies when a young skull crusher, attracted by a malfunctioning camera flash, eats him.

Weaver: An accomplished photographer up for the cover of Time, Weaver (Brie Larson) joins the Skull Island expedition because she doesn’t trust the official line. When three different sources say exactly the same thing, they’re hiding something.

Brie Larson as Weaver

Weaver carries her camera throughout the mission, snapping everything she can despite the danger. The antiwar photographer never worries about being surrounded by female-starved soldiers. Thankfully the movie avoids any harassment. She attaches herself to the other civilian dragged along, Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). These two connect as the odd-persons-out and the sexiest members of the expedition.

Weaver is the closest character to Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow from the original King Kong. Facing Kong late in the film, Weaver reaches out to touch his face, making a connection that will save her life. She also delivers the killing blow to the young skull crusher in the graveyard.

Conrad: Formerly of the British Special Forces, Conrad joins the Skull Island mission as a guide. Without doubt, Conrad’s is the coolest head on Skull Island that’s not decorated with face paint. Col. Packard leads his men on a suicide mission to kill Kong, rather than escape the island, and it’s Conrad who orchestrates Packard’s overthrow.

Tom Hiddleston as Conrad

Conrad’s finest hour occurs when he saves Weaver using a katana and a gas mask to slice flying reptiles inside a toxic gas cloud. Perhaps Hiddleston demanded such a scene in his contract? It looked damn cool.

Marlow: The funniest character (John C. Reilly) is the 28-year marooned World War II pilot who “can’t tell when I’m talking and when I’m not talking.” Despite being amongst the locals for half his life, Marlow doesn’t speak the language, probably because they don’t have one.

John C. Reilly as Marlow

Marlow is important because he explains the history of Skull Island’s people and creatures. The skull crushers–Marlow’s invented name for the giant reptiles–attack the humans, and only Kong stands in their way. Perhaps we could have learned this without another American, but the producers didn’t feel like it.

Some troops and scientists also get lines, but mostly they are there to die.

Henchmen (5/8)

I really hated Col. Packard. Hated him so much. Packard accepts orders to escort some scientists to Skull Island because “I’m here to execute whatever orders I’m given.” Upset that the Vietnam War is lost–strike that, it’s “abandoned”–Packard won’t lose another one, even if the war is an invented one against a single opponent.

Samuel L. Jackson as Col. Packard

When Kong attacks the bevy of attack helicopters bombing his home, several American soldiers die. Packard, from the first, tags Kong as his enemy, glaring at the giant ape with singular clarity. Packard is interested in recovering large ordnance to kill Kong, when he should be trying to get his men to the extraction point on the north of Skull Island.

Admire Packard’s dedication to the soldiers who died under his command. He carries their dog tags. The rest of Packard’s men slowly recognize that Kong is their friend and only attacked them because the Americans struck first, but Packard is too blinded with rage to accept this.

After reaching the downed chopper filled with gasoline and napalm, Packard sets a trap for Kong. He ignites fire and explosions to attack an angry Kong, drawing him into a pond. Packard carries a torch like an ancient barbarian waiting in front of charging infantry. “I know an enemy when I see it,” he says to Randa.

Kong takes the bait, roaring across the pond at Packard, who doesn’t blink. When Kong steps into the pond, Packard smiles. He’s got the brute. Packard tosses the torch into the water, igniting the napalm floating on the surface.

“This is one war we’re not going to lose,” Packard says of the fight against Kong. As Kong roars and falls into the inferno, Packard makes fists, thinking he’s won the day. Kong isn’t finished. He burst from the flames to incinerate another soldier and squash a scientist. Kong, exhausted and partly charred, topples yards from Packard.

Conrad, Weaver, and Marlow show up to save Kong. Packard threatens to blow up Kong with charges begrudgingly set around him by his men, but he’s lost his men and knows it. Packard’s life ends moments later, when Kong flattens him with his fist. Color me pleased.

Stunts (1/6)

Only once do the humans get a chance to fight the old creatures of Skull Island on their own. The movie’s massive effects budget and mandate preclude heavy stunt work, so I’ll detail another action scene.

Packard, obsessed with killing Kong, leads survivors to a graveyard, the final resting place of Kong’s parents, a valley of bile-colored haze on the otherwise-verdant island. Everyone knows crossing the graveyard to be a dumb idea, but Packard controls the guns, so they feel obliged to follow. Marlow laughs about the folly. “You shouldn’t have come here.”

One of the soldiers lights up a smoke that another asks him to put out. He does, by throwing the cancer stick into a hole in the ground. That hole explodes. The boneyard is one of the exit points that Randa mentioned in his Hollow Earth theory. Fumes of questionable explosiveness escape like pus from open wounds.

The humans hear a skull crusher lurking and they hide. The skull crusher, a juvenile, vomits a pink human skull with dog tags affixed. Chapman, the guy with the munitions and the man Packard dragged all these nice people into hell to rescue, is proven dead.

This creature is a juvenile.

The humans know the skull crusher lurks, but the creature doesn’t know it yet. The humans carefully step through the hazy field. Particles float in the yellowish murk. Everyone with a gun is tense. Marlow draws his friend’s katana blade and prepares for the fight they know is coming.

Randa’s camera flash malfunctions, snapping every two seconds or so. He knows that’s bad for his life expectancy, and the skull crusher eats him, swallowing Randa and the camera, the flash still igniting its path through the creature’s gut.

Packard orders a .50-caliber gun armed and mounted on a triceratops skull that’s sitting in the open. No one comments on this. Do dinosaurs still roam Skull Island?

The characters can’t see the skull crusher through the haze, only the flashbulb still firing. Marlow, sword at the ready, mutters, in Japanese, “Death before dishonor.” The skull crusher charges from the haze. Marlow dodges in time and slices the thing’s leg.

The .50 opens up, but the skull crusher head butts the skull the gun rests on and slinks its tongue out to eat the shooter as the man flies backward. Weaver, weaponless, is the next target. She sprints from it and slides into a large, exposed ribcage that briefly protects her from the skull crusher’s snapping jaws.

Packard orders a soldier to fire up the flamethrower, and that draws the skull crusher’s attention. It sets the skull crusher on fire, actually, but that doesn’t kill the creature. Instead the monster uses its long tail to whip the flamethrower into a giant skull, and the weapon explodes immediately.

Remember how that cigarette made an explosion? Let’s get the flamethrower out and see how that goes.

Someone nearby the big dinosaur skull carried toxic gas canisters. Oops. Conrad notices this and calls out a warning to the others. The gas cans explode, filling the area with discernible green clouds.

Some large flying reptiles swoop in now. Conrad, recognizing that Weaver is on the other side of the toxic gas and isolated from the people with guns, leaves his mark on the film. Sprinting toward the gas, he screams at Marlow to toss him the sword. Conrad catches the sword like a slot receiver streaking across the middle, bends to grab a gas mask, dons it, and slices his way through the gas cloud and the flying reptiles, spilling their blue blood like Jackson Pollock on a workday.

He reaches the edge of the gas and pulls off his mask, rescuing Weaver. I would not take off my mask so close to the toxic gas, but that’s why they don’t pay me big bucks to scout uncharted islands.

The skull crusher continues to eat and tail whip the folks shooting at it. These Skull Island creatures have never seen bullets before, but that shouldn’t make them immune to bullets as they appear to be.

The creature charges at Conrad. From nowhere pops Weaver, who throws a lit lighter into a fume pit. The pit explodes as the skull crusher runs past it. That finally kills it. You have to set the skull crushers on fire TWICE to kill them. Now we know.

Climax (2/6)

The big skull crushers show themselves moments before their tormentor, Kong, dies. Or, rather, is about to die. Had they waited ten seconds, Packard might have exploded their only natural predator.

The arrival of the big crushers stirs Kong to consciousness. It also snaps Packard from fear to rage. The colonel turns to his nemesis, Kong, and says, “Die you mother f–,” unable to finish the thought as Kong pulverizes him with his fist.

The remainder of the surviving members of the original mission follows Conrad to the edge of the island, a mix of cliffs, shallow pools, and ship graveyard. Weaver climbs a mountain, where she can light a flare for others to see from Marlow’s makeshift boat while the others run and wade away.

Cole, one of the soldiers, is the first to die. He offers his life to try to kill the skull crusher, holding two grenades aloft as an offering to the demon gods, hoping to be eaten as Randa was. Cole forgot that the crushers have a second method of killing, which is used now: whacking prey with their tales. Cole sails into a cliff and explodes, his death now meaningless.

The crusher, this one with a white snout, chases the humans until Kong leaps in to smash it with a boulder. The crusher lunges at Kong with its mouth of razor teeth. Kong catches the jaws and tries to use his strong arms to win. Seems like an even fight, but we must recall a bit of foreshadowing. Earlier, one of the soldiers asked Marlow if a cub could beat a tiger. Marlow, a Chicago Cubs fan, admitted that a (Detroit) tiger would obviously beat a young bear.

Kong, remember, is a kid. The crusher is grown. Uh oh.

Meanwhile, Weaver climbs a mountain and shoots a flare to alert those on the boat.

Kong tries to rip the crusher’s jaws apart but can’t, so he smashes its head into rocks. He tries to elbow the face but the crusher dodges. He expects his superior ape intellect will propel him to victory. Kong grabs a tree and breaks off its branches in one smooth motion. The combatants charge each other, and Kong swings and hits the crusher’s face.

The crusher remembers it has a long tail, and uses it to wrap around Kong and fling him into a wrecked ship. Large chains wrap the ape, and the crusher senses victory. It stands on Kong’s chest and is about to lick him when Brooks saves the day, opening up the B-29 machine guns on the boat’s front. He’s a great shot, actually, for a rock jock.

Tensions are high as the crusher charges the boat. Marlow reloads the guns. Conrad runs through the water as bait, and Kong struggles to break the chain. He finally does, noticing that one chain is wrapped around a rusty ship propeller blade. Could be useful.

Weaver reloads the flare gun and delivers a perfect shot into the crusher’s face, leaving a putrid red pock mark in the creature. Marlow shoots the dual guns now. The humans buy enough time for Kong to use the propeller blade to cut into the beast and throw it into a hill.

Oops. That was Weaver’s hill, and she’s shocked off the summit and into the water far below, concussing her. Kong is distracted long enough for the crusher to attack again, but Kong recovers, holding the propeller and using its blades to slice the crusher’s neck.

Kong uses the free time to plunge his hairy hand into the water and save Weaver, gently clutching her in his scarred palm. The crusher, still not dead, senses Kong’s cargo and wraps its tongue around the hand holding Weaver, swallowing it.

Kong won’t allow it. Kong uses his strongest trait, his arms, to his advantage, tearing his arm out of the crusher, ripping the tongue and guts from the crusher. Fight over.

The filmmakers set up Kong and the crusher with a solid battle location. The green-covered cliffs create a battle arena. The effects team upped their degree of difficulty in having the two creatures fight in water, splashing all the time. Kong and the humans use excellent teamwork and ingenuity to fell the crusher.

Jokes (3/4)

Gilligan’s Island made marooned day-cruisers tell jokes for three seasons. Kong: Skull Island has one marooned character, and he’s also funny.

John C. Reilly brings levity to a serious venture about a giant ape that fights giant reptiles on an island shaped like a human skull that’s unknown to the outside world until 1973. He injects jokes where you don’t expect them to be.

For example, Marlow narrates the history of Kong as the natives have drawn him in their village. The tone is ominous, the drawings are ominous, and then Marlow tells of how the slithery reptile killed Kong’s parents and Marlow’s friend. The skull crushers.

Some native art

Conrad asks Marlow why he calls them that. “Because it sounds neat,” Marlow says. He’s trying to scare them. “Never said that name out loud.” Funny stuff in the middle of a scary story.

Marlow is a little crazy. That he’s not fully nuts is a testament to the sanity of fighter pilots. He asks the English speakers if they won the (Second World) war. Someone else asks, “Which one?” Marlow says, “That makes sense.” Later, Marlow jokes that he will murder one of the scientists in his sleep. Just joking. Or is he?

A movie with heavy references to Vietnam War movie tropes has to be serious. A movie with a fighting ape has to be silly. Kong: Skull Island uses the marooned pilot Marlow to achieve the latter.

Setting (4/4)

Loved loved loved the settings in Kong: Skull Island. The island is a land of rich jungle, sharp cliffs and mountains, a snaking river, musty swamps, and bamboo forest. A beautiful landscape patrolled by enormous animals and regular-sized humans, this island beckons to all who can brave the permanent storms shrouding the island.

The storm clouds hiding Skull Island

The natives set themselves behind a towering, spiked wall that Donald Trump might want to look at. This wall was built to keep out the skull crushers, and it appears to have worked. Their stone ruins and straw huts make the place seem like paradise, but would you want to live there?

The natives have moved past a hierarchy, Marlow says, but they defer to the men and women in gold.

Commentary (1/2)

Kong: Skull Island leans heavily into Vietnam war movie motifs. Some early explosions reflect in the aviator sunglasses of a smiling American soldier. Seventies rock songs blast from the attacking helicopters. A single gunboat quietly chugs along a jungle-enclosed river. Those images recall Apocalypse Now, don’t they?

Yes.

Don’t ignore the terrific imagery. Often the camera places the orange sun and the white moon behind Kong’s head. That probably means something.

The movie traipses a fine line with the military. The army’s actions in attacking Kong and bombing Skull Island are reprehensible, echoing the attacks on Laos and Cambodia; the individual soldiers are treated with respect. They aren’t excited to be on the mission, literally one day from the end of their tour. Packard, their leader, is the worst human on screen.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Credit the producers for a diverse cast that even included TWO WOMEN. It’s 1973, it’s a team of scientists and soldiers fresh from Vietnam, and it’s got two women. Were a real group assembled for such a mission I can easily imagine an all male outfit.

Others

  • I liked the creative ways the movie exposed the strange fauna on Skull Island. Packard scopes a saw-nosed bird and shoots it just to be a jerk. The leafy tree far in the distance bursts with movement at the gunshot. What resembled leaves from a distance turned out to be hundreds of birds resting on a barren tree. I mentioned the tree-sized stick walker earlier.

Summary (35/68): 51%

Kong: Skull Island makes for a fun two hours. The soundtrack takes us back to the early ’70s, the helicopters and Vietnam war vets keep us there, and then a giant ape pops out of nowhere to send everyone back to the Stone Age. Come for the ape fighting, stay for the beautiful backdrops, crazy creatures, and the fine cast.