Kaiju movies are having themselves a moment. Big-ass robots and bigger-ass monsters are things for which audiences have been willing to shell out a few bucks to see over the last few years. But until #KongSkullIsland, my feelings about this genre have been indifferent at best. I just haven't been all that invested in what was happening on screen; the size of the monsters always felt less meaningful to the plot and more like size porn meant for a cheap visual thrill.
In Kong: Skull Island, however, size matters. Humans are so, so fucked, I found myself thinking more than once, the first monster movie to make me feel that way.
The movie opens with Monarch operative Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his young assistant, geologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), wheedling their local Congressman for permission to piggyback on a routine Landsat survey in order to investigate a mysterious island under the guise of conducting geological experiments, though Randa's real objective is to research the giant creatures whose existence he's chased ever since he was a younger man, thanks to a reveal I'll not spoil for you.
To do so, they track down former SAS black ops officer, Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to serve as their tracker and guide. Conrad tells them, quite bluntly, that there are a million different ways to die on the island, but finally agrees to it after they offer him an astronomical amount of money.
Escorting the Landsat operation is Vietnam soldier Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his loyal team of combat helicopter pilots, the Sky Devils: Chapman (Toby Kebbell), Cole (Shea Whigham), Mills (Jason Mitchell), Slivko (Thomas Mann), and Reles (Eugene Cordero). Rounding out the team are biologist San (Jing Tian) and anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).
The plan is simple enough: The Landsat team will drop depth charges—i.e. bombs—on the island to map the terrain. They run into one very large snag in their mission, however: Kong. The king of the island is understandably pissed-off at these intruders invading his terrain and then opening big ol' craters in it.
All hell breaks loose as he tears their airborne squadron apart, and then a new level of hell is discovered when their bombing wakes something far worse than Kong: Skull Crawlers. They have been so named by the newly-discovered WWII and island survivor Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) in a humorous scene that wasn't unwelcome but certainly felt a bit jarring.
This is the major flaw of the film: the tonal inconsistency. Moments of levity follow intense scenes (or in some cases, play out simultaneously) with humor that sometimes feels as if it landed in the wrong moment, if not the wrong movie. Half time time it feels as if you're watching a monster movie, the other half a war movie; the nods to and influence of both classic Japanese kaiju flicks and Vietnam-era war films is evident throughout and it's not always certain which movie director Jordan Vogt-Roberts ultimately wanted it to be. If nothing else, it provides for an interesting exercise in comparing the base primality of both human war and surviving the island, and Roberts gets credit for achieving great things in only his second feature-length film.
Roberts also gets credit for setting the film on Skull Island and having it play out on Kong's turf. Rather than the monster being on uncertain footing in human territory, with humans' ability to call in overwhelming military might, the humans here are truly in over their heads. They are at the very bottom of the food chain on Skull Island, as more than a few team members find out in horrifying moments just before being splattered like a bug on a windshield. Because on Skull Island, that's what humans are; naught but tiny blips on the radars of these Leviathans.
Because of this, the spectacle provided by the sheer size of the monsters actually works. A few of the action sequences are truly breathtaking; as Kong throws down with a giant Skull Crawler, the humans scramble to get out of the way, aware that they are of utter insignificance not just to the battling monsters, but also in the grand scheme of things on Skull Island. All their guns, all their ingenuity, is nullified by the overwhelming primality of the island. All that matters is getting the hell out of the way of bigger, badder predators. As a character in the film, it means a scramble for survival; as a viewer, it means you can sit back and enjoy being pleasantly overwhelmed by the scope of it all.
As the second entry into the planned #MonsterVerse, Kong: Skull Island does a solid job of establishing its ties in the universe: MUTOs are mentioned, Monarch exists, and there is a direct link for one of the characters to the same naval attack at sea that opened 2014's Godzilla. The postcredits scene also acts as a strong setup for the movies to come, albeit doing it in a painfully on-the-nose way reminiscent of the blatant exposition montage of the Justice League in Batman V Superman.
My final thoughts: You don't go to monster movies expecting to see a particularly complex plot and that still holds true here. If that's what you want, skip it. But if you want a movie that's a hell of a lot of fun, one in which King Kong is finally afforded the intelligence and respect he deserves as the King of all Apes, then Jordan Vogt-Roberts has made the movie for you.
Kong: Skull Island is in theaters on Friday, March 10.