In 1933, Merian C. Cooper astounded the world by bringing a fantastic version of Beauty and the Beast to the silver screen. It was the story of a giant ape revered as a God on a remote island where evolution paused millions of years ago and dinosaurs still roamed. It was hailed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World”, and was brought to life by master technician Willis O’Brien, with help from Marcel Delgado and a young Ray Harryhausen, that last being uncredited, but he used the experience in 1948 to create Mighty Joe Young. But enough history, let’s dissect this story.
William Randa (John Goodman) and his assistant Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) wrangle a senator to fund a mission for his Monarch Corporation, a nebulous entity shrouded in secrecy which is hunting for “large, living monsters”. The mission gets piggybacked with a geologic trip to the area, but not before Randa secures a military escort in the person of Samuel L. Jackson as Lt. Col. Preston Packard and his Sky Devils helicopter assault team.
It should be noted that this story unfolds shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, and Packard and most of his men are eager for “one more tour of duty” in this adventure, which is laced with 1970s classic rock tunes the audience of a certain age will fondly remember. The target, “Skull Island” is continuously surrounded by violent storms that have kept it hidden for a long time, and has just recently been identified by satellite imagery.
As the helicopters break through the clouds, they disperse and release “helicopter bombs” to assess the geological makeup of the island. This act brings out a titanic gorilla which attacks the helicopters and knocks them all out of the sky. Among the ragtag crew is James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), an aspiring photojournalist and peace activist looking for that one picture that will make her famous. The soldiers and civilians get separated and try to get back together again. As they roam around they encounter a huge mutant water buffalo. Conrad is a former member of the British Special Forces in Vietnam and a jungle expert, so he’s a natural leader for his group, which winds up at some ancient ruins where they encounter fierce-appearing natives and Lieutenant Hank Marlow (John C. Riley), who has been living on the island since crashing there during World War II. Marlow gives them the lowdown on the native life forms on the island, which include giant spiders and ants (although we never see the ants) and a large snakelike animal with front arms and a bony head which he refers to as “skull crawlers”, a word he just made up because it “sounds scary”.
Also present is a species of large cephalopod, which makes a brief appearance as a giant, active sushi bar for Kong. The skull crawlers are definitely the main threat as they are fast and ferocious, and manage to decimate the troops a bit as they amble around. Just as nasty are “ugly birds” of some mutant variety which are actually some sort of pterosaur that account for a few more deaths. Preston wants Kong dead, but Marlow is against the idea because he points out that Kong is basically the only means of protection against the skull crawlers, especially one “big one”. One of the scientists adds to the argument by pointing out that in nature, when one species is wiped out, another steps up to fill in the void.
This is NOT your grandfather’s Kong, and parents should be made aware that the scenes of gore and monster violence are very intense, so you may want to consider leaving the kiddies home for this one. The ending of this film is slightly upbeat, but I must confess I didn’t stick around for all the end credits to see how they were going to tie this one up with the Godzilla legend in 2020, so I may have missed a big point. The lush jungle scenery of Hawaii, Vietnam, and Australia give this film a “travelogue” look—at least until the monsters show up.