Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: In honor of his upcoming title fight against Godzilla, we’re looking back on the most significant starring vehicles for the Eighth Wonder Of The World, the giant ape to rule them all, King Kong.
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
The traditional tale of King Kong has been tackled three separate times on the big screen (all highlighted in this week’s previous installments of Watch This): a mysterious island, a beautiful blond, chains, Manhattan skyscraper, planes, beauty killed the beast, the end. It’s a story that was long overdue for a revamp, as Kong is such a compelling movie monster that he needn’t be confined to that same journey from jungle to concrete jungle. Fortunately, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts provided an overdue new take on the tale with 2017’s inventive Kong: Skull Island, giving the eighth wonder of the world his very own version of Apocalypse Now.
There is, again, an excursion to an uncharted island. But this time, it’s 1973, at the close of the Vietnam War. John Goodman’s exploratory team, which includes Tom Hiddleston as a tracker and Brie Larson as a wartime photographer, receives a military escort. The platoon is headed by Samuel L. Jackson, who—like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now and Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter—is having a hard time letting go of the war and is relieved to go off with his men on one final mission. (It’s pretty fun to see current MCU mainstays like Hiddleston, Larson, and Jackson team up in an entirely alien setting.)
King Kong is at its core a sad story, as the big gorilla is doomed to a life of loneliness as the last of his kind, which creates sympathy for the creature even when he’s at his most monstrous. Skull Island even gives the apparent adolescent ape a backstory, as his family was killed by the horrific Skullcrawlers, which look like the Spy Vs. Spy guys spliced with a giant lizard, with two disturbingly muscular arms latched on. Kong’s purpose on the island is to protect the other benign inhabitants—including the large tribe of natives and the Spore Mantis, which resembles a giant walking stick—from the Skullcrawler menace. His fellow island residents look up to him as a god, but that’s not a life that offers him any real connection. It’s no wonder Kong’s eyes well up when Larson touches the side of his face: This is likely the closest thing he’s experienced to affection since his parents were killed.
Jackson’s character has no sympathy for the beast, though, since Kong takes out about half his squadron upon its arrival. In a clever throwback to those Empire State biplanes, we meet Kong as he’s faced with a fleet of military helicopters—and as in those other movies, he has no choice but to defend himself. (As a nod to the video games of his youth, Vogt-Roberts stages this scene from the first-person perspective of the terrified pilots.)
Kong is scary, but as always, he isn’t really the villain. Thanks to the dueling factions of Hiddleston (pro-Kong) and Jackson (anti-), Skull Island offers some commentary on the ravages of war and its effect on the human psyche. Jackson’s soldiers are so used to shooting first and asking questions later, they lash out when they don’t need to. As in the actual Vietnam War, on Skull Island it’s not so easy to figure out who you should be fighting. Fortunately, John C. Reilly shows up as a longtime island castaway to spell everything out for the newcomers, while also managing to add some comic relief, chuckling at their plight, “You never should have come here!”
Vogt-Roberts frames this parable in the picturesque settings of Hawaii and Vietnam. (It’s supposedly the first American film to shoot in the latter since 2002’s The Quiet American.) The jungle is lush and mysterious, a plausible home for a godlike animal like Kong and his enormous counterparts. The director wisely takes advantage of the setting by offering perfect, striking shots of the helicopters hovering in parallel formation over the trees and of Kong rising to face them, silhouetted against a now-menacing sunset. There are also homages to the big ape’s big-screen legacy in scenes of him in chains and of Larson resting in his enormous hand. Mostly, though, Skull Island offers a heartening break from its predecessors—in part by ending with neither beauty nor anyone else killing the beast. After all, had Kong died this time, who would be around to fight Godzilla next week?
Availability: Kong: Skull Island is currently streaming on HBO Max. It’s also available for digital rental and purchase from Amazon, Google Play, Apple, YouTube, Microsoft, Redbox, Fandango Now, AMC On Demand, DirecTV, and VUDU.