There used to be a commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups that went something like this: Two groovy people, listening to groovy music through their groovy headphones, collide on the street. “You’ve got your peanut butter in my chocolate!” one objects. “No, you’ve got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” the other sputters indignantly. Then, they both taste this newfangled taste sensation (!) and proclaim it to be delicious. Peace, man.
That ad came to mind as I watched Kong: Skull Island—which is either someone putting a Vietnam War film in my monster movie or a monster movie in my Vietnam War film. While the film doesn’t quite achieve peanut butter cup-levels of nirvana, it is undeniably entertaining.
The film is set in the 70s, right in the final days of the Vietnam War. Gung-ho captain Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) is feeling a little bereft. He craves victory, closure. Then, as if on cue, he’s given an assignment: To assemble a team of soldiers to accompany a group of explorers to the uncharted Skull Island. The expedition is the brainchild of scientists Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins). While they’ve pitched their interest as strictly ecological, in fact, they secretly believe that there are giant, prehistoric monsters living there. Also along for the ride are studly tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and comely war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts lays on the Vietnam imagery and attitudes thick: Copters, 70s rock musical cues, the brotherhood among the war-weary soldiers (they include Jason Mitchell from Straight Outta Compton, Thomas Mann from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham). Vogt-Roberts also never met a pair of eyes—or mirrored sunglasses—he didn’t want to cast an ominous reflection in. Still, he keeps things hopping.
Almost immediately upon arrival—after first withstanding a treacherous weather pocket—the team is rudely greeted by the colossal Kong, who uses trees as projectiles to take down the copters. In one nifty scene, we observe an attempted rescue mission for a grounded copter from afar when suddenly—whap!—a giant Kong paw wipes out the injured men and rescuers alike. Soon we discover that Kong is not the scariest of the creatures on the island—in fact, he is the island’s moral compass, the protector of the ancient silent tribe that has lived there for an eternity. (The only reason he went after the copters was because they had detonated explosives, ostensibly to stir up ecological matter, but in fact to draw out the island’s creatures of the night.)
The human characters are thinly sketched or clichéd or both: Goodman’s Randa is a (very low-key) mad scientist of sorts, willing to sacrifice others for his grand discovery; Jackson’s Packard becomes predictably blood-thirsty with military fervor. Hiddleston’s Conrad is given a personality for a grand total of one scene: When we first meet him, he’s a scruffy, world-weary gun-for-hire getting into bar fights in Bangkok. Then he shaves his beard and becomes blandly heroic. As for poor Brie Larson, her earnest photographer is saddled with the film’s most risible line. While surveying a pit of skulls, she says, “I’ve been in Vietnam long enough to recognize a mass grave when I see one.” (What was your first clue, Brie: All the skeletons or the giant pit that contained them?)
All of that changes, mercifully, with the arrival of John C. Reilly as WWII vet Hank Marlow. We’d actually met him the first scene as a young man, crash landing on Skull Island along with a Japanese fighter pilot. Marlow is now living peacefully along with the silent tribe. He’s the one who explains to Conrad and his team that Kong is friend, not foe. It’s those oozy, snaggled-toothed sea lizards you’ve really gotta look out for. Anyway, Reilly is an absolute hoot in this part: Being stranded on this island for so many years has made him completely loopy—he’s not even 100% sure that anything he’s seeing is real. Also, while he’s not optimistic that he and his new (possibly imaginary) friends are getting off this island, he’s just so! damn! happy! to have anyone to talk to, especially about his beloved Chicago Cubs. Reilly’s goofy exuberance powers the entire second half of the film.
But you come to Kong: Skull Island to see Kong and the film delivers. He is massive and fierce and formidable, but those moist eyes of his—yeah, the ones Vogt-Roberts loves reflecting things in so much—reveal his true sensitivity. He doesn’t fall in love with Brie Larson or anything icky like that, thank goodness, but he does protect her. And we’re very invested in his wellbeing. Of course, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out if Kong—or anyone else—makes it out of Skull Island alive.