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King Kong may be the Eighth Wonder of the World, but Skull Island — the prehistoric jungle the giant ape calls home — is an awe-inspiring wonder in its own right. A horrific blend of cryptozoology and paleontology, these “Lost Worlds” are usually the setting of at least half of a typical King Kong movie, and over the years they’ve evolved (and devolved) in ways that, even when sometimes disappointing, are at least a little fascinating. While we expect to get another look at Skull Island in the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong, the original King Kong helped to invent what modern audiences now know as blockbuster fantasy film spectacle, and Kong’s dinosaur-filled homeland played a big part in that.
But which of them is the best? Which ones capture our imaginations and send T. rex-obsessed viewers into overdrive? Which ones leave us saying “Oh, a few trees… That’s it?” From these, we have four definitive entries, found in the 1933, 1976, and 2005 King Kong films, along with 2017’s Kong: Skull Island. However, worth including for the sake of completeness are the other exotic landscapes that Kong rampages around in, places that definitely take a few cues from Kong’s original home.
Honorable Mentions: Faro Island in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Mondo Island in King Kong Escapes (1967), Borneo/Southern swamp in King Kong Lives (1986).
Kong made a couple of appearances in Japanese monster movies, duking it out with Godzilla in 1962 and then having another Toho-produced adventure in 1967. While neither of these films traveled to Skull Island proper, they do deserve to be noted for how they incorporate the now-famous Kong iconography. Faro Island featured natives worshiping the big guy and a huge wall of sorts, while Mondo Island was full of jungles and mountains, which Kong obviously prefers. They each include a few giant animals for Kong to wrestle with as well, with Faro serving as home to a giant octopus (one of which was eaten by the special effects director after filming was over) and Mondo being a refuge to Gorosaurus (a T. rex-esque beast whose jaws Kong breaks in homage to the 1933 film) and a serpent (a kind of beast that’s become Kong’s most frequent opponent).
Also deserving of an honorable mention are Borneo and the swamps, both found in King Kong Lives, the much-maligned sequel to the 1976 remake. Borneo, a real location, probably seemed exotic to most viewers, and swamps probably seemed exotic to Hollywood executives who’ve never been to Louisiana.
04. Skull Island from King Kong (1976)
The Skull Island found in producer Dino De Laurentiis’ attempt to introduce Kong to a new generation (“...when my Kong die, everybody cry,” he was fond of saying) looks the most obviously like a film set. There’s no real pattern to the landscape, as it blends lush waterfalls and beaches with sparse trees and steaming, rocky valleys. There’s something charming to the now-dated Hollywood-ness of the '76 Kong adaptation, and Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s script obviously has fun with the material (he’d previously written for the '60s Adam West Batman series), but its Skull Island somehow feels both grand and cheap.
That said, the wall in this film gets a lavish treatment, and there is a wonderful, almost Hammer Horror film sensibility to the whole thing. Perhaps the biggest problem with the movie’s Skull Island, though, is how otherwise empty it is. The island’s only other oversized occupant is a big rubbery snake that Kong fights during an underwhelming sequence. The snake’s halfhearted inclusion reeks of “We don’t really wanna put this thing in here, but Kong wrestles them in the first film, so I guess we gotta.”
03. Skull Island from Kong: Skull Island
The Skull Island in director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Monsterverse version absconds from the typical prehistoric rendering and instead aims for a kind of mystical ecosystem, one inspired by the range of creatures found in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. At times, it’s a wonder (and a terror) to behold, with the most memorable bits coming from a giant, tentacled spider, the lizard-like “Skullcrawlers” (which Vogt-Roberts happily admitted on Twitter were a blend of a two-legged reptile who briefly appears in the 1933 original and Cubone from Pokémon, among other sources) and a big yak-looking animal that you’d want to hug if it weren't 75 feet tall. There are also hints at a wider range of fauna, notably when John C. Reilly’s wonderful character talks about big ants. (“Sounds like a bird but it’s a f***ing ant.”)
On the other hand, the wall on this island is a bit lackluster, but that’s mostly due to the focus of the threat shifting to the Skullcrawlers rather than Kong’s typical tantrums. The upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong will take us back to this Skull Island, so perhaps this iteration will move up in the rankings soon.
02. Skull Island from King Kong (1933) and Son of Kong
There are few cinematic locales as famous as the Skull Island found in the original two King Kong films, one that is both a nightmare vision, a pulp novel thrill ride, and a special effects tour de force representative of a medium that was desperate to jump to the next level. The wall, the doomed sailors being shaken off the log, Kong beating his chest after a vicious battle with a looming carnivore, the mountains where the great ape makes his home — all of these images aren’t just memorable in the grand scheme of Kong films but in the pantheon of filmmaking history.
To say that King Kong and Skull Island helped invent blockbuster fantasy as we know it is not an understatement.
To watch it now diminishes none of its power, especially since, thanks to strides in paleontology and films like the Jurassic Park franchise, 1933’s Skull Island seems even more otherworldly with its antiquated science. Indicative of a time when researchers still struggled to get a firm grasp on what dinosaurs and other prehistoric titans even were, the whole thing assumes a gothic, unknowable quality.
01. Skull Island from King Kong (2005)
One would assume that after making The Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson would find work less strenuous in its fictional conception. Instead, it seems Middle-earth was just an appetizer for Skull Island, a place that pays magnificent homage to the beloved island found in the 1933 film while also exploding it into one of the most intricate environments ever seen in a movie. Food chains, architectural history, evolutionary patterns, geological shifts — all were considered in the creation of Jackson’s Skull Island. (Film fans should check out the absolutely enormous amount of behind-the-scenes material there is for it.) The end result is simultaneously big-budget escalation (“What if instead of one Rex, Kong fought THREE?”) and beautiful.
The best example probably comes in the Spider Pit scene, a fabled sequence rumored for years to have been included in the 1933 film, but was cut after audiences found it too terrifying. Included here, it becomes a hallmark of Skull Island, with the distraught crew members finding themselves battling (and usually being consumed by) a seemingly endless amount of massive arthropods and other oversized creepy crawlies.
Jackson’s love of the horror genre is on full display here, but more so is his adoration for the idea of Skull Island, a horrid place that continues to haunt us and yet draws both audiences and filmmakers back to it over and over again.