Starring: Tom Hiddleston (Thor), Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction), John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane), Brie Larson (Room), Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton), Jiang Tan (The Great Wall), John C. Reilly (Guardians of the Galaxy)
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer)
Writers: Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) and Max Borenstein (Godzilla) and Derek Connolly (Jurassic World)
Runtime: 1 hour 58 minutes
Release Date: 9 March (UK), 10 March (US)
King Kong movies haven’t changed all that much since 1933, and the ones that have attempted to shake up the formula generally don’t end up so good; I mean, just look at King Kong Lives. It always come back to the same beauty and the beast story about man’s effect on nature, and though Kong: Skull Island does touch on some of those themes it mostly forges it own path. This is a Kong film firmly made for this generation and, though it doesn’t quite achieve the status of some of its progenitors, it’s still a fun time at the movies.
Skull Island doesn’t connect in any way to the 1933 original or the 2005 Peter Jackson remake, so no need to swot up on your Kong lore. It is, however, set in the same universe as 2014’s Godzilla though, other than the presence of the monster-hunting organisation Monarch and a post-credits scene, the connection is pretty minimal. There is some inspiration taken from previous Kong stories, but overall this is an entirely new tale that crafts its own unique mythology for the titular ape and island. Though the movie mainly evokes Apocalypse Now through its 1970s setting, plot-wise the film is essentially Predator: after a shady military operation goes wrong, our heroes have to survive unknown horrors as they are slowly picked off on their way to a rendezvous point. The film avoids the mistake Godzilla made and gets into the action within the first act, keeping up the momentum going from there with new challenges to face and monsters to battle. There are no attempts here to hide the monsters in favour of generic human drama; what you paid to see is there on full display. By the film’s conclusion, nothing particularly profound or important has been gleaned, but it is damn entertaining whilst it lasts.
The film does falter similarly to Godzilla in one major category, and that is its characters. However, underdeveloped as they are, what is there is far more interesting than the banal and clichéd family story that drove the previous film. The main problem with the characters isn’t so much the sheer number of them, because they’re all played by fantastic actors who’ve managed to scrape up just enough character depth between them to remain compelling. The real problem is that there’s no clear protagonist amongst them, so it’s hard to really know who we’re supposed to be rotting for. Tom Hiddleston’s Conrad seems like he’s supposed to be our viewpoint, but much of his personality is shrouded in stoicism and he just comes across as a generic tough guy; he’s like an early Arnold Schwarzenegger character but without the physique to convince you. Brie Larson’s Mason seems like an ideal focus being the most out-of-place character, perfectly setting her up to be a more proactive equivalent to Ann Darrow from the original, but the film has little for her to do other than take pictures and contemplate the futility of war. John Goodman is given some interesting set-up with his backstory connection to Kong but the movie quickly runs out of things for him to do, and you know Toby Kebbell is doomed from the moment you see him writing a letter to his kid.
There are, however, some bright spots in the cast. There’s some good Predator-esque banter amongst the grunt soldiers in the group, particularly between Jason Mitchell and Shea Whigham’s characters, and John C. Reilly makes for entertaining comic relief/plot expositor as an out-of-touch WWII pilot who has just enough genuine pathos to avoid being overly kooky. The real star of the show however is Samuel L. Jackson as Packard, receiving the most set-up and development of anyone in the cast as a career soldier with nothing to live for other than his troops. His crazed obsession with taking revenge of Kong is what really drives the movie, bringing back in the man vs. nature themes the franchise has always had and some much needed interpersonal conflict amongst our characters. But of course I must mention Kong himself who, though having far less direct contact with the human characters than previous portrayals, does get across a lot through simple body language. He, like the new Godzilla, is treated more like a force of nature, but the fact he can more clearly emote and has more ample screen time makes him a compelling presence even when he’s not kicking ass.
Speaking of which, said ass-kicking is what ultimately makes Kong: Skull Island worth the ride. There are no attempts to hide the action through documentary-style filmmaking or setting everything at night or in the rain. All of the Kong fights are shot in broad daylight with the camera pulled back to allow you to witness the carnage without obstruction. There are plenty of moments where we witness these battles from the human perspective, like our characters’ first encounter against a skullcrawler, but it’s used only to create scale rather than as a crutch; unless the human characters are involved, the filmmakers let us watch the fight unhindered. The creature designs and the CGI used to create them is also fantastic, eschewing the traditional “normal animals, but bigger and scarier” in favour of unique beasts like a spindly giant spider that can disguise its legs as bamboo or a bizarre insectoid log monster. The detailed sound design for Kong and these creatures really immerses you into the environment, especially if you see this in a theatre with good surround sound, and Henry Jackman’s score is suitably foreboding and thunderous. In contrast, the constant use of period rock music every other scene quickly becomes grading; I don’t need Creedence Clearwater Revival constantly playing in the background to understand it’s the 70s.
Though Kong: Skull Island doesn’t have the most complex narrative or compelling characters, it has just enough to pass and then more than compensates with the creativity of its world building and engaging action set pieces. It lacks the historical significance of the original or the emotional heart of the Jackson remake, but I’m glad to see a King Kong movie that can move beyond the well-worn story of the past and do something new with the mythology. It’s a marked improvement over Godzilla by simply not taking itself as seriously, focusing instead on what a giant monster movie should be: entertaining. There’s still some improvement to be done, but hopefully come the inevitable point when Kong and Godzilla finally come to blows, it’ll be a clash worth waiting for.
FINAL VERDICT: 8/10