84 years ago a legend was born as a massive stop-motion animated ape climbed The Empire State Building - just as he would later ascend pop culture - swatting planes away and grasping Fay Wray in his monkey mitts. Since then the cinematic legend of one of cinema’s longest reigning monsters has grown and grown, with remakes by John Guillermin and Peter Jackson, some iffy sequels and even a crossover with Toho’s Godzilla back in 1962. However, in the case of this newly rebooted incarnation of Kong, that ‘60s mash-up is the most salient point here, as, after starting with a strong roar in Gareth Edwards’ (admittedly polarising) Godzilla in 2014, Legendary Pictures continues their budding MonsterVerse with Kong: Skull Island. So, ahead of Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) and Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong (2020), is this trip to Skull Island as monstrously enjoyable as hoped. Indeed it is.
Taking a departure from the 1933 classic and many of the romanticised movies that followed, Kong: Skull Island instead pays tribute to the kaiju film and re-imagines Kong through the misty eyes of hellacious war, with influences from Vietnam war flicks...Pacific Rim by way of Apocalypse Now if you like. A military unit, straight out of finishing up in the unsuccessful Vietnam war, are tasked with one last job to escort William Randa (John Goodman) and his fellow Monarch associates, along with former SAS hunter/tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to a mysterious island that holds many secrets. However, once they arrive, they gain the ire of its mountain-sized simian ruler and a deluge of other dangers also surface.
In a trend that is clearly visible in this cinematic universe, Jordan Vogt-Roberts is an indie director (his debut was 2013 coming of age Drama The Kings of Summer) that has been allowed space to create his own slant on this pantheon among movie beasts and the results are simply spectacular. After Edwards’ film was sternly told off by audiences for not featuring the title star enough, this film has no such problem, Kong is back in a big (and we mean big) way, in a film that relishes the elements - good and bad - of kaiju movies and at times recalls films like Predator (Henry Jackman’s great score certainly evokes a bit of Silvestri’s jungle set beats) with its constant action and intensity. However the script also allows for some depth in terms of its timely themes (mankind’s mistreatment and misunderstanding of nature and the futility of war), comic touches (John C. Reilly’s show stealing turn as stranded WW2 pilot Hank Marlow) and moments of beauty (a face-to-face between Kong and Conrad & Weaver being especially rather touching), not to mention some neat eschewing of the gender/racial stereotypes that have grown more and more noticeable in the original classic.
Admittedly the criticisms of lacking characters hold some water, after all this is a film that prioritises monster mashing over excessive character development but despite some supporting players being used as kaiju collateral damage and Hiddleston’s unusual casting as a very macho hero (he makes a good go of it though, to be fair), this cast of familiar faces deliver the goods. Goodman is always a welcome presence, as we say Hiddleston has his moments and kind of won this reviewer over in his part, Larson is effective in a turn that is pleasingly less sexually-driven and more ethical than the usual Kong series leading lady and Samuel L. Jackson is brilliant as the Moby Dick-esque obsessive character, army veteran Preston Packard, who is as misguided as he is near mad in taking the fight to Kong (who is brought to life with both enthralling special effects and splendid motion-capture by Terry Notary). Though it is indeed Kong’s movie, you will most feel the presence of the aforementioned John C. Reilly on the human side, as he excels in a part that allows for some laughs but more emotion than any of his fellow co-stars and he relishes the opportunity by delivering one of his most fantastic performances.
Overall Kong: Skull Island is just a complete blast from start to finish (and that end credits bit gets the blood properly pumping). The effects are superbly rendered, the tone is joyous and Vogt-Roberts uses Larry Fong’s gorgeous cinematography to the maximum to add some visual awe to his passionate, exciting and occasionally violent (some moments really push that 12A rating) take on King Kong. Which well and truly feels like his film and not a producers (a point anchored when looking into the films making)! This writer would easily rank it as one of the 2017’s most enjoyable movies, and certainly one of the most visually absorbing. So sit back, relax and enjoy your visit to Skull Island, though please remain seated for the entire tour, as some of these creative and deadly monsters don’t play nice.
Ladies and gentleman, Kong is king once again in a film that blends genres, wears its influences proudly and delivers huge skull crunching action to create an endlessly fun blockbuster. We cannot wait for the next MonsterVerse outing.
Special Features: Monarch Files 2.0 / Featurettes / Deleted Scenes / Director Commentary
KONG: SKULL ISLAND / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS / SCREENPLAY: DAN GILROY, MAX BORENSTEIN, DEREK CONNOLLY / STARRING: TOM HIDDLESTON, SAMUEL L. JACKSON, BRIE LARSON, JOHN GOODMAN, JOHN C. REILLY / RELEASE DATE: 24TH JULY