Kong: Skull Island, the umpteenth film about the monstrous king ape, is part of the Legendary Entertainment franchise that includes Gareth Edward’s 2014 film Godzilla. Created with the idea of making the two creatures clash in an upcoming feature – sequels and reboots and increasingly-difficult-to-countenance franchises are fast becoming Hollywood’s most prodigious monsters.
Considering Vogt-Roberts only has one full-length feature under his belt (2013 indie flick The King of Summer), Legendary’s choice to assign him the project continues a pattern already set by recent indie wunderkinds turned franchisees Colin Trevorrow and Josh Trank (who helmed 2014’s Jurassic World and 2015’s disastrous Fantastic 4 respectively). But with the memory of Peter Jackson’s majestic (albeit insufferable) King Kong (2005) still fresh, trusting little-known Jordan Vogt-Roberts to succeed where the Oscar-winning The Lord of The Rings director failed was a risky bet.
Happily, Skull Island wipes away any such cynicism within minutes: and Vogt-Roberts nails his first blockbuster admirably! In fact, if Skull Island’s strengths sit well with you, you’ll find that even though some choices are predictable, a relentless rhythm and key actors in the right roles leave very little time to complain. On the CGI front, its wonderful set pieces are drenched in vivid, pulsating colours and its palette is so effective it stands out even in 3D (which notoriously make pictures look dimmer). Consider going to an IMAX theatre if you have the chance!
Building itself with the most basic of adventure film structures: a company of men with different talents and backgrounds band together to pursue a strange mission. Set soon after Nixon’s decision to withdraw American troops from Vietnam, government official Bill Randa (an underused John Goodman) sets off to map the dark heart of a remote Pacific island and the mysterious creatures living there. His support team includes a cache of scientists, army colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his helicopter squadron, unambiguously named hunter-tracker Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).
It takes less than a minute for the mission to go awry. Randa’s plan to study the geo-composition of the island involves by dropping tons of bombs, doesn’t go down well with the 100-foot Kong, who responds by slam dunking Packard’s helicopters or batting them down with flying trees. When the survivors are split into different groups, stranded on different areas of the island and facing endless threats posed by its ecosystem, most team members’ mission becomes just making it alive to the extraction point. This isn’t the case of Colonel Packard (the only main player gifted with a proper character arc), whose bloodthirsty need for revenge, in a not-so-subtle metaphor for the American interventionism of this period turns Kong into his personal Moby Dick.
John C. Reilly as a stranded American soldier who turns tribal native after decades trapped on the island, acts as comic relief.
Playing havoc with the films tone, Reilly’s antics often have the hilarious consequence of making Skull Island almost a parody of the genre. Not all of the characters’ quips land however (like Goodman’s gratuitous prediction that “there will never be a more screwed-up time in Washington”). A perfect example of how carefully Vogt-Roberts picks his fights to build a convincing story, with a script focusing predominantly on exposition and setting up action sequences, these occasionally landing quips do help create the archetype of the quick witted action character. The same could be said for Skull Island’s soundtrack compilation of well-worn 70s classics which mixes everything from Jefferson Airplane, Hendrix, the Stooges and Creedence Clearwater Revivial, etcetera. In Kong the unabashedly stereotypical manages to still work well!
There are so many things that could have gone wrong, instead Skull Island is triumphantly one of the best monster movies in recent memory. If we have to live in a time where every film is just another reversion, at least let them be as good as this!
Words by Davide Prevarin
Kong: Skull Island opens in UK cinemas on March 10th