One of the major grumbles with Peter Jackson’s lovingly reimagined take on King Kong, was that despite the beauty of the finale and another wonderful mo-cap performance from Andy Serkis, it took too long to get to Skull Island. There are no such worries with Kong: Skull Island, as a sun scorched prologue, a solar motif that permeates the entire movie, throws us straight into the midst of this giant’s playground, forcing us to stare into the eyes of our titular God from the off, and from there, it never lets up.
Positioning the narrative as if any cinematic version of The Eighth Wonder of the World had ever existed, this picks up with John Goodman’s explorer, Bill Randa, convincing the US government to fund a trip to a recently discovered territory, just as the Vietnam War is coming to an end. At the same time, disillusioned Major Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) receives a phone call offering him a mission as a military escort for Randa’s party. An ensemble that includes Tom Hiddlestone’s mercenary for hire, Brie Larson’s anti-war photographer, Toby Kebbell’s homesick squaddie, and Corey Hawkins as Randa’s assistant.
Rounded up and navigated through an apocalyptic storm, the disparate group arrive in an idyllic paradise, only to be met by duplicity, island inhabitants, including John C. Reilly’s World War II pilot, and as is the way with most films involving a giant ape, lots of thumping, crushing, and blood curdling roaring.
Kong: Skull Island is a film with so many moving parts, and bearing that in mind, Jordan Vogt-Roberts has crafted a movie of such stunning visual coherence. Few blockbusters have been directed as well as this, and considering this is only his second feature after the indie brilliance of The Kings of Summer, that alone makes it a staggering achievement.
There are so many wonderful flourishes; whether it’s the POV shots of the geo-bombs, the inventive use of a Ronald Reagan bobblehead during the splendidly choreographed helicopter attack, or the transition between a beast biting down on a victim and John C. Reilly munching on a sandwich, there’s no denying this is a technical triumph played out on a beautiful red and orange pastel hued canvas.
The way in which the menagerie of monsters are introduced is also inspired. No particulars will be spoiled here, but there’s such a playful sense of fun on show, one which harks back to the days of Doug McClure and The Land That Time Forgot. At times this is essentially a group of people, scattered across an island, encountering an encyclopaedic range of creatures. And in that regard it works so much better than Gareth Edwards Godzilla, with which this shares an intentional DNA (stick around for an end-credit sting).
Where that film shoehorned the human actors into situations that would coincide with the actions of Godzilla, for the most part, this scatters the gorilla grub across a large expanse, so things don’t feel as contrived.
Running, jumping, touching, and in the case of Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Kurtz alike, pointing an armouries worth of weapons at Kong, are a line-up of thoroughly likeable archetypes. Jackson is enjoyably pantomime, Hiddleston gives good ‘Tally-Ho’ with an action twist, and Brie Larson is enough to make sure that Kong will forever have a crush on strong-minded blondes, even if it will eventually prove his downfall. In fact, everyone is pretty decent; from John C. Reilly’s loveably funny survivor, to the line-up of grunts that feature Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), Shea Wigham (Boardwalk Empire), and Thomas Mann (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl).
However, like the stalls of punters who paid to see the curtain drop in 1933, we’re really here to see the King, and he doesn’t disappoint. A motion-captured Toby Kebbell, Robert’s version of Kong is less dewy eyed than the Peter Jackson one. Here he commands respect rather than sympathy, and is rendered in a heightened manner that’s in-keeping with the exaggerated environment over which he rules.
Image: Warner Bros Entertainment Inc.
The film isn’t perfect, the minor issues being some clunky dialogue, which is forgiven, largely thanks to some nice resonant political subtext and the winning performances, and a saggy mid-section, in which there might be one monster too many. But Kong: Skull Island’s greatest achievement is in making you look forward to an extended universe, or sequels, that you’d hadn’t thought necessary prior to Vogt-Roberts’ terrific blockbuster.