12 years after Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the classic movie monster lumbers back onto the big screen. It is 1973, and Bill Randa (Goodman), a senior official of the secret government organisation Monarch, is in search of monsters. He plans an expedition to an uncharted land mass nicknamed as ‘Skull Island’. Randa hires James Conrad (Hiddleston), a former SAS Captain who served in the Vietnam War, as a hunter-tracker. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Jackson) is a helicopter squadron leader, and is brought on to escort the expedition. The team also comprises war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson), geologist Houston Brooks (Hawkins), biologist San Lin (Jing), Landsat official Victor Nieves (Ortiz) and Maj. Jack Chapman (Kebbell), Packard’s right-hand man. When explosives are detonated as part of the survey, an enormous ape called Kong (Notary/Kebbell) is provoked. The survivors of Kong’s initial attack come across Hank Marlow (Reilly), a pilot who has been stranded on Skull Island since World War II. The expedition soon learns that Kong is far from the only beast to call the island home, embarking on a survival odyssey.
Kong: Skull Island exists in the ‘MonsterVerse’, a planned cinematic universe which includes 2014’s Godzilla. This is a B-movie with A-list stars and a big budget, mostly living up to the potential to be a thrilling adventure yarn and a throwback to the creature features of yore. This is the first large-scale tentpole blockbuster for director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who directed Kings of Summer and Nick Offerman: American Ham. He acquits himself well, delivering top grade escapism. Taking place in the waning days of the Vietnam War, the film makes great use of its period setting, taking inspiration from works like Apocalypse Now. There’s a healthy amount of humour and while Kong: Skull Island doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s a nail-biter when it needs to be. This is the kind of film that would be enhanced by the audience reacting, with jump scares and unexpected deaths sure to elicit gasps and shrieks.
Kong: Skull Island is not a strikingly original work – fantasy artist Joe DeVito, who co-wrote and illustrated the book King Kong of Skull Island, sued Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures for allegedly stealing his ideas, having had a pitch meeting with the studios. While there are familiar elements to Kong: Skull Island, there’s still plenty of imagination at work. The native Iwi people have distinctive tattoos and markings, and the creature designs are effective and awe-inspiring. In designing the Skullcrawlers, Kong’s Reptilian nemeses, Vogt-Roberts drew on the pit lizard from the 1933 King Kong film, Sachiel from Evangelion, No-Face from Spirited Away and Cubone from Pokémon.
The titular creature is performed via motion capture by Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell from the Planet of the Apes reboot films, and great effort is taken to establish the sheer enormousness of this reimagined Kong, scaled larger so he can one day take on Godzilla. Larry Fong’s cinematography captures the blend of natural beauty and extraordinary danger contained within Skull Island, with location filming in northern Vietnam, Hawaii and Australia’s Gold Coast selling the island as an actual, tangible place.
For all his charms, Hiddleston doesn’t exactly fit the archetype of a rugged, square-jawed action hero. Looking for all the world like he’s cosplaying Nathan Drake from the Uncharted video games, he does seem a little out of his element but is trying his best to sell it. The character’s name, “Conrad”, is a reference to Joseph Conrad, the novelist best known for Heart of Darkness. By the time he dons a gas mask to slash at flying Pterodactylus creatures with a katana amidst a swirl of noxious fumes, we were sold.
Jackson is playing the badass as usual, but there are layers to the Preston Packard character that make him stand out from the typical Samuel L. Jackson role. He’s disillusioned as the Vietnam War ends, and hunting down Kong to avenge his men gives him new purpose. It’s the ‘great white hunter’ archetype, and Jackson has compared his character to Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick.
Goodman is an ever-dependable presence, with Reilly providing comic relief and surprising pathos as a castaway who has spent nearly three decades stuck on Skull Island. Larson’s anti-war photographer helps to mitigate all that testosterone to a degree. While Kong doesn’t get a doomed romance like in almost every earlier incarnation, it’s referenced by having him share a moment or two with Mason.
Most of the supporting characters exist purely to be picked off one by one by the island’s denizens. Jing Tian sticks out, her casting an obvious bid to pander to Mainland Chinese audiences – which is something we’re only going to be seeing more of. After all, Legendary Pictures is now owned by China’s Dalian Wanda group.
Kong: Skull Island kicks off with an intriguing prologue, hits a bit of a lull when all the characters are being established and the mission is being set up, then hits its stride once the expedition arrives on the island. With beautiful scenery, solid visual effects spectacle and thrilling set-pieces in which various characters meet their untimely and inventive ends, Kong Skull Island makes us wish big-budget monster movies were a little more common. Stick around for a post-credit scene which teases the future of the MonsterVerse.
Summary: Kong: Skull Island is a monster movie that doesn’t skimp on the monsters, a rousing adventure bolstered by its period setting and stellar cast.
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars