1933, most people don’t make it to their mid 80's, let alone film franchises. While you can bang the drum about Hollywood’s current over-abundance of remakes, reboots and pre-sequel whatevers, there is a reason familiar stories and characters keep coming back around...... because we still care about them. It’s a pretty safe bet that no matter what happens this decade, people in the 2050's would still like more Star Wars or another incarnation of Spider-Man. Like a wise Hobbit once said, they’re, “the stories that really mattered”. When people still care about King Kong swinging onto our screens in 1933, we can be pretty sure he’s a story that really mattered. Now, for the 2nd time in a generation, he’s back on our for very fun and entertaining results.
In 1973, when satellite photos locate the fabled Skull Island, an expedition team with military escort including tracker Conrad (Tom Hiddleston – Thor), photographer Mason (Brie Larson – Room) and Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson – “he’s in everything”) will go searching for its secrets. Unfortunately, the island’s colossal gorilla protector, Kong, doesn’t take kindly to hostile guests.
You may have heard people banding about some Apocalypse Now comparisons after watching the trailers from the shots of Kong standing tall against the low sun with inbound helicopters. They weren’t wrong because Kong: Skull Island has a very clear game plan: to make a Vietnam War movie with monsters. I’m sure it was a pitch that raised a few eyebrows but in fact, it’s a beer and hot dog level combination from shared aspects like a squad trekking through jungle in search of lost comrades to enduring hellish conditions and geared-up soldiers dramatically underestimating the capabilities of the indigenous population too. Several staples of typical period/Vietnam war set films are also well utilised such as 70s rock tracks blasting out across scenes (including dropping “scientific” explosives to Sabbath’s Paranoid) or the use of haze-like cinematography. The 1973 time period setting plays into this perfectly to with the film picking by the day Nixon announces US withdraw and in fact the expedition’s military contingent coming straight from Vietnam deployment. It builds well into Packard’s Ahab level determination to Kill Kong, desperate for a purpose and victory after suffering defeat. The story’s other building-sized win is its sparing use of the King himself. Much like 2014's Godzilla, Kong is used more like a featured plot device for a story among the human characters, only it’s much more effective than said underwhelming lizard affair by making Kong’s brief appearances more frequent. Skull Island is also fully aware the Ape extraordinaire has had many a film already and as such abandons several overused tropes trying to capture him, a love affair with the female lead and it doesn’t even set foot (or paw) in New York. In fact, Kong himself comes across generally disinterested in people to be more of a solitary and brooding guardian figure..... there may even be Batman comparison in there somewhere?
The most surprising treasure on Skull Island is the film’s pacing. In fact, the entire first act of the film is nigh on flawless. All the wider cast are introduced from one rolling scene to the next, covering all required exposition without stopping or staling, right up to the act ending Kong confrontation complete with Jackson reading the story of Icarus through a lightning storm like its Ezekiel 25:17. It carries a constant and feeling of momentum with the story kept simple enough to just kick back and enjoy the ride. This effect does waver significantly in the middle act when the film wanders off from its base premise of survival and escaping the island but thankfully, the boots start marching back in time again for the finish. The script could do with some fine tuning though. Some lines and exchanges fall rather flat, most notably harming the chemistry between Hiddleston and Larson. Thankfully, John C. Reilly (Wreck-It Ralph) to make his every line, good or bad, rather hysterical as the grizzled island survivor Hank. However, the overall cast is also far too bloated. Some characters merely feel like needless tag-alongs, especially Jing Tian’s biologist with almost non-existent plot significance and minimal dialogue. She may even have mic dropped on being 2017's biggest Chinese market appeal drop in character.
Skull Island has as an interesting preference for shorter action sequences rather than longer drawn out affairs. While the key sequence of each act has a bit more duration most encounters are kept brief rather than being dwelled upon. Not only does that help preserve the aforementioned momentum but it allows for better showcasing of the many weird and wonderful Island creatures other than the big hairy guy (no not John C. Reily). Some are absolutely fantastic with the bamboo forest daddy long legs being a personal favourite. There’s also plenty of great creativity to the monster fighting sequences. One clever setup sees a creature swallowing a camera stuck on a repeating flash before disappearing mists with bursts of light teasing its whereabouts every few seconds. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) is crucially aware that it’s not merely having monsters on screen that constitutes entertainment it’s how well you use them. Right down to the big Kong Vs Marvel level disposable bad monster showdown, there’s some awesome manipulations of environments for weapons with emphasis on Kong’s primate intelligence being his key strength.... even a few noticeable visual nods to Pacific Rim as Kong faces his own Kaiju.
Then, there are the visuals that are worth several location scouts and digital artists beating their chests and roaring with triumph. The island and everyone on it looks stunning both by day and night. All creature inhabitants are superbly rendered. Kong’s stiff and rigid stance may feel like a different stage in evolution to the Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis take of 2005 but it really befits the idea of him being a towering God like presence while also being a respectful nod to the classic wire frame incarnation. The use of swooping aerial camerawork brings an epic feel to the location shooting (filmed in Australia, Hawaii and even North Vietnam). The camera work frequently plays well with fixed or flipped perspectives such as looking down gun barrels or a through an attacking monster’s eyes.
It all combines to make this highly enjoyable blockbuster viewing. Skull Island is not in the least trying to be thought-provoking or carry current social/political relevance. It just wants you to have a good time, which is exactly why you will. The post-credits sting merely acknowledges what Legendary Pictures have already confirmed for their shared “MonsterVerse” with 2019s Godzilla sequel being next entry. Kong: Skull Island embodies the ideal tone and direction this hatching franchise should take to be a monster success.
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