Review: Kong: Skull Island

Taking a refreshingly different yet still outright popcorn approach to the big ape, Kong: Skull Island is fun, violent and gorgeously shot nonsense that doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

It’s the 1970s, and the Vietnam war has just ended – shady US government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) gets funding to visit an island recently discovered for the first time by satellite – ‘Skull Island’. Engaging the services of soldiers led by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), Randa hires Brit tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and US war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), but the group realises on arrival the island is protected by a gigantic gorilla called Kong – and so it goes…

So first things first. I really liked, still like, the tragic, soulful King Kong from 2005, but that and the many others made going back to the 1933 original are all along the same lines. This film makes a clean break, and shifts to the sun-hazed, grooving ’70s, sowing the seeds for the MonsterVerse (actual name) – a series in which Kong will fight (and I imagine, team up with) Godzilla and co. While this world-building is quite well hidden (unless you stay beyond the credits), rearranging the core story means director Jordan Vogt-Roberts can mix it up when it comes to the island, Kong and the team. And that, plus a Pacific Rim-style of love for silly monster movies (big beasts hitting other big beasts in the face, with trees etcetera), makes this fun. Musically as well, the movie captures the time it was set in ably, plenty of 70s rock songs punctuating a moody and surprisingly guitar-filled score from Henry Jackman.

I’m not even going to pretend you should pay attention to the acting on show, or the finer points of the plot. At the root, you see a film with Kong in the title, and you’re a mug to expect anything less than giant monkey mayhem. Vogt-Roberts and writers Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly and John Gatins know this, and fold their prerogative into a film aping (haha) Apocalypse Now among others (some plot points/camera shots are designed to particularly evoke that film – see the poster). We know what we want and what we expect to see, and they supply it – everything else is window dressing, or setting the stage. The action is interestingly novel at times (particularly the initial attack with its speed-ramping), and the focus on the freaky island makes it a creepy and evocative setting – it’ll be interesting to see what Vogt-Roberts gets to do next too, as he balances the talky scenes with the action pretty well.

A couple of things worth mentioning are the slight elements of nuance snuck in, such as the island’s natives being more authentic and less stereotypical (they are depicted as part of the Iwi tribe of Moaris, which makes sense given where the island is in the Pacific). Another is the nature of the soldiers’ dilemmas about the island, and the time taken to give the assorted (if forgettable)characters a chance to question their place here, making each one feel different and personable. Also, Jackson’s character’s questionable decision to drag these young men into another war they can’t win is a noteworthy aside – all of these are small things showing a degree of attention being paid you might otherwise miss.

A lot of credit for the look and feel go not only to clever splicing of multiple places (including Hawaii) to build the island, but also the way cinematographer Larry Fong gives it that Apocalypse Now, hazy sunset palette (see poster again!). While some scenes are painfully green screen, the location filming nails that otherworldliness, while the effects for Kong and fellow monsters are (predictably) better than before given advances in CGI, and Kong feels like a wild animal. He’s brutal, whether taking down helicopters or tussling with the weird and wonderful cavalcade of nature’s mistakes (look out for the stick insect), while water and fire effects are noteworthy for how realistic they’ve become.

The big stars are actually among the more underwritten, Hiddleston’s British SAS gent having little to do except be the moral centre, though he gets a few moments to show off or hint at the slightest outline of a character. Brie Larson gets a little more to play with as a strong-willed photographer seeking “the real story”, and she doesn’t end up being the damsel-in-distress that you’d expect from a Kong movie. Samuel L. Jackson tones himself down (yes, really) as the soldier’s commander who becomes obsessed with killing Kong – I liked his quieter zeal, and the way he hints at the difficulty he has dealing with losing his troops post-war versus sending them to potential doom.

Of the remaining ensemble, a character I’ve not mentioned stands out. Bookending the movie and its unintentional star, John C. Reilly is just great as Hank Marlow, a WW2 pilot stranded and gone totally native. His excellent comedic ability (watch Stepbrothers – you owe it to yourself) gives the film a kick up the arse when it’s in danger of being too serious, and he steals every scene, whether with some reference to the events he’s missed, or the quirks of the hell they find themselves in. Goodman is building a backlog of interesting and sinister bastards after 10 Cloverfield Lane, though I’d have liked a bit more of his amoral monster hunter. The remainder of the cast however are interchangeable and not particularly memorable, Shea Wigham and Tony Kebbell worth a mention just for how poorly-utilised actors of their level are (Kebbell in particular has stellar movie monkey form and seems wasted on this).

My advice? Switch your brain off and enjoy it. It’s not supposed to be high-calibre, serious fare – it’s a giant ape punching things, enjoy it just for that.

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