Since his first iconic appearance in 1933, King Kong has become one of the most endearing screen "monsters" in the history of cinema. His story has been told a number of times with varying degrees of success, but for his latest return to the screen, the Eighth Wonder of the World has been stripped back and muscled up from a tragic hero to an action icon with ‘Kong: Skull Island’.
Set in 1971 at the end of the Vietnam War, the film follows a team of scientists and infantry who set out to uncover the secrets of the recently discovered Skull Island. As soon as they arrive, their mission is thrown into chaos when they come under attack from a towering, impossibly large ape. With half the team hellbent on revenge and the other determined to protect the ape, it's a matter of time before they can be rescued and before something infinitely worse than King Kong emerges from the depths of the island.
When Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures announced that Kong would be resurrected to become part of a wider cinematic universe that included the recently rebooted Godzilla, it sounded like the most ridiculous idea you could imagine. With ‘Kong: Skull Island’ though, we get our first glimpse of what this franchise has to offer, and surprisingly it’s that ridiculousness that may be the key to its success. Where Gareth Edwards’ superb ‘Godzilla’ (2014) was cinematic, elegant and seismic, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ ‘Kong: Skull Island’ is brash, bombastic and wildly entertaining. It suffers from all the usual problems unwieldy blockbusters often do (sketchy characters, hammy dialogue, underwritten female characters), its go-for-broke approach is surprisingly refreshing. It knows it’s ridiculous and decides to embrace that as fully as possible. It’s also a treat setting the film during the 70s, the film revelling in the music and imagery of the era, as well as pulling liberally from films like ‘Apocalypse Now’. Vogt-Roberts and cinematographer Larry Fong aren’t aiming for realism either, filling the film with lush cinematic imagery that’s as accomplished as it is barmy. The whole film bursts with colour, texture and sound, and while it could have come across as obnoxious, in the end it ends up winning you over thanks to its enthusiasm. ‘Kong: Skull Island’ wants you to be entertained, and it delivers this in spades.
Of course, it all rests on Kong himself, and considering how breathtaking Peter Jackson’s Kong was in 2005, it’s a remarkable feat that this new Kong is impressive all on his own. Younger and even bigger than ever before, this Kong is leaner, more muscular and meaner, the humanity we associate with the character buried even deeper. There’s a soul to this Kong too, but the emotional resonance that surprised in the 1933 original and blossomed in Jackson’s remake isn’t the focus here. This Kong is a brute, animalistic force, and achieves this in spades. He shares the island, not with dinosaurs, but with a bizarre and creatively vicious collection of creatures that help make this version of Skull Island distinct and original from what we’ve seen in the past.
The film kicks off beautifully in its first act and settles nicely into its second before predictably tripping over itself in the third, but by that point you’re having so much fun it doesn’t matter. The same can be said of the cast. Individually, none of them are particularly memorable, but as a unit their collective talents as great character actors give the film a playful and distinctive quality. Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman chew every bit of scenery they can find, John C. Reilly hits a surprisingly successful note with his over-the-top buffoonery, while Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston hold it together with dependable, sturdy performances. Hiddleston actually makes a surprisingly strong action hero, something I would not have expected. The script doesn’t offer anything that new for the cast to play with, and none of them leave much of an impression, but they all know they’re there to serve the action and the effects, and this makes them far better players in the grand tapestry of the film that if they had worked against it.
‘Kong: Skull Island’ wants you to be entertained, and it delivers this in spades.
‘Kong: Skull Island’ isn't the most original blockbuster you’ll see, but this hardly matters at all. It may not be as elegant as ‘Godzilla’ or as powerful as Jackson’s ‘Kong’, but it had no intentions to be either of those things. It just wants to be loud, swift, bombastic and fun, and it achieves all of this with energy and aplomb. It also properly announces one of the most preposterous and unexpectedly promising franchises we've seen for a while, one where this world does not belong to us, where monsters are real and enormous, and where we get to sit back and watch them beat the living crap out of one another. Honestly, I cannot wait.