It was inevitable that giant monsters would return to the blockbuster arena, and Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures are leading the way. With Pacific Rim and Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla reboot in the bag, a new take on King Kong was the next logical step, paving the way to the announced Godzilla Vs Kong lined up for 2020 (but this only coming after their 2019 Godzilla sequel from director Mike Dougherty). All this being the case, it’s easy to regard Kong: Skull Island with disdain, viewing it merely as a stepping stone in yet another megabudget Hollywood franchise. However, commerce and creativity are not mutually exclusive, as I think plenty of contemporary franchises, the Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular, have demonstrated; and Kong: Skull Island offers further evidence to this effect. Jordan Vogt-Roberts is a director I must confess to having been completely ignorant of before now, and I gather this is his first time working at blockbuster level, but he’s put together a movie which pretty much exemplifies blockbuster filmmaking at its finest: simple storytelling, spectacular visuals, and enough thrills and spills to comfortably fill up a running time with the common decency to clock in at just under two hours (the latter being a particular rarity these days).
It’s 1973, and Nixon has just declared he’s pulling US forces out of Vietnam (prompting an opening line from John Goodman which couldn’t be much more on the nose in March 2017). That ugly war may be over, but the platoon led by the grizzled Colonel Packard (Sam ‘The Man’ Jackson) has just been given one final mission: to escort a civilian expedition to an uncharted island in the South Pacific, surrounded by a perpetual storm. Also on board are ex-SAS tracker Conrad (Tom Hiddleston – and why yes, that is an oblique Apocalypse Now reference you detect), and hippy photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). The bulk of the team think they’re out for nothing but a nondescript scientific survey, but the lead scientist Bill Randa (Goodman) and his cohorts know there’s a whole lot more in store, as the island is an isolated ecosystem in which monsters from prehistory have survived; and they’re not long on the island before they come face to face with a certain giant ape, who naturally isn’t best pleased to have uninvited guests.
74 years since its release, the original King Kong has been the key template for every subsequent giant monster movie of note, and (uneventful first act notwithstanding) remains a blistering adventure spectacle which holds up to this day. Of course, Kong: Skull Island has the shadows of two rather more recent movies hanging over it in Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake, and the aforementioned 2014 Godzilla, and it reacts against these in striking and largely effective ways. Where both the 2005 and 2014 movies really drew things out, with a good hour of build-up before the titular monsters are revealed, this time around the main attraction shows up before the opening sequence is over; and where Jackson and Edwards put a perhaps excessive emphasis on the human element with abundant character-based dialogue sequences, Vogt-Roberts plays things a bit more minimal, establishing the key players with short scenes then getting straight to what we really came to see. It’s interesting to see that this approach seems to have backfired in some quarters, with many criticising the characters as two-dimensional and lifeless, yet it’s easy to see why Warners and Legendary would consider this a preferable approach given how much stick their Godzilla got for the opposite reasons. (Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?)
Even so, the sheer number of characters in Kong: Skull Island is perhaps a little excessive. On top of the aforementioned leads we have a whole bunch of soldiers and scientists, and a further core character in John C Reilly as a weathered pilot who’s been trapped on the island since the late days of World War 2 – leaving him with both a wealth of Kong-based knowledge and an understandably odd temprament. Given this leaves Reilly on both exposition and comic relief duties, it’s hardly surprising this means he largely walks away with the movie, but he isn’t without some competition from Sam Jackson in one of the best bad guy roles he’s had for some time, replete with plenty of his signature quasi-Biblical speeches evoking his best-loved work (even his classic Jurassic Park catchphrase pops up at one point). Unfortunately the other leads don’t fare quite so well. Despite his top billing and the fact that he may as well have the words ‘dear Barbara Broccoli, please cast me as the next James Bond’ written across his skin-tight T-shirt, Tom Hiddleston winds up a bit of a fifth wheel in proceedings, not doing a great deal to move the narrative along. The same is sadly also true of John Goodman’s scientist, who fades into the background somewhat once they reach the island; and as for Brie Larson, she doesn’t have much to do but run around with extremely wide eyes.
Still, the nature of Larson’s role is one of the film’s biggest surprises, and the key manner in which Skull Island deviates from the conventional Kong narrative. Given that she’s a good-looking white woman with blonde hair, it’s natural to assume Larson has been cast in the Ann Darrow role, doomed to be offered up as Kong’s latest bride/plaything and become the object of his big and hairy male possessive id type-thing – but this never comes to pass. This entire element of the plot, a staple of every Kong movie thus far (aside from the Toho ones), is omitted entirely here, and though a kinship of sorts does emerge between the great ape and Larson’s Weaver, it doesn’t really go to those Freudian places that it has before. Removing the sexual predator aspects of Kong, and thereby making him that bit less creepy, makes sense under the circumstances, as – again, in common with Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla – this interpretation makes a point of establishing Kong as heroic; a wild animal and a force of nature, yet ultimately one that fights on the side of good.
On which note, damned if they haven’t given us a hero worth cheering for here. As brought to life by mo-cap actor Terry Notary, this is Kong at his most bad-ass, and whether it’s fighting off army helicopters, wrestling with a giant squid or trading blows with his main adversaries the Skull-Crawlers, it’s never anything less than a riveting spectacle. I won’t deny part of me was disappointed there weren’t any dinosaurs for him to fight this time around, but with Jackson’s remake being relatively fresh in the memory and Jurassic World even fresher, dino-bashing is pretty well-trodden territory these days, so it makes sense that some new monsters be brought in – and happily, the skull-crawlers are much cooler and nastier than Godzilla’s MUTOs.
It’s interesting to note how polarizing Kong: Skull Island is proving to be, seemingly leaving almost no one on middle ground. Much of the criticism carries weight – again, it is indeed flimsily plotted, with undeveloped characters – but how many enduring blockbuster favourites could we say much the same of? This is a film that does pretty much everything we might ask a monster movie to do, and it deserves to be watched on a great big screen with booming speakers and a big old popcorn and cola to hand. Then, as shouldn’t come as too great a surprise these days, the final post-credits scene points toward further movies with more much-loved kaiju entering the fray. Once again, we could look upon this as nothing more than a cynical money-making move; or we could just get in the spirit of things and look forward to yet more giant monster fun. And I know which camp I’m in.