What ingredients go in to a really good, satisfying monster movie? It goes without saying that you need a big, scary creature. A few decent human characters are worth having. Lots of great action. A splash of humour might help.
Less grandiose and romantic than Peter Jackson’s King Kong, more action-packed and pulpy than Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island feels like a throwback to a more innocent era of cinema – a period where movies had titles like The Valley Of Gwangi or Warlords Of Atlantis. Tom Hiddleston stars as a buff hero vaguely in the Doug McClure mould, though inevitably, he isn’t really the main draw here – no, the true star of Skull Island is, of course, a certain colossal ape who first appeared in 1933.
Skull Island’s unusual, in that it’s not a sequel to King Kong, but neither is it a reboot as such. It’s set in 1973, just as America’s withdrawn from a bruising conflict in Vietnam. The expeditions that brought Kong back to Manhattan in the original film and its remakes (released in 1976 and 2005 respectively) evidently haven’t happened in this universe, since the title island – the famous giant ape’s home – hasn’t been discovered yet.
Instead, Skull Island takes place in the same continuity as 2014’s Godzilla, complete with an opening about 1950s nuclear weapons tests that weren’t really nuclear weapons tests – they were an attempt to wipe out something huge and terrifying somewhere in the South Pacific.
By the 1970s, advancing satellite technology has revealed the existence an island previously hidden by perpetual storm clouds. Bill Randa (John Goodman), head of a secretive government organisation named Monarch, therefore pulls together a team of scientists, adventurers and soldiers to visit this undiscovered country. Smooth mercenary James Conrad (Hiddleston) is first aboard, followed by fearless war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and a platoon of airborne infantry led by Lieutenant Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and backed up by Toby Kebbell, unusually cast as Chapman, a Major with a southern drawl.
Having fought their way across roiling seas and through similarly grumpy thunderclouds, the adventurers eventually emerge on Skull Island’s lush coastline – and it’s hopefully not a spoiler to say that the island’s largest inhabitant doesn’t particularly like people showing up at his house without an invitation.
Thus begins an action-kaiju-survival B-movie writ large – an amalgam of Apocalypse Now and the jungle adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The characters tend to fall into familiar archetypes – nerdy scientists, gruff soldiers and the like – but thankfully, writers Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein also seem to enjoy subverting the kinds of cliches we’re used to seeing in Lost World-type pulp fiction. Larson’s photographer winds up getting almost as much action as Hiddleston does; the nerdy characters turn out to be quite good in a fire fight; and best of all, Skull Island dodges the toe-curling “cultured white people versus savage natives” thread from earlier Kong films and a legion other yarns. (Look out, too, for a fun supporting performance from the great John C Reilly.)
What Skull Island delivers in its place is a kind of anti-war, pro-environmentalist monster flick. Samuel L Jackson’s helicopter cavalry rides rough-shod into an arena it knows nothing about, cheerfully dropping seismic charges, playing loud 70s rock music and generally wrecking the joint. The human characters soon learn the hard way that marching into unfamiliar territory waving weapons around isn’t the wisest idea – something our species has steadfastly refused to learn in the nigh-on 45 years since the end of the Vietnam war. It might have been enough had Skull Island left this as thinly-veiled subtext, but it’s unfortunately turned into bold, italicised and underlined text by a somewhat literal script.
Still, this is a relatively small gripe when weighed against Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s direction. His only previous feature was the small-scale coming of age drama Kings Of Summer – an indie film rightly praised for its warmth and gentle humour. Quite what Legendary Pictures saw in the filmmaker’s work there to convince them that he could pull off a $190m-plus special effects movie isn’t clear, but he’s certainly proved more than equal to the task.
Skull Island’s opening third trips along with that same engrossingly urgent pace as such action films as Raiders Of The Lost Ark or Predator. When the first proper action scene occurs, it unfolds with a pulse-quickening lurch, a flurry of movement and some thoroughly inventive camera angles. If there’s one thing we can say about this incarnation of Kong (played by a performance-captured Terry Notary), he’s fantastic at making grand entrances.
Unlike Jackson’s Kong or Edwards’ Godzilla, Skull Island isn’t coy about showing off its chest-beating lead; nor does it skimp on the violence. Kong aside, Skull Island’s full of all kinds of other nightmarish fauna, which may be familiar to Kong geeks but won’t be elaborated on further here. It’s probably sufficient to tell you that Skull Island achieves all it sets out to do: its action is exciting and, for the most part, inventive; it’s designed and shot with real artistry, the characters are simple yet sparky, and the thin slivers of humour largely hit their mark.
So is Kong: Skull Island a satisfying monster movie? Hell yes. Legendary Pictures currently have a whole string of other kaiju flicks planned for the coming years, with Godzilla: King Of Monsters due in 2019. If they’re of this quality, then all we can say is, bring them on.
Kong: Skull Island is out in UK cinemas on the 10th March.