Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Reilly
When it was announced a few years back that ‘Godzilla’ (2014) was the start of a Monster Universe that also contains the iconic King Kong, there was a definite sense of excitement, mixed with some trepidation. These two have fought before, many many decades ago, back when it was established that their size was similar. 2014’s Godzilla is an absolute behemoth; a sky-scraper sized lizard with atomic breath. Meanwhile, King Kong’s previous appearance in Peter Jackson’s King Kong 12 years ago had him able to climb a sky-scraper and hang off the top of it. On paper, Godzilla could literally stamp on Kong and be done with it. Now, though, we have the King Kong of 2017, who is quite literally the size of a small mountain. Godzilla vs Kong in 2020 just got interesting.
‘Kong: Skull Island’ is set in 1973 and follows Bill Randa (Goodman), a scientist who has satellite images of one of the few remaining uncharted islands in the world. Seeking an army escort to investigate the island’s mysteries, he’s joined by ex-military man James Conrad (Hiddleston), war photographer Mason Weaver (Larson), and grizzled war veteran Preston Packard (Jackson), who seems to be one mission away from being too old for this shit. Once there, it becomes a survival/escape mission as the island has a few surprises up its sleeve upon their arrival, namely in the form of the eponymous Kong.
Starting with the good, I found ‘Kong: Skull Island’ to be, ultimately, a very entertaining, old-school monster movie blockbuster. ‘Godzilla’ (2014) kept Godzilla hidden from us for most of the film, only awarding him around 10 minutes of actual screen time. I found this to be a good thing as those 10 minutes of Godzilla are so monumentally epic that those fight sequences are ingrained in my mind 3 years later. Vogt-Roberts takes a different route. He shows us the first glimpse of Kong in a short pre-credits sequence in 1944, before giving him a full introduction 15-20 minutes later when our ensemble arrives on the island by helicopter. Kong’s introduction is, truly, spectacular. His size and power is on show from the off as he hurls a tree into a helicopter, jumping and slamming his fists down onto another, and generally expressing his distaste for these new visitors.
Kong, thankfully, is by far the film’s strongest suit. He is respected and given time to both be a destroyer and have moments of calm as he recovers from his previous bout (“It bleeds!” Packard yells when he sees a giant red hand print on a cliff-face). Vogt-Roberts clearly has a love for the character and the shots from the human perspective, at Kong’s feet looking sky-ward are breathtaking, as well as the great wide shots during his monster battles to show his power are well-paced and edited to give every hit some real weight. Cinematographer Larry Fong shares this sentiment and bathes Kong in sun and moonlight; one shot of which, Kong standing at full height against the setting sun as helicopters fly nervously towards him, is a stunner. Fong and Vogt-Roberts really emphasise their monster-movie-meets-Apocalypse-Now angle with these shots and, on a purely visual level, it’s one of the best-looking films of the year so far.
The ensemble, a veritable who’s who of A-List stars of today and years gone by, does what it can with what it’s given. There’s some good chemistry between Hiddleston and Larson, and an early face-off between Jackson and Goodman is an instance of two Hollywood power-houses battling it out and it’s as good as you expect. John C. Reilly, a man they find has been living on the island for nearly 30 years, is the film’s MVP as he offers both moments of levity and tragedy as he rediscovers society through the gaze of young soldiers. He also has the film’s best comedic line; I won’t spoil it, but it’s the film’s solitary F-bomb and it is glorious.
The film’s problems lay almost entirely on its script. From a story perspective, it’s a pretty simple one, and it’s an enjoyable alternate-version of Kong’s story that forgoes the woman-as-sacrifice angle we’ve become so familiar with. It’s the dialogue that really, really hampers the film’s progress. The characters are one-dimensional and are given some cheesy lines to deliver seriously, with no wink to the camera. A couple of characters have more screen-time than Kong, and yet somehow manage to speak less than a giant ape. The banter among the soldiers that escorted them to the island doesn’t always land, and the motivations around one of the men sacrificing themselves late-on are entirely lost on me, even after a second viewing. It should be said that going into a film in which a giant monkey uses a tree as a baseball bat, I didn’t expect Aaron Sorkin-standard dialogue, but you could and should have expected more from its screenwriters Dan Gilroy (writer of the excellent ‘Nightcrawler’), Max Borenstein (‘Godzilla’), and Derek Connolly (‘Safety Not Guaranteed’).
At the end of the day, ‘Kong: Skull Island’ is an entertaining, frequently intense, and surprisingly brutal film with some of the best monster on monster action we’ve ever seen. The CGI on Kong and the island’s other creatures is first-class, and it’s a film that gives you some great, HELL YEAH moments. I just wish it gave its characters more to work with.