REVIEW: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

As the Vietnam War ends, satellite photography reveals the location of the mythical Skull Island – an isolated ecosystem cut off from the world by a circle of severe thunderstorms. Tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) are hired to join a US army expedition to the island, alongside the government agency known as Monarch. Then their helicopters are attacked and grounded by a giant ape, the surviving expedition members must race to the north end of the island to be evacuated.

King Kong is one of those perennial pop culture icons who gets revived and re-imagined every few decades for a new audience. The last time around was Peter Jackson’s noble but bloated 2005 remake. This 2017 effort marks Kong’s seventh big-screen outing since he debuted back in the 1933 original (not including the 1933 sequel Son of Kong). He is actually a relatively horrifying piece of racism if you think about him for more than 30 seconds: a caricature of the ‘primitive’ African-American stereotype popular in 1930s America, leering over a blonde white woman while surrounded by dark-skinned tribes of worshippers. It is a problem that many previous iterations of the concept have failed to overcome to one extent or another. Thankfully in the hands of director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writers Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly and John Gatins, Kong: Skull Island manages to both neatly side-step the issue and strip out the bloat that damaged Jackson’s attempt so badly. This is a neatly constructed, nicely competent and broadly entertaining action blockbuster. It does not really do much that has not been seen before, but it understands its purpose and develops a crowd-pleasing giant monster movie that is wonderfully fit for purpose.

Tom Hiddleston is enormously watchable as James Conrad. The role is actually fairly bland and under-written, but Hiddleston has such a strong screen presence and personality that he makes the performance much more detailed and entertaining than the screenplay would suggest. While Hiddleston assumes the nominal lead role, the film actually balances its ensemble cast very well. Brie Larson is pro-active and smart as photojournalist Mason Weaver. The film tips its hat to Kong history via a handful of encounters between her and the titular giant, but it comes across less as Kong having an overwhelming affection for Mason and more than he respects the one intruder who does not appear to be shooting at him. John C. Reilly is clearly having a lot of fun playing Hank Marlow, a World War II castaway who has been slowly losing his mind over the intervening three decades, and gets the lion’s share of the film’s best gags. John Goodman is perhaps a little underused as expedition leader Bill Randa.

Kong is not the film’s villain, and neither really are the so-called “Skullcrawlers” that climb up to the island’s surface from underground. They are simply animals, and to a large extent behave accordingly. The film’s real villain is Samuel L. Jackson as US Army Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard. When the film begins he is packing up to return home after the USA lost the Vietnam War. Within minutes of arriving at Skull Island half of his men are dead in a spectacularly staged giant-ape-versus-helicopters fight. The trauma simply unhinges his mind, and he spends the rest of the film preparing to trap and kill Kong – not just in revenge for his men, but simply to finally win a conflict. It is a simple motivation, and clearly echoes Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick, but like everything else in this film the well-worn trope is used appropriately and in an entertaining fashion. Packard and his soldiers also help deflect the race issues presented in early versions: the film boasts a strong multi-ethnic cast, which does nicely deflate the ‘white people go to the jungle’ narrative that typifies the traditional version of the story. It also helps the film tap into Apocalypse Now as a key aesthetic touchstone. Not only is it a fresh angle, it is also an instinctively comfortable one. The film’s debt to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, upon which Apocalypse Now was based, is obvious in the character names Conrad and Marlow. A little on the nose, perhaps, but it’s on the nose in a film where that actually feels okay.

The film’s production design is generally top-notch. Kong himself looks fantastic, and has clearly been styled to become a better match for Godzilla in their long-promised 2020 big-screen showdown. For one thing he’s significantly taller; at almost 32 metres he is double the height of the 1933 original. He also had a more bipedal, humanoid appearance that the more realistic ape presented by Jackson’s remake. Mind you that still makes him only a third of the height of the 2014 Godzilla – perhaps in the years between 1973 and 2020 he will undergo a growth spurt. His motion captured performance by Terry Notary is engaging and sympathetic.

The island’s other creatures vary from the sensational – a spindly bamboo-camouflaged giant spider – to the ridiculous – despite the production team’s best efforts the Skullcrawlers look relatively silly and unconvincing, design-wise. One early animal, an enormous amphibian bison, is particularly effective, and gives the film one of its nicest and most Jurassic Park-esque moments. The various chase and action scenes are slickly staged and oftentimes a little surprising. This is only Vogt-Roberts’ second narrative feature, but based his sterling work here I expect him to be in quick demand from Hollywood to direct many more.

Kong: Skull Island is a film with modest ambitions, creatively speaking, but it achieves its goals effectively. It presents a traditional Hollywood action-adventure with heroes one can root for, villains to despise, and more than enough action beats, explosions and monsters to keep the audience well entertained for two hours. After the significantly less effective Godzilla (2014), it puts the Legendary/Warner Bros giant monster shared universe on a promising track going forwards.

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