If you’re lucky enough to be anything like me, a movie about a giant gorilla getting into fistfights with ravenous prehistoric lizards doesn’t have to do much in order to impress you. And Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island, the second instalment of Legendary’s “MonsterVerse” after 2014’s Godzilla, certainly doesn’t do much. But it does manage to impress – mostly just by being a ludicrously-expensive variety of the gonzo B-movie creature-feature you’ve always wanted Kong to star in.
To that end, Kong: Skull Island, a couple of questionable human sacrifices notwithstanding, repositions Kong as an unambiguous hero whose job is to beat down an encroaching army of man-eating lizard-monsters who’ve cosied up in an underground lair on Skull Island. The hokey quasi-romance subplot has wisely been excised almost entirely, and if there’s anything that separates this version of the super simian from the definitive 1933 original or it’s two remakes (the overblown 1976 knockoff and Peter Jackson’s overlong 2005 snoozefest) it’s that the whole thing is brisk, lean, and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
And what a relief that is. It’s about time that filmmakers realised Kong having a thing for blondes is significantly less interesting than Kong being a giant monkey – one who shares a mysterious South Pacific island with an eye-popping array of primeval beasties. Skull Island’s Skull Island, wrapped in a fizzing electrical storm, is brimming with oversized species, from a sad-eyed buffalo (my girlfriend: “Aw, it’s a giant moose-dog.”) to a towering tarantula whose spindly legs wriggle all the way from the treetops to the forest floor. Even Kong’s bathing is interrupted by a giant octopus that he flattens into a cloud of ink. It’s a relentlessly imaginative storybook setting that evokes Ray Harryhausen’s Mysterious Island, from 1961, and the 70s cycle of Doug McClure monster-movies. It hardly matters what the actual story is; what happens next is significantly less important than what we get to see next.
For what it’s worth, Skull Island is set in 1973, as the Vietnam War is winding down and the Watergate Scandal is turning Washington topsy-turvy. John Goodman plays the conspiracy-theorist founder of Monarch (the monster-hunting agency from Godzilla – this is a nominal prequel) who convinces a senator (Richard Jenkins) to fund an expedition to the uncharted Skull Island. He insists there’s something to be found; something that the reeling government could display to the American public as a consolation prize for their meddling in Vietnam and Nixon’s political philandering. The period setting seems arbitrary until this point, as though it’s just an excuse for topical digs at the Trump administration. (Emerging from a cab near Capitol Hill, Goodman declares, “Mark my words, there will never be a more screwed-up time in Washington.”) But for Goodman to find whatever’s out there, he needs a military escort and a specialised team – a detachment of U.S. troops led by a commander (Samuel L. Jackson) who’s still smarting from America’s humiliation in Vietnam; a free-spirited anti-war photographer (Brie Larson) to document the findings; and a British mercenary tracker (Tom Hiddleston) to lead them.
Skull Island’s anti-war moralizing adroitly ignites conflict. Jackson’s squinty-eyed, gung-ho officer is squared off against Kong; the vengeful invader staring down the indigenous protector in a didactic reminder of the West’s post-Vietnam conflict catalogue. None of this is accidental. The first thing our heroes do upon their arrival (to Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”, no less) is bomb the island. It feels audacious for an action movie to openly condemn blowing shit up, but here we are. In Skull Island, every typically heroic decision the characters make ends up being the wrong one; dropping ordnance incites Kong’s destructive reaction; incapacitating the giant, rampaging gorilla allows a bigger, meaner monster to emerge unchecked. Were any of this the point, it probably wouldn’t work. But in a modest monster-movie, any kind of subtext enriches the mayhem. Especially in one like this, which is mostly fulfilling franchise-film worldbuilding duties, and only really requires Kong to be Kong while the movie around him builds a framework along which he can clamber to the inevitable crossover sequel.
It’s a backhanded compliment, but Kong: Skull Island does a little more than just deliver on that premise. It’s exceedingly well-directed, visually stunning, and the strong cast imbue the thin characters with additional dimensions. There are supporting parts for Jing Tian (who has less to do than she did in The Great Wall, but is no less of screen presence) and Corey Hawkins as Monarch scientists; Shea Whigham and Toby Kebbell as Jackson’s military buddies; and John C. Reilly as a madcap Navy pilot who has been stranded on the island since World War II. Reilly (one of our greatest living character actors – there, I said it) is the principle regularly-sized reason to see this movie. On paper his character sounds like a cliché – he asks the regular questions: “Did we win the war?”; “Have the Cubs won a World Series?” – but the performance is smart, funny and warm. All the moments of genuine pathos come from him. He’s playing a man who should have lost his mind years ago as the most sensible guy in the room.
Don’t get the wrong idea – this isn’t a great movie. But it’s certainly a good one, and not just as far as matinee creature-features go, although it certainly works on those terms. What helps is that it’s approaching the genre from a fairly novel angle. It isn’t mimicking the typical Japanese Kaiju stylings or espousing a cautionary, Jurassic Park-style science-gone-bad message. It’s just-right proportionally and has the good sense to end as soon as the screenplay runs out of ideas. There isn’t much to it, and your mileage will vary, but if giant fistfighting monsters appeal to you then so will Kong: Skull Island. It’s the best version of that I’ve seen for a while.
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