After the mixed reception to 2014’s Godzilla, (or rather to the lack of Godzilla in the film) Kong: Skull Island is the latest attempt to reinvent a venerable movie monster for modern audiences. Does it lay sufficient groundwork for 2020’s Godzilla vs Kong or does it destroy any chance of seeing these two titans go head to head again?
As the Vietnam war comes to a close in 1973, a motley crew of adventurers, scientists and soldiers set out to explore a previously unknown South Pacific Island, hidden from the outside world by a perpetual storm, only revealed now thanks to “modern” satellite technology. Each member of the team brings with them their own reasons for joining the mission. The landsat science team just want to survey the island. Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson) is looking for a personal “win” after the losses of the Vietnam war, dragging his men along for one last ride. Jungle guide and ex-British special forces member James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is in it for the money, while wartime photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) wants to satisfy her curiosity over the expeditions true purpose; a purpose closely guarded by the men from the mysterious “Monarch” organisation, Bill Randa (John Goodman) & Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins).
What they find, after bombing the island with “survey bombs”, destroys their choppers and leaves them stranded. With just 3 days to reach their planned extraction point on the far side of the island, the survivors have to make their way through an entire island’s worth of megafauna far, far worse than a giant, hairy, angry ape.
An Unconventional Encounter
Like Godzilla before it (and distinctly unlike 2016’s Shin Godzilla) Kong: Skull Island is another attempt to provide these giant monsters with slightly more complex motivations than to kill and eat everything they come across. While Godzilla arose to combat the threat (to him, not us) from the MUTO‘s, Kong similarly has his own purpose, divorced from any concern for humanity.
Skull Island avoids Godzilla’s biggest mistake of jettisoning its most interesting character (Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody) in favour of a far less interesting lead, by giving the audience a whole ensemble of mostly likeable characters. Once on the island and split into three groups, they bicker and bond as they try to rendezvous with each other and survive the islands inhabitants, running into John C. Reilly’s character along the way.
After a faintly ridiculous introduction, that that goes out of its way to establish his action star credentials, Tom Hiddleston settles into his best impression of Adrian Brody in Predators. It’s a mannered performance that doesn’t give him much opportunity to shine, as he does with Loki, but with the action divided amongst the ensemble he doesn’t need to.
Did you forget your glasses, Tom?
Who ever decided that he should squint into the middle distance whenever danger approaches however should be fired. Whether it was director Jordan Vogt-Roberts or Hiddleston himself, coupled with the casts tendency to pose dramatically between action sequences, it distracts from the gritty ‘Nam movie atmosphere of the rest of the film.
As expected Jackson stands out in the cast, as he apes Apocalypse Now, although he manages to slightly reign in a performance that could have devoured the film. Skull Island wears it’s Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness influences on its sleeve, its posters, trailers, and even characters names (Hiddleston’s character is called “Conrad“?) , but the film manages to avoid turning into a complete pastiche.
Among the grunts (no offence), veteran character actor Shea Whigham, manages to stand out, with most of the humour coming from him and his partner in crime Jason Mitchell. John C Reilly’s vacillates between humorous and serious and at times threatens to overturn the rest of the movie.
All Creatures Great & Small
The real stars of the show here are the monsters and they come across pretty well. The filmmakers manage to rustle up a new menagerie of beasties, distinct from Peter Jackson’s from 2005. Kong himself “still has some growing to do” leaving him looking at little more adolescent than the mature Silverback of Jackson’s version. There’s a hint of a Fay Wray style relationship between the beast and Brie Larson’s Weaver but it seems sloppily sidelined. She has a solo encounter with Kong at one point that’s never mentioned again for the rest of the film. Similarly some characters transition from “Fear Kong” to “Save Kong” a little too quickly.
Having played Koba in Dawn of the Planet Of The Apes, poor Toby Kebbel can’t seem to get away from the monkey business, playing both Kong and Major Chapman here. This even leads to Kebbel acting opposite himself in one scene. For the most part Kong:Skull Island is a enjoyable, if undemanding, adventure. Some of its ideas seem a little half baked (a sequence with a gas mask and a samurai sword immediately springs to mind) but it moves at a quick enough that no single sequence drags down the whole endeavour.
The Vietnam War era setting, ensemble cast and fresh location make it different enough from Godzilla to work as an action adventure film in its own right as well as provide Kong with an updated origin. It also allows the audience to enjoy the trappings of the Vietnam War Movie (the music, the style, the iconic equipment, helicopters etc.) without having to deal with all the bothersome politics, death and horror.
References to the “Monarch” organization (which also appeared in Godzilla) and other in-universe Kaiju related events in the main body of the film give an indication of what we can expect with Kong Vs. Godzilla, although a post credits sting signposts this far more clearly. It is slightly ruined by the preceding credits, listing as they do some characters appearing courtesy of their respective copyright owners. Depending on your enjoyment of the film you’ll either find this sequence a fun treat or completely laughable.
For all its wonders, the film never addresses the real mystery of Skull Island; how does the 64 year old John Goodman manage to look younger in this than he did years ago!?
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Marc Evan Jackson
Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Official Site here.