Kong: Skull Island is the blockbuster debut for director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and his first film since his coming of age drama Kings of Summer two years ago. Despite Kong being typical for the genre, it does have enough quirks to set it apart from your common-or-garden variety of blockbuster.
Vogt-Roberts has said that Apocalypse Now was a major influence on this film, and you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a Vietnam war movie that happens to have a giant monkey in it. It frequently uses a striking orange filter that has a very “Vietnam” feel to it, as well as having all the hallmarks of one; there’s a helicopter flying scene, a squad of soldiers that squabble constantly, and a bitter captain obsessed with the safety of his men. The war is rarely ever brought up as a plot point, but it’s influence is woven throughout the film.
Kong tells the classic story of a giant ape hounded by humanity, only with a couple of key deviations from past Kong movies. Firstly, it remains entirely on the eponymous Skull Island, never moving to New York, as both the 1930s original and Peter Jackson’s more recent effort have done. Secondly, it’s a squad of soldiers trying to survive rather than a film crew, another side effect of the seventies time period. Kong himself also looks a bit different from how he looked twelve years ago, looking less like an ape and more upright. He’s also much larger than before, probably so he can go toe-to-toe with a certain giant lizard in a few years’ time.
Skull Island has got quite a cast, an aspect that got it much attention early on. Tom Hiddleston plays an SAS type, brought on to the mission for his tracking ability. I think throughout the entire movie he tracks maybe two things, but I’m sure he was essential. John Goodman plays a mad scientist that’s been studying Skull Island for decades, and Samuel L. Jackson is the aforementioned bitter captain hell-bent on killing Kong in retaliation for punching most of his men out of the sky.
Brie Larson forms the emotional heart as Mason Weaver, a war photographer who fulfils the role of “woman Kong falls in love with”. It never gets quite as blatant as in previous films, but I feel like that was her primary use. Overall, the performances are about as good as you’d expect from a dumb summer blockbuster. Tom Hiddleston in particular gets some truly terrible lines, but none of it’s a deal breaker. The one trump card the movie has is John C. Reilly as a slightly insane WWII pilot, who provides both the comic relief and most of the back story, and is genuinely fun to watch.
The film is quite beautiful, especially on the big screen, with one early encounter with Kong featuring one of my favourite shots this year. The action is loud and full of explosions, with some fights later in the film going huge in scale. Some of the monsters featured are interesting and freaky, as they should be, but never goes into the “horror” tone that I think Peter Jackson’s remake did. Skull Island‘s monsters are more “creature-feature” than horror. This is one aspect I wished they’d expanded on, as we don’t see that many weird beasts. Once we meet Kong and establish who he’s up against, we focus on them and not much else. One early encounter with a spider made my skin crawl, and it never reaches that level again.
Overall, Kong: Skull Island is an entertaining, pretty, stylish blockbuster that knows exactly what it is. It doesn’t attempt to juggle sixteen plot threads about the fate of the world; it’s just a big monkey breaking things. Simple, yet effective.