Apocalypse Now meets The Land that Time Forgot isn’t an obvious premise for a King Kong reboot, but Kong: Skull Island is nonetheless a surprisingly effective, if jaw-droppingly ridiculous, slab of monster blockbuster fun. It’s considerably more bonkers, and therefore more entertaining, than 2015’s machine-tooled Jurassic World and it’s also better than its universe sharing cousin, Gareth Edwards’s 2014 rebooted Godzilla. In fact, I’m struggling to think of a better out-and-out monster movie since the original Jurassic Park, unless you count Starship Troopers, or Peter Jackson’s overblown but underrated 2005 King Kong remake (I wasn’t a fan of Cloverfield).
Skull Island opens with a peculiar Hell in the Pacific style World War II prologue then flashes forward to 1973. Nixon has just started withdrawing troops from Vietnam, and as Monarch director Bill Randa (John Goodman) puts it, “There has never been a more screwed up time in Washington”. Rapidly moving on from that alarmingly pertinent statement, Randa obtains funding for a covert geographic expedition to chart the mysterious recently discovered via satellite Skull Island, which is surrounded by a handy ring of storms that put off visitors. Randa’s expedition includes expert survivalist James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), Vietnam burnout Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and the regulation scientific goons and military grunts destined to warm the innards of the various monsters. Once they reach the island they start bombing the place for some idiotic reason that is supposedly scientific, and of course a certain oversized gorilla is unimpressed.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose previous film was low budget Stand by Me variant The Kings of Summer, seems an unlikely choice of director. Yet he helms with an unpretentious glee which showcases the various beasties to absolutely smashing effect, quite literally. He is clearly very cine-literate, and references to the three previous King Kong movies, Son of Kong, Jurassic Park and so on are made in such a way as to tip the hat whilst still putting his own stamp on the picture. The screenplay is a bit on the clunky side, but it hardly matters when you’ve got bravura sequences of Kong smashing helicopters to pieces. Not to mention the other monster threats, which include a giant spider, giant octopus, flocks of very nasty pterodactyl type birds and something resembling a massive but rather cute stick insect. However, the real stand-out set piece takes place in a gorilla bone graveyard. Nightmarish giant reptiles know as Skullcrawlers stalk the humans who foolishly ignored the don’t-go-that-way warnings of castaway Hank Marlow (John C Reilly), a man who comes across like a crazed blend of Friday from Robinson Crusoe and Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. The ensuing suspense and action is surprisingly stylised, particularly in a slow motion sequence involving Hiddleston utilising a samurai sword amid clouds of poison gas.
The human interest isn’t that interesting at times, and character arcs are very predictable, but then again in this kind of film you barely notice. The action comes so thick and fast that at the inevitable climactic smackdown, you are very unlikely to feel short changed. The film brazenly wears it’s very obvious Vietnam War allegory on its sleeve, and yet it somehow this sort-of works. I must admit I also chuckled when I discovered Hiddleston’s character was called Conrad (Joseph Conrad of course being the author of Hearts of Darkness, on which Apocalypse Now was famously based). Make sure you stick around through the end credits too, as there’s a neat little Easter egg scene.
With tremendous visual effects, Kong: Skull Island has plenty for the eye and ear. It isn’t going to change the course of cinema, but what it does deliver is a first-rate piece of monster movie mayhem, best seen on the biggest screen possible.