Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenplay: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly
Runtime: 118 Minutes
The criticism that many took away from 2014’s Godzilla concerned tone. For all of the monster mashing heroics of its main character, the film committed so entirely to its own moody aesthetic and self seriousness that much of the ‘fun’ of seeing one of cinemas greatest monsters in all his glory felt like it was held back way too late in the game – bogged down further by an awkwardly structured screenplay focused too much on the kind of characters that would simply fall underfoot.
Kong: Skull Island, the second instalment of Legendary’s ‘MonsterVerse’, immediately corrects this issue of tone with a spectacular reveal of the titular monster in a brilliantly pulpy opening sequence – and continues to sustain its sense of light play and fun for its entirety. Less of a sombre meditation on forces of nature and the arrogance of man, it is fully dedicated to reinterpreting the 1970s works of Doug McClure (concerning the “Hollow Earth”, ancient races and civilisations) with a massive budget; a giant monster movie in which the main attractions are the inhabitants of Skull Island itself.
For this, the film is something of a success. This re-imagined back-story for King Kong holds loose strands of its now blood relative Godzilla, but sets itself up as a joyous romp that sees its stock character types adventuring through the terrain of the increasingly hostile environments of Skull Island. Much in the spirit of the original film’s interfering detours into brilliantly rendered monster madness, Kong fights off reptilian hell beasts (“Skullcrawlers”) and giant squids as the lone survivor of his race, while an abundance of preposterous and horrifying creatures slowly pick off the main cast one by one – from bamboo legged spiders and wilder beast decedents to stuff beyond the imagination (unseen giant ants that bizarrely squawk like birds).
The design and vision of the island is luscious and memorable, while Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s direction is extraordinary. Much like Gareth Edwards also coming off the back of a small scale indie drama, Vogt-Roberts has lost little of his inventiveness when it comes to establishing a visual spectrum for the film. Shot by Larry Fong, this might be one of the best looking monster movies ever made. The frames are sumptuous but Vogt-Roberts finds a jarring aggression and horror out of such beauty. The sight of a man torn limb from limb against a beautiful sunset, or being skewered by a giant spider leg, are genuinely breathtaking sights for a major blockbuster release – and this is to say nothing of the truly epic scale of the giant monster clashes themselves, and the brilliant manner in which he shoots and cuts the film with playful rhythm.
Kong rules the movie with gravity and beauty, and is simply designed and instinctually recognisable. The re-established setting of this new origin tale to just following the Vietnam conflict is inspired, and the visual range that the crew get out of this is great. A shared sense of madness appears to be held by the gung-ho military escort of the expedition, the kind of “fuck everything” approach that many might have felt having lived through hell on earth, alienated from their former lives and driven by an insatiable fury for pyrotechnic spectacle and the idea of someone to blame.
The cast is all steady and reliable in their roles, in particular from Tom Hiddleston’s tracker, Brie Larson’s photojournalist, Samuel L. Jackson’s grizzled Lieutenant Colonel and John Goodman’s weary expedition leader. The screenplay doesn’t leave them much to work with as characters in the traditional sense beyond stock mould that they need to fit, but simple doesn’t equal stupid and they’re not the focus of our attention. They are our guides through the spectacle of this world and are expected to be tormented in the fashion of any genre figures. The dialogue is heavy-handed and simplistic at times, but it works as a framework for what it wants to accomplish and they all deliver their roles with gravity and a refreshing lack of objectification. But John C. Reilly owns the film in these dialogue exchanges as the exaggerative loon who’s interactions with humans after so long alone deliver some of the funniest lines and observations.
Kong: Skull Island might lack a strong enough core or central theme to make stimulating conversation over, but it is the kind of popcorn cinema that gleefully pronounces itself as such and excels at exactly what it wants to be. This is a thrilling and immense display of power with an assured sense of footing.