Kong: Skull Island REVIEW
Later in this review we’ll be using the phrase, “there is much, much more going on here than the trailers have suggested”. This is what we call a hook, which you’ll need if you’ve only been judging this film on the trailers.
As the Vietnam War ends, Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) make a last desperate bid for relevancy. They’re part of MONARCH, the secret organisation first seen in Godzilla which researches megafauna. In the present day, we know MONARCH has unlimited funding and can move across national borders basically at will. In 1973, they’re a joke.
Until Randa and Brooks bring photos from one of the first mapping satellites to a friendly(ish) senator. The satellite has found Skull Island, locked behind a permanent storm, a graveyard of ships and planes. And home to what may be an unprecedented eco system full of wonders, horrors and vote-winning scientific breakthroughs. Hectoring their way onto a Landsat expedition heading to the island, Randa and Brooks also drag three other groups into their orbit. Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is a disillusioned Special Forces officer turned tracker. Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), is an award-winning photojournalist who rightly guesses there’s something very odd about the expedition. Finally, Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and the men of the Sky Devils Helicopter Assault Squadron are going home. All of them are happy about that except Packard, who jumps at the chance for one last op.
They arrive, begin dropping survey charges and in short order discover two things: that Brooks’s theory about the Earth being largely hollow is true. And they’ve woken the king of Skull Island. And things much, much worse than him…
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The excellent Kings Of Summer) and written by Dan Gilroy and James Borenstein and with a story by Gilroy and John Gatins, Kong is a movie you are not going to see coming. That’s especially weird to say about a film featuring a gorilla the size of an angry skyscraper but there is much, much more going on here than the trailers have suggested.
For a start, this is a Vietnam War movie. The war may end in the opening minutes but the film’s entire emotional arc sits on the shoulders of the men of the Sky Devils Squadron. They’re as engaging and fun as the rig crew from The Abyss, and their reactions to peace are varied and nuanced. One pair in particular, played by Jason Mitchell and Shea Wigham, are flat-out brilliant. Mitchell’s laconic, slow-burn humour is the perfect counterpoint to Wigham’s zen-like calm and the pair light up every scene they’re in. Likewise, Toby Kebbell (who also helped out on the mo cap on Kong) is excellent as the grounded and sensible right hand man to Jackson’s Colonel Packard. There’s one particular scene, which is just Kebbell’s character, Chapman, watching Kong that’s a standout. It’s almost Lovecraftian in the colossal scale of the action and you can see the overwhelming strain simply seeing this happen puts on Chapman. It’s like Marlow (John C Reilly) says, Kong really is king on the island. The Sky Devils war is over the moment they arrive, it just takes the entire movie for the survivors to realise that.
Sam’s On Top Form
To say Jackson is good seems like a given but he really is here. Packard isn’t a villain, he’s a man pushed too far outside his comfort zone who reacts the only way he knows how. He does terrible things, he gets his men killed but you understand why. Like Kong, he’s not a monster. Like Kong, it’s sometimes hard to tell. The closest thing to the role you’ve seen before is probably Michael Biehn as Coffey in The Abyss. Jackson is less tragic but no less human and he’s a good anchor for much of the movie.
Which is a relief as most of the other big name talent on deck gets surprisingly little to do. Tom Hiddleston is great as Conrad but his arc begins and ends with his father’s cigarette lighter. Likewise, Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver is required to do little other than be a civilian eye on the action. She gets a nicely-reworked and very subtle do-over of the plot you expect her to get though and Larson’s physicality and wit bring a lot more to the role than the script does.
Which should be a criticism except, it’s not. This is a profoundly weird film, in almost every way, and the fact half of the name talent have the least to do is just the start of that. John C Reilly’s Marlow looked like a movie-killing disaster in the trailers but he’s the first character you meet here. He’s got context, an emotional arc and is weirdly very charming as well as clearly extremely broken, Reilly has always been a bit of a divisive performer and it would have been so easy too go full Will Ferrell movie here. Instead, he’s the heart of much of the movie. The rest of the cast, especially John Goodman and Corey Hawkins, turn in good work throughout but it’s Reilly, Mitchell, Wigham and Jackson who you’ll remember.
The Return Of The King
Oh, and the gorilla. Director Vogt-Roberts does not disappoint on that front. This is the most beautiful, and horrific, Skull Island has ever looked and Vogt-Roberts, with cinematographer Larry Fong, cram every frame with scale and life. There’s a pair of encounters with an upscaled water buffalo that would look at home in a Miayazaki movie while Kong himself always has both real weight and intelligence. The backstory he’s given works supremely well too and along with the cinematography gives the movie a real sense of threat. This is Kong as hard luck hero, back against the cliff and refusing to back down and it makes Skull Island’s angriest resident feel likeable and nuanced in a way he’s never been before. Especially in the closing fight, which is both brutally well choreographed and has actual stakes to it. You’re rooting for him, and given the horrific way he dismantles the Sky Devils at the top of the movie that’s a major achievement.
As is the course correction this film pulls off for the Monsterverse. We were big fans of 2014’s Godzilla but even we will happily concede the characters basically wander off for the back hour and the film needed roughly 150% more Bryan Cranston. Skull Island solves every problem Godzilla had, from the lack of characters to the overly somber tone. It also sets up the monsterverse in a really interesting way we’ve not seen before and that makes us very excited for the next movie. And yes, that means you need to sit through the end credits. There are still problems (guess how much Jing Tian’s character gets to do? AIM LOWER) but this is a massively assured, entertaining and immensely strange film. In every way. Go see it, and prepare to be very pleasantly, and very very largely, surprised.
Review by Alasdair Stuart