In many ways, King Kong was the original giant movie monster. The giant ape and the other inhabitants of Skull Island were gloriously brought to life in 1933 by stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien, who crafted movie magic out of Harry Hoyt’s The Lost World almost a decade earlier. With only a handful of film credits to his name, countless parodies and tributes have ensured Kong’s legacy has persisted. It’s fair to say that KONG: SKULL ISLAND is literally one of the biggest takes on the character to date.
The basic construct of director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film is simplicity itself, with the 1970s version of the Monarch organisation (last seen in 2014’s Godzilla) exploring an uncharted island. Bill Randa (John Goodman) leads a misfit group consisting of tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and a US Army troop headed up by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). They almost immediately encounter the giant ape the natives call Kong, but just as rapidly discover he isn’t the most dangerous creature on the island.
The narrative conceit is that the group only has a small window of opportunity to get on and off the island, a simple idea that constantly propels the momentum forward. Like Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), the island is an excuse to watch the humans and Kong fight and run from all manner of creatures, including giant cephalopods and kaiju-like “Skullcrawlers.” Yet it does it with wholesale sense of fun, aided greatly by the presence of John C. Reilly as World War II vet Hank Marlow. His non-sequitur moments (“I’m going to stab you by the end of the night”) make him the Dennis Hopper of KONG‘s Apocalypse Now.
Make no mistake: KONG: SKULL ISLAND is an unapologetically trashy popcorn flick, but it’s the best of its kind. As gunplay and explosions are perfectly timed to the period soundtrack, including the obligatory Creedence Clearwater Revival track, a flawless set of special effects envelop the cast. Kong’s towering frame has not looked as groundbreaking since 1933. Paperbark forests and giant skulls serve as terrifyingly atmospheric backdrops. In Samuel L. Jackson’s Ahab-inspired character, complete with grand quotable dialogue, we may have just reached Peak Jackson (#PeakJackson).
It’s more than enough to allow forgiveness of the indulgences in the name of convention. The need to constantly frame Kong in sunset, regardless of the time of day, sacrifices sense for style. Larson’s photojournalist isn’t quite diminished to Fay Wray levels of ‘bait-thing beauty,’ but she might also be the worst photographer in the world, typically forgetting to take any shots at all. Also, if we’re all being honest, Hiddleston makes a much better villain than he does action lead.
Yet in the midst of all this monkey madness, KONG: SKULL ISLAND effortlessly builds its MonsterVerse, effectively setting up the pieces necessary for the well-publicised crossovers with the Godzilla. After a decade of absences from our screen, Kong rightfully takes his place alongside the King of Monsters, pounding its chest with the bravado of an ape twice his size. Bring on the franchise.