Kong: Skull Island probably won’t make as lasting a contribution to popular culture as King Kong, the majestic 1933 original that it is partly based on.
And it’s also likely that none – OK, maybe just one – of its characters will make the kind of lasting impression that actress Ann Darrow (as played by Fay Wray and later, Naomi Watts) or filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong, followed by Jack Black) did in forging their respective connections with the titular gigantic ape.
But … culture, shmulture. If you’re here for the spectacle, then this one delivers CGI awesomeness above and beyond the call of awesome. You might need to wrap your face in plastic before going in just to keep your eyeballs in place.
A cousin of sorts to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island is Legendary Pictures’ attempt to establish and expand a shared cinematic universe where Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms are commonplace (stay for the post-credits scene). The wide-eyed giant monster fan/kid in me is simply thrilled to bits at the prospect of a Godzilla-Kong slobberknocker.
Before that, though, certain boundaries have to be redrawn. So forget the old, oft-filmed story of Kong being captured and brought back to New York where his, erm, affection for some random blonde gets him shot off the Empire State Building.
Forget the puny 8m-tall Kong who would have trouble reaching up to adjust a television aerial on top of a two-storey house. This guy stands 30, count ’em, 30 metres tall (that’s a hunnert’ feet, son) … and get this, a stray line of dialogue that you might miss by crunching your popcorn too loud informs us he’s … still … growing.
Which should work out nicely by the time he gets to tangle with the 100m-plus Godzilla that Edwards unleashed upon fans a couple of years back.
With greater stature comes even greater, more awe-inspiring primal savagery than in the past.
You’ve all no doubt watched the trailers showing the helicopters flying around Kong? Well, that’s just the tip of Kong’s not-niceberg. I was, quite honestly, totally unprepared for the level of havoc wrought during this scene, and we don’t even have to wait too long for the treat. Uh, not that I’m gleefully rubbing my hands thinking back on the carnage – oh, the humanity! – in this breathtakingly-executed sequence.
Some elements of the mythos are retained: Skull Island, Kong’s turf, is an isolated patch of rock in the Pacific and home to a myriad of bizarre creatures as well as, strangely enough, a tribe of humans.
This movie takes place in 1973, when satellites have started opening up uncharted parts of the world. The United States is compelled to send a research team to this newly-discovered land – gotta beat the Soviets to it, man – with a military escort chaperoning the boffins.
And so it is that scientist types (John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, Jing Tian, John Ortiz) rub shoulders with a US Army helicopter division (led by Samuel L. Jackson’s old war-horse), with an ex-SAS man (Tom Hiddleston) as their wilderness guide.
Brie Larson’s (anti-)war photographer completes the assemblage and is – you guessed it – primarily there for the gorilla bonding which is thankfully low key and not dwelled on for too long. (I was a bit puzzled when, during their first encounter with Kong, she doesn’t appear to snap a single photograph. Or is that to reinforce the effect Kong has on the ladies?)
Oh, and there’s also good ol’ Wreck-It Ralph himself, John C. Reilly, as a grizzled WWII veteran who’s been stranded on the island for 28 years. His pointed observations, softened by a veneer of mild insanity, are what the film relies on for comic relief and they mostly work.
With so many characters shoehorned into a two-hour epic, and having to share the screen with Kong and his island’s assorted nightmares and oddities, something has to give.
So the characters mostly get rather superficial treatment, even if the cast members perform their roles winningly (notable ones: Reilly, Agent Carter’s Shea Whigham as a slightly “out there” army man, and Goodman as a spiritual antecedent to Ken Watanabe’s character from Godzilla).
Jackson gets a couple of nice Captain Ahab moments but Hiddleston is criminally underused beyond the physical demands of his “action man” role.
Again, though, we’re not really here for the people, are we? It’s Kong’s show, and he rightfully commands attention whenever he is on screen.
Standing tall, unlike the stooped, more simian version Peter Jackson gave us, he is a whole new species of cinematic bada**.
No ice follies hijinks or emo staring off into space or into (female) human eyes for this dude. Motion-capture performance veteran Terry Notary fittingly provides the deliberate, regal bearing of a monarch among monsters, for the special effects wizards to build this Wonder of the World upon.
With a menagerie of natural enemies – Skull Island is a hotbed of survival struggles for reasons best left to the film’s meagre expository dialogue to explain – and the aggressive “advanced” human invaders too, Kong certainly has his hands full throughout the movie. His mouth, too, because we actually get to see him eat, and it is creepily like some bizarre Korean raw dish you’ve seen people wolf down on the food channels.
And as for the audience, well, we certainly get eyeful after eyeful of kaiju mayhem. Things can only get more delirious and delicious as Legendary’s “monsterverse” expands in the coming years.
For now, take heart, for the lord of the primordial jungle is in majestic butt-kicking form. As a certain “Ash” Williams might say, hail to the king, baby. But do something about your retinue on your next go-around.
Kong: Skull Island
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Shea Wigham, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz