Who would win in a fight between King Kong and Godzilla? My Dad, ahead of our seeing Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ new picture Kong: Skull Island, reckoned it’d be no contest and that a giant sentient ape would have no issues in crushing a big lizard with little arms and a pea-sized brain. What my Dad was quite evidently forgetting is that in his last big screen outing (Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong) Kong measured up at just 25ft compared to the 355 feet that Godzilla clocked in at in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla from 2014. That’s presumably why this latest reboot in the character’s eighty-four year history sees Kong boosted to his mightiest height yet, an impressive 104ft. As we all know, bigger always means better, right? By that logic Skull Island could only be incredible, yes?
Before going any further here, it’s important to establish early on that Kong: Skull Island is a ridiculously stupid blockbuster. Indeed, the film itself does so by opening randomly in 1944, with the vague caption ‘Somewhere in the South Pacific’ and a scene that will go to make no sense in the context of later revelations. On the other hand, preposterous that Skull Island truly is, its combination of stunning cinematography, impressive effects and a genuinely awe inspiring Kong himself, just about save the day.
After its so random of prologues, the plot speeds through twenty nine years of American history – told through epochal newsreel footage – to 1973 (a fact emphasised not only by a caption but also several massive visual cues – it’s 1973 ALRIGHT). John Goodman and Corey Hawkins (they have character names in the film but who actually cares?) arrive at the White House at a time when we’re told ‘Washington’s never going to be more screwed up than it is now’ (ba dum tish) with the aim of securing permission to undergo an unprecedented geological survey mission of a mysterious island – which happens to look like a skull… – ‘Somewhere in the South Pacific’.
Once given the all clear, the duo recruit war weary Brit Tom Hiddleston, a contingent of Vietnam-vet soldiers under the command of Samuel L. Jackson (Packard?), and Brie Larson’s anti-war photographer and set sail on their quest into the unknown. It’s an unknown that remains so for a surprisingly short period of time with the reconnaissance encountering Kong within minutes of their arrival to the titular Skull Island. In cutting so rapidly to the chase it’s true Vogt-Roberts eliminates any sense of foreboding anticipation within the film’s establishing third but here that’s a bit of a relief, Kong’s human massacre rampage being both highly welcome and riotously entertaining. The effects work in realising this newly engorged King Kong is of coursed exceptional and heightened by the marvellously cinematic locations sourced for the production. Much of these vistas may seem computer generated, but the production was very keen to source real sites and it pays off. Visual and audio cues come think and fast from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, with Larry Fong’s cinematography a wash of red and khaki browns and greens and the soundtrack dietetically blasting everything from Ziggy Stardust to Run Through the Jungle. It’s all perfectly terrific to look at and deeply nostalgic to listen to, even if it can’t totally distract from the nonsense going on in the actual script.
Having been decimated, the humans are spread and separated across the island in small pockets of survival that quickly discover the real threats that stalk the island in the form of enormous spiderlike things, reptilian monsters and a vengeful and eye popping Samuel L. Jackson. Team Hiddleston quickly discover human inhabitants on the island in the form of a tribe – who ‘don’t speak much’ or do much either as it turns out – and a Ben Gunn tribute act (John C. Reilly). Their mission now is to simply get off the island alive, no mean feat. A couple of clicks to the North, on the other hand, Team Jackson are intent on the equally ambitious aim to kill the King of the jungle himself.
To Kong: Skull Island‘s favour, the total lack of respect it has for logic and believability does lend the film an enjoyable unpredictability in that literally anything could happen at any given point, whether it makes sense or not. Also helpful are those magnificent VFX, filmed to a comic book aesthetic rather akin to a slicker version of Ang Lee’s Hulk. In terms of characterisation, the humans are undoubtedly pathetic. Hiddleston hasn’t got one to start with, spending the whole film dressed like he was simultaneously filming a Hugo Boss advert but didn’t have time to change – costume or personality. Larson’s increasingly rock-chic Mason Weaver (I Googled it) meanwhile may be warmer and more likeable but seems to have a role in the film – as photographer – created solely for the purpose of allowing her to appear in shock from behind her camera lens on umpteen occasions. Comic relief comes from Reilly meanwhile, who gives probably the best performance here – in actual flesh and blood at any rate. When a film’s hundred foot bipedal behemoth is its most relatable and emotive character however you know that something’s clearly gone awry. Not to take away that is from the brilliance of this version’s Kong. Terry Notary is the man under the motion capture but you’d never think to question the construction as anything other than viscerally real. The other monsters are a little more Jurassic Park and a little less distinctive but their battles with Kong remain epic in their brutality.
If you can refrain from rolling your eyes long enough to witness the action actually taking place – and necessarily dampen your brain cells for the two hour runtime – Kong: Skull Island will serve you well as the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. It all fits into Legendary’s wider MonsterVerse, being the second in the franchise following Edwards’ Godzilla, so stick around for a post-credits teaser for Godzilla: King of Monsters, before 2020 will see my Dad proved wrong in Godzilla vs Kong.