Cinema’s favourite monster gets a colossally entertaining reboot with Kong: Skull Island, a genre blending fantasy adventure that combines creature-feature spectacle and grunts-in-the-jungle thrills: King Kong meets Apocalypse Now.
It’s 1973 and a chastened US is pulling out of the Vietnam War. Over in Washington, crackpot explorer Bill Randa (John Goodman) wangles support for an expedition to the uncharted Skull Island in the South Pacific. The ‘place where myth and science meet’, the island harbours wondrous, larger-than-life creations, he reckons.
Riding shotgun on the mission is Tom Hiddleston’s ex-SAS officer turned tracker, James Conrad (his name the first of a number of nods to the author of Heart of Darkness), while Samuel L Jackson’s gung-ho army officer Preston Packard and his helicopter squadron, the venture’s military escort, provide further firepower. Also along for the ride are Brie Larson’s sceptical anti-war photographer Mason Weaver and a pair of nerdy scientists played by Corey Hawkins and Jing Tian.
“The island’s protector, not its scourge”
Of course, the expedition has barely landed on the island before things start going sideways. Randa is right. The island does shelter a multitude of fearsome giant beasts, the biggest of which is the eponymous Kong.
Soon enough, the giant ape is swatting helicopters out of the skies and stomping their occupants into the ground, much to the chagrin of Jackson’s tightly wound soldier, his bitterness at the US army’s defeat in Vietnam (‘We didn’t lose the war. We abandoned it’) leading him here into acts of reckless belligerence. However, Kong is the island’s protector, not its scourge, as is made clear by grizzled castaway inhabitant Hank Marlow (another Conrad nod), played with scene-stealing comic gusto by John C Reilly. Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist until you go looking for it.
“B-movie escapism galore”
That’s just one of a series of allegorical pointers dotted throughout the story. (Earlier, the film nudges us in the ribs with Randa’s observation of the Nixon-era capital: ‘Mark my words, there’ll never be a more screwed up time in Washington.’) But the movie never labours its symbolism. Instead, there is B-movie escapism galore as director Jordan Vogt-Roberts springs an array of weird critters on the island’s luckless visitors – from a giant spider to the ghastly reptilian skullcrawlers.
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Silhouetted against napalm orange in one memorable shot, Kong is naturally the film’s most impressive creation, a splendid mix of CGI and motion-capture wizardry, though he never attains the poignancy of his precursor in the original 1933 movie. Still, when he rampages, fans of creature features will go ape.
Certificate 12A. Runtime 118 mins. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts