Originally published on The National Student on 02/03/17.
No dinosaurs, no Empire State Building, and certainly no scantily clad damsel in sight; this latest Kong adventure is different, and all the better for it.
Skull Island marks the eighth official film, and the fourth apparent reboot of possibly the most famous ape in the history of cinema. That’s a whole lotta Kong, and Peter Jackson’s recent remake made a whole bunch of money, won several Oscars and still stands as fairly relevant today, having only be released in 2005. So why make another one now?
The long answer is a bit too waffly and involves other movie monsters and some sort of shared monster universe; the short answer is the slightly more cynical “because, money”, but in all honesty, within five minutes of being under Skull Island’s spell you probably won’t really care all that much anyway. The fact is, Kong’s back, and he’s bigger and more badass than ever.
Indie maestro Jordan Vogt-Roberts (who some may know from the hugely underrated The Kings of Summer a few years back) hits the big-time running with an Apocalypse Now-inspired, early 70s-set take on the legend. A former special forces jungle tracker (Tom Hiddleston) teams up with an American military crew fresh out of Vietnam, and a war-time photographer (Brie Larson) to chart the seemingly invisible Skull Island of the title and well, that’s about all you actually need to know.
The rest, as they say, is a mystery; and whilst there’s a few neat character nods and some sly little surprises that should stay firmly as surprises (steer clear of internet comment threads for real this time), for the most part Skull Island’s real appeal is that it’s an actual real world, functioning monster movie. Unlike 2014’s Godzilla and a whole bunch of the 21st Century crowd of monster releases, you actually get to see a lot of Kong here – which sounds super silly to point out considering it’s the basic reason monster movies exist in the first place, but you’d be surprised.
The ape in question is present from as early as the film’s short and snappy prologue, and from there his role only grows and grows. Vogt-Roberts seems to have latched onto something that a lot of the directors who came before him really didn’t; this is Kong’s movie, it’s about Kong and Kong is the main character. Whilst the humans who discover him are important (and to their credit, very well played here), they only exist to facilitate the gigantic god-like ape the movie is actually named after.
Which in the long run, makes Skull Island’s significantly larger, more beastly Kong arguably one of the best interpretations of the legend to date too. Modern effects have certainly helped the process considerably, but Vogt-Roberts’ ape works for a whole bunch of more foundational reasons too. There’s actually backstory here, that’s subtle enough, but very cleverly lays the groundwork for a more battle-born creature that fits into the 21st Century much more easily.
The original Kong found himself blinded by beauty, driven by romantic urges which – aside from not making a whole lot of sense logically, and being ever-so-slightly troublesome due to the fact that you know, it’s bestiality – aren’t really needed in a 2017 blockbuster. Romantic plots aren’t all the rage anymore; Disney dropped their’s for the hugely successful Moana and no one batted an eyelid. And when Disney drop romance from their movies, you just know it’s going to have a knock-on effect.
So instead of the white-dressed Fay Wray-type throwing herself into all sorts of sexually-confusing scenarios and pining after the affections of a literal ape, we get Brie Larson’s more sensibly-dressed, level-headed, and perfectly-played photographer Weaver. She’s not a love interest, or a helpless damsel, she’s just like any other member of the team, and her connection with Kong comes from a totally human place, rather than a romantic one, marking arguably Skull Island’s biggest departure, and it’s most successful too.
All-in there’s probably a few too many characters on the roster though. John Goodman’s crackpot scientist and his researcher cronies start strong but quickly lose relevance; Samuel L. Jackson is exceptional as an evil-eyed military leader but his team are much too big; and whilst the core cast make for a brilliantly-starry read, they’re not all 100% suited to their roles.
Case in point, a certain Mr Hiddleston, who to his credit tries his absolute darnedest to be a Stallone-level tough-guy but never quite reaches the peak. He’s a charmer, and quick-witted enough, he’s just not built to be the muscly old-school war hero the film is clearly aiming for. In fact, much of it might not even be Hiddleston himself but the state of the characters overall; they’re all more than capable of looking after themselves and simply don’t need a text-book alpha-male type running to their rescue every five seconds.
If anything, this can be seen as the film’s biggest praise: Skull Island is a huge Hollywood blockbuster movie that actually treats its characters like logical human beings, and while we’re at it, treats its monsters like the show-stopping spectacles they are too. There’s plenty of creature-fighting, helicopter bashing action, and enough fantastically-written character drama to keep what is quite figuratively a giant behemoth of a picture, ticking along fabulously for a full two-hours.
It might not quite be the same Kong you remember from years gone by, but in managing its differences and adapting its legends to fit a more progressive audience, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ latest reboot is easily one of 2017’s best and smartest blockbusters.
Dark without ever being gritty, fun without ever being indulgent; it’s a terrific blend of what makes monster movies really tick underneath and if the teased plans for more are to be believed, we may well have a very exciting creature-feature renaissance on our hands.
Kong: Skull Island is out in UK cinemas on 9th March.