Kong: Skull Island, 2017
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Will Brittain
A team of explorers and soldiers travel to an uncharted island in the Pacific, unaware that they are crossing into the domain of monsters, including the mythic Kong.
If you were worried about Kong: Skull Island not being about the titular ape, or that Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla remake was too subtle with its monster action, don’t worry as King Kong shows up on screen in the first five minutes of this movie. It’s almost as if they were worried the audience would get instantly bored, as if Michael Bay’s brand of mind-melting action filmmaking had trained us to ignore the music between the notes and focus only on the smashy-smashy explosions and noise.
But after that opening five minutes and following on from some fantastic opening credits, Kong: Skull Island slows its pace down and focuses on something that many tentpole action blockbusters forget: the characters. The first hour of the movie (which still contains some action) is based solely on introducing us to all of the main players of the piece and their motivations. This isn’t just a standard roll-call of expendable and heroic names, the script by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) and Max Borenstein (Godzilla) is designed to make us care and invest in the people going to Skull Island. They’re (mostly) not exposition machines or blank avatars, they’re defined characters with wants and needs. Samuel L. Jackson’s Packard is an army-vet with no direction or war to fight, Tom Hiddleston’s Conrad is a mercenary for hire in need of a new adventure, Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver is a photographer in search of the truth in a world where politics lie to her, John Goodman’s Bill Randa is also searching for the truth but only to point and laugh with a “told you so” attitude to all the people who called him crazy his entire professional life. The first hour of Kong: Skull Island is incredible and remarkable filmmaking, a lesson for all action filmmakers in a modern age.
This also allows for the actors – many of which are highly regarded in critical circles – to chomp into their roles and deliver something more than just reading lines and running away from empty air that will be CGI’d into terrifying monsters at a later date. Jackson in particular gives one of the best performances of his recent career, and could be argued as being the main character and antagonist to Kong. This extends into his supporting cast, who blindly follow his every word even though they know what he is doing is wrong. Kong: Skull Island says a lot about the American military following the war in Vietnam, and how many of them felt when it was all over. Some want to just go home because the war was ultimately pointless, whereas some needed another fight to prove their worth.
Surprisingly, after divisive appearances in the trailers with seemingly unnecessary comedy, John C. Reilly brings some real warmth and lightness to the proceedings. His comedy relief is never intrusive, and tonally works with his character. While every one else could be seen as an avatar for the audience, exploring this unknown island and encountering these strange and sometimes deadly monsters, Reilly’s Hank Marlow is a wondrous addition and source of exposition.
It’s then sad to say that Hiddleston and Larson aren’t given the same amount of screen time to fully explore their characters – though you can read between the lines of their performances. But even with this, they’re still giving it 100% of their effort. No one is half-assing Kong: Skull Island. Many – incorrectly – would question why actors of Hiddleston and Larson’s caliber would take on a ‘stupid popcorn monster flick’, but they both clearly saw something in the terrific script and wonderful direction from Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who delivers some spectacular visuals. Oli Davis has often said on the Flickering Myth Podcast that you could take some of Edwards’s shots from Godzilla and hang them in an art gallery and the same can be said of Kong: Skull Island. The film is gorgeous to look at, and even more impressive when seen on IMAX in 3D.
And all of this before I even get into the monster action, the one thing that is probably drawing most of the paying public to see the film. Those who like to see giant monsters fight other giant monsters and all the gloriousness that comes with that will be pleased to know that Vogt-Roberts provides some of the best set-pieces in recent memory. Kong’s (second) introduction to the movie – seen in the trailers with the helicopters – is pure magic filmmaking. It seemingly never ends, but always remains engaging. There are so many heart-in-your-throat moments throughout Kong’s ferocity and actions that its almost impossible to pick out a favourite. Vogt-Roberts never glorifies this either, and the on-screen deaths are often more suggested than focused on, which only adds to the impact each one has. It’s terrifying at times, exciting at others. To say Kong: Skull Island is just ‘pixels hitting other pixels’ is to ignore the hard work and vision Vogt-Roberts and his crew put into the film.
There is so much to enjoy in Kong: Skull Island, and even more to love. It’s a fantastic action-adventure that never sags, never lulls and always entertains. A more critical mind could pick apart certain things, but to do so would be missing the point entirely. If we take this as the first “proper” stage of Warner Bros.’ shared monsters universe, we’re in for an incredible ride (be sure to stick around for the fist-pumping post-credits – possibly the best one since Nick Fury told Tony Stark about the Avengers Initiative). With such a long linage of films – including the groundbreaking original – it seems almost impossible to say this is the best of the lot, but Kong: Skull Island really is the best Kong movie ever. It has all the missing elements of recent monster efforts like Godzilla and Pacific Rim with its brilliant characters and performances, with the best of modern action blockbusters. It’s epic, brilliant, wonderful and one of the best pictures of the year so far.
If every 2017 tentpole movie can be as good as Kong: Skull Island, we’re in for a great year of movies.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth, the co-host of The Flickering Myth Podcast and the author of Lights, Camera, GAME OVER!: How Video Game Movies Get Made (which you can pre-order from Amazon UK and Amazon US). You can follow him on Twitter @ThisisLukeOwen.