VOD film review: Kong: Skull Island
Ivan Radford | On 16, Aug 2017
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L Jackson, Brie Larson, John C Reilly
Watch Kong: Skull Island online in the UK: Netflix UK / Amazon Prime / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
“This world never belonged to us. It belonged to them.”
That’s the sound of universe-building taking place beneath your feet in Kong: Skull Island, the second in Legendary’s monster franchise reboot, following 2014’s Godzilla. And while the scientific group Monarch provides the bridge between the two – along with returning writer Max Borenstein, who swapped drafts with Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) and Derek Connolly (Jurassic World) – there is one main thing Kong: Skull Island and Gareth Edwards’ film have in common: they both feel like their own films.
From the opening frames, Skull Island belongs to Jordan Vogt-Roberts. The director of The Kings of Summer brings with him not only his adolescent sense of excitement but also the thrill of imagination, with his giddy camera setting the tone for the visuals with a vibrant opening sequence. Throughout, he never wastes an opportunity to find a striking shot, whether it’s a tentacular reference to Oldboy or copious nods to classic war films. That force of personality is what holds the film together: the tone varies wildly from light comedy to lethal violence, but Vogt-Roberts’ combination of awe and hyper-real action drives the blockbuster forward to the next satisfying burst of spectacle.
The premise takes us back to the 1970s, when a helicopter squadron fresh from the Vietnam War are recruited to escort a ragtag group of people to the mysterious titular island: a place hidden by weather so inclement it makes England look like a sunny paradise. Among them are photographer Mason (Brie Larson), ex-British Special Ops James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), Monarch leader Randa (John Goodman) and geologist Houston (Corey Hawkins, fresh from 24: Legacy, enjoying the chance to play geeky). They’re ordered about by Lieutenant Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who insists that his crew can punch through the tornados surrounding the island.
And break through they do – only to have themselves broken by the fists of a giant ape. The idea of properly introducing the eponymous monster in the first reel might seem to go against the genre’s rules of suspense, but it’s crucial to the tone of the film: it moves us past the usual build-up and straight into the conflict typically reserved for the final act. Carnage immediately ensues, and our group find themselves having to track down missing soldiers Earl (Shea Wigham) and Jack (Toby Kebbell, as always doing a lot with a little) – only to cross paths with long-standing resident of the island Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly).
The arrival of Hank brings with it a scattershot onslaught of seemingly improvised silliness, as the Robinson Cruesoe-like recluse talks to himself, communicates silently with the natives and sings to anyone who will listen. In another film, it would be a disastrous clash of mood, but Vogt-Roberts balances the daft with the dangerous superbly, using Reilly’s bumbling charisma to punctuate and reinforce the tense set pieces that unfold – if you’re disturbed by his beard, wait until you see the freaky, lizard-like Skullcrawlers or creepy bamboo spiders.
There’s fear to go with the funny, a colourful smorgasbord of creative creature design that successfully captures the afternoon matinee fun of monster movies gone by. But the real terror lies in the fanatical devotion of Jackson’s Packard to get revenge on Kong for the death of his troops – and while Kong: Skull Island’s decision to combine creature feature and combat trauma might not be especially subtle, it’s a decision that roots the movie firmly in its period to potent effect. Vogt-Roberts embraces the juxtaposition with relish, sprinkling the action sequences with slow-mo, as the US boys swoop in on their choppers with loud speakers blaring rock music – a flourish that repeatedly captures the jarring contrast between the perceived glory of military warfare with the nasty reality. Like America post-Vietnam, we swing back and forth from laughter to slaughter, from guns to nature, from heroics to horror, a feverish to-and-fro that keeps us as rattled as the puny humans encountering Kong for the first time.
What’s easy to overlook is just how calculated that uneasy ride is: Vogt-Roberts has shared concept art from his original pitch on social media, which sees Hiddleston’s macho rogue fighting off flying beasts with a gas mask and a sword, and it’s a moment he brings vividly to life without compromising on a single detail. That ability to realise his vision, no matter how stark raving mad it is, makes Vogt-Roberts the perfect kind of filmmaker to take on a King Kong movie: like Carl Denham in the 1933 original, it takes a special kind of crazy to try and reel in and pin down Kong for mainstream entertainment. The odd patch of dialogue betrays the thin characterisations of Conrad and Mason, but the movie is so quickly paced that you don’t have time to notice. Besides, the humans aren’t really the main reason to tune in. And, with Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell providing a sulky, sad yet savage take on the ape’s character, there’s no doubt that Kong’s king of Skull Island. That’s the other thing this has in common with 2014’s Godzilla: they both capture the intimidating scale of kaiju in full swing. As Monarch continues to assemble its epic arsenal of animals, long may that childlike wonder continue. In an age of crossover films and gargantuan franchises, universe-building has rarely been so fun.
Kong: Skull Island is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription. It is also available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.