Few characters in cinema are as integral to its history as King Kong. First appearing in 1933, his debut film redefined what was possible with special effects, and he has since become one of pop culture’s most enduring icons. Whether battling Godzilla in schlocky ‘70s B-movies, or getting the full Peter Jackson epic treatment in 2005 (which remains the definitive entry, in my view), he has been consistently recognisable as western film’s premier monster. One of the boldest moves made by this latest effort, the second outing for Warner Bros’ planned Giant Monsters shared universe, is in changing Kong’s image, making him more reminiscent of the giant kaiju we’ve seen recently in films like Cloverfield and Pacific Rim than the traditional mere overgrown gorilla.
It’s a decision that pays great dividends – Kong is now around 100 feet tall, and the enormity of his battles with both humans and his fellow monsters inspires awe, especially as they retain a sustained clarity that showcase very impressive choreography and even better effects work. Spectacular CG and great mo-cap work from Terry Notary as Kong’s body and Toby Kebbell (who also appears as one of the film’s more obviously doomed humans) as Kong’s face make him feel astoundingly real. Every creature on the eponymous island is magnificently designed, and they all manage to look real in their interactions with the non-CG human characters. Put this mega-fauna in amongst gorgeous shooting locations in the remote wilds of Vietnam, all directed beautifully by relative newcomer Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and you have a film that earns its place on the biggest screen possible.
Unfortunately, though somewhat predictably, the humans prove a very weak link. Struggling through clunky dialogue, ostensible leads Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson barely make an impression (their bizarre anti-chemistry not helping matters at all) and most other characters fare even less well. However, as a ferociously intense army colonel, Samuel L Jackson salvages some dignity, and John C Reilly almost entirely saves the human-only sections all by himself. Playing a pilot whose plane crashed on Kong’s island almost 30 years before the arrival of Hiddleston, Larson etc, Reilly provides a perfect mix of manic humour and pathos, utterly eclipsing all his co-stars, many of whom end up facing remarkably gruesome ends.
It’s a shame that the writing is so shaky, because there are interesting themes at the bedrock of this story. Touching upon the man vs nature idea so prevalent in this genre, Vogt-Roberts’ decision to set the film at the tail-end of the Vietnam War rather than the traditional ‘20s also manages to give the whole thing an intriguing Apocalypse Now flavour, from classic late ‘60s songs blaring out of helicopters to Hiddleston’s SAS tracker being named Conrad after the Heart of Darkness author. As gunships are swatted out of the skies by Kong’s low tech arsenal of fists and trees, the spectre of the Vietcong and other humiliatingly effective anti-US guerrillas hangs heavy, keeping the ape king relevant and threatening.
Boldly bonkers set-pieces – and a violent butchering of the cast that really pushes the 12a rating – keep things moving along excitingly, (a trip through a monster boneyard is particularly tense), making up for the subpar writing and acting that is found elsewhere. Whenever a stolid performance or half-baked romantic subplot threaten to derail the film, there’s always a monster punch-up, John C Reilly scene, or simply a spectacularly colourful shot to ensure that for fans of Big Movies, Skull Island is just about a worthwhile trip to the cinema.