I’ve long had a soft spot for King Kong. I saw the original movie – on TV – when I was very young and instantly fell for Willis O Brian’s famous stop-motion creation; and I’m one of those people who adored Peter Jackson’s affectionate and brilliantly crafted reboot of the story. So the news that Kong: Skull Island was on the cinematic horizon, as a taster to his grudge match with Godzilla, some time next year, was greeted with a certain amount of cautious anticipation.
This standalone creature feature is a bit of an oddity, a curious mash-up of classic Kong and, of all things, Apocalypse Now. Set in 1973, just after America’s hasty departure from the Vietnam War, we learn of a proposed expedition to an uncharted island in the South Pacific, led by Bill Randa (John Goodman). Randa claims he’s looking for rare minerals but it’s clear from the outset that he has a hidden agenda. He enlists the help of Vietnam veteran Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and his helicopter platoon to ferry the necessary equipment through the perpetual electrical storm that cloaks the island and, he also ropes in survival expert, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston as the poshest mercenary in history) plus photo journalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to record everything that happens on the trip. The helicopters go in, not to the strains of Wagner, but to the 70s rock soundtrack of Creedence Clearwater Revival and they drop a series of explosive charges on the island in order to scare up anything that might be hiding in the undergrowth. Whereupon, the titular 100 ft tall ape appears out of the smoke and gives the platoon a right royal kicking.
Kong, as imagined by Industrial Light & magic, is a truly magnificent specimen; and as the survivors of the initial assault soon discover, he’s only one of the gigantic creatures that inhabit Skull Island. Worst of all are the Skull Crawlers, hideous two legged lizards that occasionally emerge from underground intent on eating anything they can find. (They ate Kong’s parents so naturally, he bears the a lot of ill will).
OK, so this isn’t exactly a perfect film. The large human cast are inevitably dwarfed by the gigantic creatures pursuing them and any attempts at characterisation can only be sketched in with the broadest of brush strokes. (It’s interesting to note that Jackson’s film spent the best part of an hour with the human characters before they even reached Skull Island, but then he had three hours to play with). And really there are a lot of humans to consider here , though best of the bunch is undoubtedly John C Riley as Hank Marlow, a World War 2 pilot who has been marooned on the island for twenty eight years and who has gone slightly loopy waiting for rescue. (Marlow bears more than a passing resemblance to Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now, and this cannot be a coincidence – nor the fact that Hiddleston’s character is called Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness on which Apocalypse Now is based).
At any rate, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does a decent job of stitching it all together. There’s enough references to the original to keep fan boys like me happy and enough major characters being offed to keep me on the edge of my seat. I also loved the audacious twist on the ‘soldier sacrificing himself in a blaze of glory’ trope towards the film’s conclusion, which seemed to spell out how futile such gestures are.
This won’t please everyone, but I have to say I was entertained enough and occasionally thrilled by a concept which dared to throw so many new ideas at a classic storyline, that some of them had to stick. Skull Island is a fun place to visit and Kong is still my favourite movie monster.