Pleading for funding for an expedition to a previously uncharted island discovered by satellite photography in the Pacific Ocean, Bill Randa reasons that if the United States have found it the Russians will not be far behind. With a military escort headed by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard and the Sky Devils helicopter squadron, fresh out of Vietnam, also aboard the vessel are peace activist photojournalist Mason Weaver and former SAS captain James Conrad, now hired by Randa for his hunting skills in the unexplored Skull Island.
Believed to be a mystical “land where God did not finish creation” and shrouded in a perpetual storm system, the banner of the mission is Landsat, charting the geology of the island by dropping small explosives and analysing the transmission of the blast through the rock, but pulling the strings is Randa’s Monarch, and what he really seeks he has not told anyone, a reckless omission which will put the entire mission in danger far sooner than he could have expected.
Opening with a prelude set in the South Pacific in 1944, the biggest challenge is not to wash that man out of your hair but the memory of Peter Jackson’s 2005 version of King Kong, a three hour monstrosity of indulgence, ironically structured around the hubris of a showman whose ambition outstrips his ability; fortunately, a decade later, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ tour around Skull Island is superior in every way.
Skipping forward to 1973, the opening titles immediately tie Kong: Skull Island to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla, both in their faux-archive style and the multiple references to monster investigation bureau Monarch, but unlike that film where the ancient alpha predator was not glimpsed until well until the film, indeed deviating from the traditional narrative of King Kong as told in 1933, 1976 and 2005, here Kong is proud to be the star of his own film with an entrance almost too early.
With the human cast headed by a crusty John Goodman as Bill Randa, unlike the incompetent buffoons portrayed in Armageddon he and his seismologist colleague Houston Brooks (The Walking Dead‘s Corey Hawkins) are depicted as intelligent and aware of their strengths and limitations: “We’re just scholars and scientists, we need someone with experience,” Randa explains to Conrad (High-Rise‘s Tom Hiddleston, underplaying with reserved confidence) as he bargains with him.
Immediately suspicious of the stated reason for the expedition and his inclusion on it, on board Conrad meets Weaver (Free Fire‘s Brie Larson) who shares his concerns; their characters established swiftly, Skull Island is an efficient film which delivers the entourage to their verdant destination and strands them there without delay, the extraneous cast eliminated and the survivors joined by Hank Marlow (The Lobster‘s John C Reilly), stranded on the island for three decades.
With scenes set in the United States, Vietnam, Thailand and the South Pacific, while Kong may be confined to Skull Island like Godzilla the film is as global as Monarch’s concern should knowledge of the MUTOs become commonplace, and Kong is not the only threat, the Landsat explosives having woken the dormant Skullcrawlers, vast carnivorous lizards whose narrative role echoes that of the airborne insectoid MUTOs of that film.
A period piece set in the last years when there genuinely could be unexplored tracts of land harbouring prehistoric species, Kong: Skull Island comes complete with authentic hair and moustaches and a cracking soundtrack including David Bowie, Jefferson Airplane and Black Sabbath, Vogt-Roberts allowing the audience to enjoy the wonder of the new land, at times feeling like early Spielberg in all the right ways.
Taking cues from sources as diverse as One Million Years B.C. and Pitch Black, the most apparent influence is Apocalypse Now, the apparently rational Colonel Packard (Cell‘s Samuel L Jackson) unable to escape the disastrous war from which he has just been removed, finding enemies wherever he looks and endorsement for his monomania in Randa, the fight they pick with the mightiest of primates far from righteous and poised to upset the ecosystem of the whole island they have indiscriminately bombed.
While the script by Nightcrawler‘s Dan Gilroy, Godzilla‘s Max Borenstein and Safety Not Guaranteed‘s Derek Connolly maintains momentum it never elevates Kong to heroic stature or truly integrates him with the human characters, and with the third in Legendary Pictures’ “MonsterVerse” already announced nor can the outcome be surprising, but still it towers over his immediately previous starring role, and at eighty four years past his debut Kong can certainly still carry a film.
Kong: Skull Island is now on general release and also screening in IMAX 3D