Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Writers: Dan Gilroy (screenplay), Max Borenstein (screenplay)
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.
So the three big oddities that strike me ahead of watching Kong Skull Island are….
- This film boasts a seriously reputable cast. Like seriously. Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John C Reilly and Samuel L Jackson. What on earth are they doing in this?!
- The director has a series of comedic episodes in his CV and limited feature film experience. Is this a case of Warner Bros borrowing from the Marvel school of giving a fresh director a shot at making the next Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor Ragnarok?
- That enormous ape actually looks pretty boss.
I watched the film in the distributor’s theatrette and can safely say this is a hugely entertaining blockbuster.
The memory of the Godawful Godzilla can finally be laid to rest with this stunning new entry in the Toho Universe. I actually remember that film in a far poorer light than my review indicates. I was also surprised to see the Australian Box Office numbers for Godzilla at a respectable $13 Million USD, debuting at #1 with over $6 Million US and staying in the top ten for 4 weeks back in May 2014.
Kong: Skull Island (KSI) understands everything it needs to deliver to a global audience to reintroduce one of the big screen’s biggest and most classic characters – King Kong.
With origins as far back as 1933, King Kong is a story that benefits from the huge leaps in technology that allow filmmakers to create ever more realistic cinematic environments and characters.
KSI kicks off in 1944 as not one but two planes are shot down over a gigantic beach.
Parachuting to earth, we see that the aircraft pilots are from opposing sides of WW2.
Barely sixty seconds into the film and already director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriters Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein are inviting us to laugh out loud as the US pilot draws a pistol on his Japanese adversary only to fire every bullet in his weapon without hitting his mark once.
The Japanese soldier pulls out his sidearm and the pair commence a race for their lives through a jungle adjacent to the beach.
Arriving at the edge of a cliff for some hand to hand combat making effective use of a samurai sword and a Japanese ceremonial dagger, the pair are interrupted by our titular creature. We get only the most basic glimpse of Kong as the opening credits roll.
The credits which artistically represent each era they depict, serve a narrative purpose, covering off factual and fictional events through the decades as we arrive at 1973 and the announcement that hostilities in Vietnam are at a close.
Two scientists, John Goodman as William “Bill” Randa, a senior official in the government organization Monarch and Corey Hawkins as Houston Brooks, a young geologist and graduate of Yale University are arguing with Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins) about grant money to explore Skull Island, eventually winning out because it’s either “Us, or the Russians”.
Of course, they are going to need a military escort and we head to Asia to meet one of the film’s primary protagonists –Samuel L. Jackson as Preston Packard, an United States Army Lieutenant Colonel and leader of the Sky Devils helicopter squadron who readily accepts the mission despite being cleared by his superior to head home if he wants to instead.
It’s no accident that Tarantino’s High Priest of the Big Screen has been cast in this role. Jackson’s ability to turn laughable dialogue into something weighty is of enormous assistance in this smashing monster movie.
Naturally, he’s got a grudge as we learn when the remainder of the escort party are assembled –Tom Hiddleston as James Conrad, a disillusioned former British Special Air Service Captain who served in the Vietnam War, hired as a hunter-tracker for the expedition by Randa and Brie Larson as Mason Weaver, a war photojournalist and peace activist. Jackson explains to Larson as they get set to head off, “We didn’t lose the war – we abandoned it”.
The assorted personnel board a ship and make their way to the South Pacific island (a mic of Hawaii and Vietnam) where they reach a weather front straight out of A Perfect Storm. (Which is no accident as I’ll get to shortly).
The two Monarch employees insist on proceeding despite inclement weather and the choppers fly out towards the ominous and impenetrable looking wall.
Enveloped by black storm clouds, Jackson recites a story about Icarus, a not so subtle nod to his Ezekiel 25:17 rant in Pulp Fiction.
As they make it through the clouds and arrive at the fabled island, they quickly set up base camp before flying off to drop ordinance across the landscape and it’s not long before we meet Kong in all his glory.
Incensed by the incoming incendiaries, he sets about demolishing as many helicopters as he can get his paws on obliterating the majority of the craft.
The surviving cast members hit the ground and are split into two groups. One party led by Packard and including Randa and most of the surviving soldiers land in one area, while Conrad, Weaver and a handful of others including Brooks and Jing Tian as San Lin, a young biologist working for Monarch round out the second group.
Repeated snatches of dialogue address the elephant in the room – “So we’re not going to discuss what just happened”, as the story keeps moving ahead at full speed.
The civilian party begin to trek through the jungle towards their scheduled departure point in the island’s north, while Packard creates his own agenda to embark on a quest to destroy the beast that just eliminated most of his men.
Journeying across the inhospitable land, the first party stumble across a most unexpected inhabitant of the island and the film truly finds its feet as we are reacquainted with one of the downed pilots from the film’s opening scene and he explains the lay of the land.
KSI is a film that invites you to laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of the situation, a joyous consideration noticeably absent from dour fare like Godzilla and Peter Jacksons King Kong.
The experience and ability of performers like Hiddleston who has brought his Englishness to Loki in the MCU, Jackson who can walk the tightrope between any Tarantino masterpiece and a Snakes on a Plane cult film, Larson who took home an Oscar last year for her incredible turn in Room, and lastly the enormously underrated John C Reilly, who was a standout in A Perfect Storm, and is resplendent here as his own interpretation of Hanks Castaway, complete with a 30 year old beard elevate KSI into a whole new class of film.
It can’t be a coincidence that this image above is almost identical to this one…
Reilly’s appearance as a castaway even more bedraggled than Hanks in that film is just one of many references the director has littered throughout the film as an homage to great films that came before. Shades of Apocalypse Now, Apocalypto and even Rambo infuse KSI with a historical cinematic richness that adds to the immense enjoyment of watching this one on the big screen.
John Goodman, a human exclamation point, draws on his Big Lebowski character Walter Sobchak as a reminder of his previous on-screen time as a Vietnam vet as well as his bombastic turn in Argo.
The cinematography is stunning, breathing life into the jungles of Hawaii, no wonder Larry Fong’s credits include Lost, as well as Super 8 and Watchmen. Art direction and costume design are so thoroughly executed, they make very single detail feel authentic and the amount of fun to be had with this film is almost limitless.
It is a world I would be delighted to return to, and with that in mind do stick around for the end of the credits for a taste of what is to come.
Special mention too for the soundtrack which manages to tap into that Vietnam era musical hit list featuring Black Sabbath, David Bowie and more.
I can’t remember the last screening where the laughter was so universal as my audience of critics soaked up every invitation to join in the gags alonfilmmakersfilm makers, while also going for one heck of a ride.
As good as the best rides in Disneyland, KSI is a welcome arrival in the Toho legacy and I look forward to the next instalment.
4 Stars. The Biggest Movie of the Year. Fun With a Capital FU.