Orson Welles once memorably commented that films should be made with innocence (something we rarely see now, sadly – we live in a time when films are made by marketing committees!) and Kong: Skull Island is a fine example of a film made for the right reasons.
It has been described as a reboot of the classic film, but aside from the obvious, the fact that it features Skull Island and Kong, I feel this Kong is very much its own beast. The direction by Jordan Vogt-Roberts is excellent; he brings an indie filmmaker’s eye for nuance and detail to a blockbuster film. A fine ensemble cast – including Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson and John Goodman – adds colour to the film.
We are introduced to Kong very early in the film, which worked well for me: During World War 2, a Japanese and American pilot down each other’s planes and continue their fight until Kong puts them (and their war!) into perspective. Like everything that happens in the film, their presence is an important part of the plot and story.
We then flash forward to 1973. The Vietnam War is over, and the Landsat program has found Skull Island, uncharted, and surrounded by its own dangerous weather system that has concealed it from the outside world until now. A certain Bill Rada (John Goodman), who is secretly a member of an organisation called Monarch that wants to prove the existence of monsters, convinces a US Senator to green-light a scientific mission to Skull Island, along with a military escort. Their escort is a Vietnam War Air Cavalry Squadron called the Sky Devils, led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard, played by Samuel Jackson, who, channelling his inner Kurtz, is more frightening than Kong in many scenes!
On reaching the island, they bomb it! Ostensibly to seismically map it, but really so Rada can draw out Kong. In a metalized nod to Apocalypse Now, the Sky Devils attack, not to the sound of Wagner, but to Black Sabbath, which pleased me very much. And draw Kong they do, in the mother of all helicopter battles!
I won’t give away any more of the plot, save to say that there are far worse things than Kong on Skull Island. In fact, I could easily see sequels set there; it’s really well set up.
The characters are really well sketched, just enough about each one to give them character without clutter. The visual effects are flawless, and there is a great imagination shown throughout the film. A fight with monsters in a graveyard of giant ape skeletons is truly surreal and original.
Moreover, there are nods to a lot of classic films and pulp fiction, such as the hollow earth tales of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. In fact, it owes a lot to a splendid film of my childhood called The Land That Time Forgot, a film I’d love to see remade with modern effects but retaining its original excellent Michael Moorcock script.* It also owes something to Predator and Apocalypse Now.
I think Kong: Skull Island will stand the test of time, and I agree with Mark Kermode: there is more to it than a regular blockbuster, little touches like Preston looking at a box of medals and dog tags and wondering, sadly, what was Vietnam for. Or, having The Stooges and David Bowie on the soundtrack, and not in the background but as part of the story. And I love the scene where we meet Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) in a bar with “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane playing; it instantly invokes a period in time and space.
The last film I saw in the cinema I enjoyed as much was Mad Max: Fury Road. Kong: Skull Island has the same ability as that film to transport the viewer from reality for a couple of hours and that truly is the magic of cinema!
* Interesting piece of trivia, in his diaries Michael Palin records filming Jabberwocky with Terry Gilliam directing at Pinewood when he spotted the submarine prop from The Land That Time Forgot. He told the crew his boys would love that to play with, and thought no more of it – it was just a throwaway comment. The next day the Pinewood crew dropped it off at his house, and there his boys played with for many summers!