Monster movies were my jam back when I was a kid. Just seeing two colossal creatures beating each other with whatever environment they are in at their disposal was such an incredible delight. With fantastic examples like the various Godzilla films, King Kong films, Mighty Peking Man, The Host (2006) and War of the Gargantuas, it just goes to show that sometimes, the simplest pleasures can be the best.
And it seems that Western films are getting back into the genre, with sterling examples like Cloverfield, Peter Jackson‘s King Kong, Pacific Rim and of course, the latest Godzilla entry. And now we have the latest reiteration of Kong with Kong: Skull Island. With an up-and-rising director (this being Vogt-Roberts‘ first studio film), a vast and talented supporting cast (with multiple Oscar winner/nominated actors and rising stars) and a huge budget (almost $200 million) at their disposal, will this be the entertaining monster mash the trailers hint at?
Set in 1973, Tom Hiddleston plays James Conrad, a former British Special Air Force captain who served in the Vietnam War, who is hired by William “Bill” Randa (John Goodman), a senior official for Monarch, a secret government organization, to head an expedition to go to an uncharted island for extensive research.
Those who come along in the expedition include army personnel like Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) a US Lieutenant Colonel and leader of his helicopter squadron (consisting of Toby Kebbell, Thomas Mann, Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell and others); Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a war photojournalist and peace activist and Houston Brooks and San Lin (Corey Hawkins and Jing Tian), whom both work for Monarch, and others.
As they arrive on the island, they quickly realise that they have stepped in a place that they should have never stepped in, as the inhabitant known as Kong (motion-captured by Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell) takes a stand to defend his land from the intruders. While the expedition crew makes plans to fight for survival against Kong and the other monsters on the island, some of them begin to see that Kong is worth saving.
Let’s get one thing straight: this film does not have the tone of Gareth Edwards‘ Godzilla. So for those who want their monster films dark and serious would probably be deterred by the film’s lighter tone. But for those who relish the campy, silly monster films of yore will be highly entertained.
The trailers for the film promise loads of monster battles and boy, do we get them! Unlike the relentless teasing of showing Godzilla in the 2014 film, Kong is shown in the very first scene and has a constant presence throughout the film. The action scenes are plentiful, distinct, and pack a massive punch.
The scene where Kong appears before the expedition crew for the first time is the highlight of the film. Other action scenes include giant insects, pterodactyls, octopi and of course, the Skullcrawlers, and they are spectacular to behold, thanks to Jordan Vogt-Roberts‘ direction, Larry Fong‘s graphic novel-like cinematography and John Dykstra‘s handling of the special effects. There are some inventive touches in the action scenes that also add to the fun like the use of a flashing camera or the use of toxic gas.
Speaking of Vogt-Roberts, it is very clear that he is a huge fan of genre cinema and animation, particularly with Studio Ghibli. Besides the obvious references to Apocalypse Now and Platoon, the visual splendour and film-making references acclaimed animated films like Princess Mononoke (the settings and monsters), Spirited Away (the monsters) and even Laputa: Castle in the Sky (the scene where the expedition crew go through the storm to enter the island).
Although the splendour may interfere with the logic in the story (would anyone stand still if an explosion happened that close?), thankfully, the film doesn’t really take itself seriously, therefore the splendour always adds to the fun. I also liked the fact there are no shoehorned references or excessive foreshadowing to future films, unlike films of other established universes.
The violence of the film is also a surprise that actually shocked me quite a bit. Considering that this is an M-rated film, the implications of said violent scenes still make a huge impact, like how a soldier meets his end with an incoming helicopter and another in a bamboo forest.
Speaking of the lighter tone, contrary to the 2014 Godzilla film, Kong: Skull Island actually has a sense of humour. Everyone in the film clearly knows the ridiculousness of the story and the premise and they all have fun with it. So much so, that it’s quite hard to believe that this film is set in the same universe as the 2014 Godzilla film.
Almost every monster film has weak characterisations and Kong: Skull Island is no exception. Fortunately, the majority of the ensemble cast are all charismatic enough to stand out regardless. Tom Hiddleston basically reprises his role from The Night Manager as James Conrad; meaning that he gives a stoic, heroic and controlled performance that suits the film. Brie Larson capably exudes charm, sympathy and some much-needed wit to the proceedings, while John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson chew some scenery with gusto.
The majority of the supporting cast have their moments like Corey Hawkins as a passionate geologist and Thomas Mann, who gives an amusing performance that is clearly inspired by Bill Paxton‘s performance in Aliens while Shea Whigham and Jason Mitchell are an amusing duo with their banter. Toby Kebbell is fine as the sympathetic family man of the squadron, but he isn’t given much to do, probably because he was too busy helping out with the motion-capture process of the film.
It doesn’t excuse the wasted talent of Jing Tian, who contributes nothing to the film. It’s a shame because she has made big impressions as an action heroine in films like Special ID and The Great Wall. She is basically a shoehorned plug-in for the China market (since one of the production companies for the film is a Chinese film company), therefore she ends up joining the list of highly talented, yet wasted actors like Zhang Jingchu (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), Fan Bing-bing and Wang Xueqi (Iron Man 3).
Fortunately, the film compensates with John C. Reilly, who is the standout of the film. The trailers seem to hint that he was cast in the film for comic relief, but he ends up more than that and registers as a convincing action hero. His character has a solid backstory and also has a scene during the credits that was surprisingly poignant.
As for flaws, alongside the thin characterisations, the light tone can sometimes conflict with the serious parts of the film, which can confuse some on how to react. There’s a scene involving Shea Whigham‘s character that felt so out of place that I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be taken seriously or it was meant to be funny. Although the film lacks an emotional through-line unlike the last Kong film, it makes up for it with fun.
Overall, Kong: Skull Island was a lot of fun, with many spectacular monster battles, a likeable ensemble cast, outstanding visual splendour and a standout performance from John C. Reilly. Don’t leave the film during the credits, as there is a scene proceeding it for your pleasure.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Kong: Skull Island hits Australian cinemas on March 9th.