1933’s King Kong is arguably the classic, pioneering monster movie. Its innovative use of stop-motion and thrilling storyline make it a riveting watch even to this day, while its themes of man versus beast and civilisation versus savagery give it an extra intellectual edge.
The character of Kong has appeared in a number of films since, including a series of Japanese monster movies where he squares off against various monsters including the so-called King – Godzilla himself. Now Kong has returned in a post-Vietnam war jungle adventure saga, once again showing that there are places where man does not belong.
The movie opens in 1944 with a downed U.S. airman (Will Brittain) and Japanese fighter pilot (Miyavi) engaged in hand-to-hand combat on a desolate jungle island, until their fight is interrupted by a monstrously giant ape that doesn’t seem too happy.
We then cut to 1973 as the Vietnam War ends, where Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are trying to convince Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins) to fund one last research mission. Randa and Brooks are from Monarch – a secret government organisation that looks for unknown monsters. An inaccessible, and legendary, island has been spotted by satellite. It is surrounded by a non-stop hurricane, but Randa and Brooks believe there is a brief window that they can use to get through it, explore the island and get out. Its name: Skull Island.
They convince the senator and get a military escort – headed by the “tightly wound”, “decorated war-hero” Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Packard is a man with a drawer full of medals and the belief that the Vietnam War was abandoned, not lost, and who is delighted by the chance to go on one last mission, no matter what it is.
Randa and Brooks also recruit James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a decommissioned British SAS captain, who is an expert navigator of unknown jungle terrain. Conrad is suspicious, especially as Randa and Brooks refer to the mission as merely being a mapping one, although it is one they’re willing to pay a lot of money for. His suspicions only increase on discovering that the mission has a fully armed military escort. They are joined by Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), an award-winning anti-war photographer, who also thinks something’s up.
After flying through a nightmare electrical storm, the team arrives on the idyllic-seeming island, where they proceed to drop bombs, sorry “seismic instruments”, to map the earth. Everything’s going to plan, until a very large and very angry ape arrives, who proceeds to annihilate the military forces.
The survivors are split into three groups: one led by Packard, who has sworn revenge; one led by Conrad, who wants to survive; and one that’s just Major Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell), and an awful lot of heavy-duty firepower.
Along the way the survivors meet giant spiders, pterodactyls, giant water buffalo, silent natives and Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), the U.S. airman who crashed at the beginning of the film and who has gone a little bit crazy.
Kong: Skull Island is a rip-roaring adventure movie of a bygone era, one that doesn’t stint on epic-CGI slugfests, and where the humans are only nominally the leads. It draws on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and that movie’s source material, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to pit man against nature, but also man against man. The soundtrack is full of 1970s music and much of the cinematography deliberately references Coppola’s film.
Packard is part Kurtz, part Bill “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning” Kilgore (Robert Duvall), and part Captain Ahab, from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – a man who doesn’t know what to do with peace, and who is thrilled to fight again.
In a switch of roles, the female lead is not the actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray in the original or Naomi Watts in Peter Jackson’s 2005 version), but a photographer. And instead of being photographed, she’s the one taking the photographs, and is no longer a damsel in distress, but an action woman.
Kong: Skull Island is impressive entertainment. Media reports indicate that it is part of an attempt to build a shared universe of monster movies, called the MonsterVerse. 2014’s Godzilla was the first in this series.