King Kong’s story has been told and retold many times, and the tale of the noble great ape is one that Hollywood keeps returning to. The premise is always the same, more or less: expedition discovers enormous gorilla, gorilla goes bananas, mayhem ensues, everyone escape the island. There are variations on that idea, of course, but that’s how things generally go down.
KONG: SKULL ISLAND doesn’t really break the mould, in the sense that it follows the formulaic story template. As the Vietnam War ends, John Goodman and Corey Hawkins – representatives of Monarch – seek approval to mount an expedition to the mysterious Skull Island. If they don’t get it, the Russians might well be planning their own operation. Against the odds, they receive government approval. Supported by Tom Hiddleston’s James Conrad, and Samuel L Jackson’s Colonel Packard, the expedition arrives on the Island by helicopter. Almost immediately, Monarch’s intentions are revealed: they intend to bait the mighty Kong with seismic charges. But Kong has ideas of his own…
KONG is a real monster movie throwback. It’s light on plot, and the above summary more of less describes what happens: the arrival at Skull Island is all action, the middle devolves into a journey across the Island, and the end is very predictable. Whilst Hiddleston and Jackson’s characters receive a degree of attention in the character arc department (more so Jackson’s Packard, really), the rest of the cast is more two-dimensional. Many characters felt, to me, as though they were window dressing for the many monsters of Skull Island – warm bodies to be slain in increasingly unusual ways.
But let’s be honest: if you go to see KONG, it isn’t for the films nuanced plot or multi-layered characters. It’s because you want to see a giant gorilla blowing things up and fighting other monsters. So, does KONG deliver in the action department?
The answers to that question is a resounding “yes”. The cinematography and development of the Sky Devil’s – Packard’s helicopter squadron – is pure awesome. It has strong echoes of the air cavalry scenes from APOCALYPSE NOW, and these scenes are beautifully shot. When Kong arrives, and starts plucking the ‘copters from the air, things get even more interesting. Coupled with the period soundtrack, this segment of the film is worth the ticket price alone.
If you’re swayed by those sorts of things, the special effects are also excellent. As with most renditions of Kong’s home, Skull Island is crammed with other exotic nasties – from building-sized spiders to flying lizards. Kong has suitably threatening enemies, and the characters are caught in the midst of some pretty epic showdowns. I watched the film in 3D, and the experience was appropriately visceral!
A word of warning about the violence and language in KONG. In the UK, the 12A rating seems to be a catch-all for almost all action-based films these days. From super hero films to space adventures, 12A is the rating that producers and studios are increasingly aiming for. But that certification is a pretty broad band: viewers should be aware that KONG is certainly towards the upper end of bracket in terms of violence. A couple of deaths in particular are graphic, and I felt that they stretched the boundaries for a 12A movie. Be warned if you’re thinking of taking children to the film…
One element that is largely – although not entirely – missing from KONG: SKULL ISLAND is the heroine falling for (or being captured by) Kong. Brie Larson plays the main (though not only) female character. She is rescued by Kong, but the semi-romantic connection between the female lead and Kong found in many other versions of the mythos is not as pronounced in SKULL ISLAND. Personally, I always found that part of the story very weird anyway, and I think that this being more muted is a smart move. That element of the Kong story has become seriously dated, and perhaps reflects a more sexist era of film-making. Mason Weaver’s character is far more independent, and her interaction with Kong feels less dated, than in many other reinventions of the story.
Overall, KONG: SKULL ISLAND is a nice retro throwback to a simpler era of story telling. It has some excellent effects and it’s very good fun.