Kong: Skull Island

Year: 2017
Production Co: Legendary Entertainment
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Producer: Thomas Tull/Mary Parent
Writer: Dan Gilroy/Max Borenstein/Derek Connolly/John Gatins
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L Jackson, Corey Hawkins, John C Reilly, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell, Thomas Mann, Richard Jenkins, Terry Notary

A personal disclaimer – I love anything to do with King Kong. As a 70s child, the spell John Guillermin's 1976 film cast over me as a kid was one of the formative movie watching experiences of my life, the same way the directors in the generation above mine came of age with their imaginations captured by the 1933 original.

If you saw that film as a young kid in the seventies there's every chance you would have found it stupid, the moviemaking technology of the day (stop motion claymation) looking dumb and fake rather than charming, whereas the moviemaking technology of the mid 1970s (albeit Rick Baker in a rubber and yak hair suit) was up to the minute and a giant gorilla rampaging across New York had never looked so real.

As such, the frisson of excitement I feel at the prospect of any giant monster movie (anything from the Godzilla canon to the adaptation of forthcoming giant monster video game Rampage) is a direct result of my love for King Kong.

But for a monster movie purist, Kong: Skull Island had several things counting against it. Like the movies of the MCU it's only there to set up a franchise, which has the effect of lowering the stakes (although with no real major characters from Warner Bros' planned kaiju/MUTO-universe yet established, anything could happen).

Second, by virtue of Kong's size and the action on screen, it was only going to be possible using CGI. And as plenty of other movies have shown this year there's nothing worse than a studio that scrimps on the essentials because they're counting on fans who love other iterations of the story to show up (Beauty and the Beast, et al).

It also had a fairly untested director in Jordan Vogt-Roberts, but as tentpole movies like Jurassic World or Rogue One tend to prove nowadays, they're shepherded just as much by powerful studio and marketing executives with a very pre-determined plan.

The story takes place in 1973, the America withdrawal from Vietnam just beginning. Scientists Randa (John Goodman) and Brooks (Corey Hawkins, who played Dr Dre in Straight Outta Compton) are from research outfit Monarch (a company that's very much on the skids but will become to the series what SHIELD is to Marvel), and they approach a harried senator (Richard Jenkins) after one more favour before their cachet in Washington runs out. They've found an island never seen by modern man in the South Pacific, hidden behind a perpetual storm system and which they believe will contain resources critical to the continued supremacy of the US.

He reluctantly agrees and Randa and Brooks recruit their team. First is their military escort, a chopper squadron told they can finally go home led by no-nonsense Colonel Packard (Samuel L Jackson), who's bitter at losing the war and who just wants something – anything – to fight to take away the sting. They find a tracker in skilled, tough-guy British mercenary Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and photojournalist Weaver (Brie Larson) gets passage on their ship after being tipped off by contacts.

The scientists, soldiers, heroes and suits pierce the gigantic storm and find what looks like an unspoiled jungle paradise on the other side, and in the first clever parallel to Vietnam (aside from it just being set in the era), they immediately start to drop bombs.

Randa and Brooks are actually working on a secret project based on their theory about hollow earth chambers where gigantic ancient beasts live, and they believe Skull Island is one such portal where they can come up to Earth. Having been cut off for millions of years, it's now it's own giant animal ecosystem.

But the bombs they drop to take seismic readings and confirm it all disturb the most iconic of MUTOs, Kong. As the choppers fly over and decimate virgin jungle he attacks, swatting them out of the sky like flies and leaving the team strewn and cut off over square miles of dangerous territory.

As they all try to reestablish contact and find each other the horrors of Skull Island decend, from spiders the height of apartment buildings to the hideous and bloodthirsty two legged lizard things Kong keeps at bay.

They're actually termed skull crawlers by Marlow (John C Reilly), a WWII-era combat pilot who crashed on the shore of Skull Island and has gone native (and a bit loco) ever since. When some of the expedition comes across the home of he and his enigmatic native hosts he becomes their local guide, but he also represents their only chance to escape. The pick-up point on the north side of the island is now seemingly too far away on foot, but they just might make it out on the boat Marlow's built from the remains of his P51 fighter.

After losing so many of his men to Kong, Packard wants nothing more than to hunt down and kill every giant and strange creature but as Marlow explains, Kong's actually a protector. As long as he's around, the skullcrawlers are reluctant to surface – without him, there'd be nothing standing between them and the rest of the world. While they all try to escape, Packard is gunning for blood, and the race morphs into the effort to stop him before he kills them all.

The story isn't the most original or exciting you've seen lately, and most of the performances are nothing to write home about either. In fact it's really surprising how bland Tom Hiddleston and Oscar winner Brie Larson are in their roles. It might be because there's too much else going on or it might be the script, but they tend to fade against the wallpaper of the rest of the movie.

But aside from the obstacles in the film's outlook and the stumbles in its execution, Kong: Sull Island is a monumentally enjoyable ride for several reasons. First is the visuals – there are plenty of big budget popcorn movies that are more about the visuals than the tale and still end up dull because we've seen it all a hundred times before, but the imagery here is at times quite stunning.

Several shots are so well composed they approach the best work of Stanley Kubrick or David Lean and director Vogt-Roberts agrees, making liberal use of slo-mo in several sequences to give you the full bravura effect. He also brings a film nerd sensibility to it, having confirmed on Twitter that the spider legs scene is indeed a reference to Cannibal Holocaust.

The Mondo-like image on the poster, of Kong's silouhette rising against the sun while Hueys close in, promised great things from the visuals, and the movie more than delivers on them. When most films struggle to include a single well-composed frame that can stand alone to represent it (Wonder Woman rising over the trench battlements to charge No Man's Land, Rose and Jack arm in arm on the bow of the Titanic, ET and Elliot flying across the full moon), Kong: Skull Island is full of moments you could freeze and make gorgeous posters out of.

Vogt-Roberts has also said he started the whole process of making the movie not with the script but with concept art, and it shows. There are lots of sequences with bright single colours, every set piece give its own language in movement and shade.

As it features a giant gorilla, several giant two-legged lizard/crocodile things and with plenty of the action taking place in shallow water, there's also obviously a lot of CGI, and it's mostly top notch. The skullcrawlers are well-rendered and realistic even if the designs of the creatures themselves is a bit ordinary.

But Kong very much earns the title of lead character. Where Rick Baker's rubber suit was humanlike and had real weight and Peter Jackson's 2005 effort was of an aged, battle-weary animal full of brute force, this Kong is more compact, seeming to be younger and more dynamic, the movement of his hair and his interaction with the water and other animals cutting edge (the scene of his fishing for and eating a giant octopus showcases the talent of the VFX operators more than the climatic fight in many ways, and it's another geeky movie reference).

What gives Kong: Skull Island another creative lift is the setting and period. Having the film take place in the early 70s doesn't just allow for set dressing and plot details, like the way the soldiers are dressed as if they just stepped off the set of Platoon or Apocalypse Now.

It's infused into everything from lines in the script to the liberal use of music from the era and it gives the whole film a real sense of personality most tentpole adventure films lack. Whether it's all Vogt-Roberts or the script – co-written by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Max Borenstein (Godzilla) and Derek Connolly (Jurassic World) from a story by John Gatins (Flight) – there's a tremendous sense of swagger when most CGI event films feel flat and weightless.

There's a new race in Hollywood – the connected universe. Marvel is still way out in front, DC have made real gains with Wonder Woman after trailing the pack for a long time and Universal have tripped and fallen straight over at the finish line with The Mummy, but now there's a new entrant who might surprise everyone with Kong, Godzilla and the rest of the MUTO universe.

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