Kong: Skull Island

Posted: March 25, 2017 in Film reviews

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson, John Goodman and John C. Reilly.


Kong’s toy helicopter was his best Christmas present ever!

In 1944 an aerial duel ends with an American and a Japanese pilot having to bale out onto a nearby island. Initially they continue their battle on the ground, until interrupted by the arrival of an ape…a very BIG ape.

Flash forward to 1973 and satellites have recently begun to photograph every inch of the Earth’s surface, in the process they have discovered a hitherto unknown island which Bill Randa (Goodman) the head of an organization named Monarch believes is the mythical Skull Island. Persuading his bosses to let him tag along on a mission to the island Randa and his colleagues hire ex-SAS tracker James Conrad (Hiddleston) to accompany them. Also making the journey is Mason Weaver (Larson) a photojournalist who’s also managed to wrangle her way onto the trip.

Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson) is leader of a special helicopter unit of the US army, and he and his men are tasked with ferrying the scientists onto the island, and providing security for them whilst there. As the helicopters reach Skull Island however, and begin dropping seismic charges which are supposed to help in mapping the geology of the island, they attract the attention of an ape…a very BIG ape!


Since his first appearance in 1933, Kong has been a big (sorry) deal. His exploits in climbing the Empire State Building, Fay Wray in hand, and of swatting at attacking biplanes rank amongst the most iconic of movie images. It was never in doubt that Kong would return, but I wonder how many of those who saw that first film eighty plus years ago would imagine that King Kong would still be around today?

The last time we saw Kong was 12 years ago in Peter Jackson’s incredibly bloated 3 hour epic that managed to completely miss the point about what made the original such a hit, namely that it wasn’t some grand sweeping epic, it was, effectively, a B movie (even if that term probably didn’t exist back then). Thankfully Skull Island has no pretensions of being a ‘proper’ film. It knows it’s ridiculous, embraces this fact and rolls with it, and whilst I can see why some people haven’t enjoyed it, I think that if you switch off your brain and roll right along with it there’s plenty to enjoy here.

I’d have loved to have been at the pitch meeting where presumably someone uttered the phrase “It’s King Kong meets Apocalypse Now!” or something similar (surely no coincidence that Hiddleston’s character is named Conrad) , and the early seventies setting suits the film perfectly, giving us something different from the 1930s setting of both the original and Jackson’s reboot, whilst still putting the film into an historical context that allows for a degree of mystery that might be missing if the film had been set in today’s interconnected world where satellites can see every inch of the globe and everyone has a camera in their pocket.

The post-Vietnam setting also provides some interesting narrative hooks about the nature of war, the inability of some soldiers to accept defeat, and the folly of attacking an enemy fighting to defend its home, and whilst it isn’t exactly subtle, and perhaps doesn’t quite follow through on some of the interesting ideas it sparks, this isn’t quite the throwaway action/adventure film it might have been.


“You ever read the Bible, Kong?”

As leader of the army faction Jackson tones things down (just a fraction) to make Packard a relatable antagonist, he’s a man who was sent to fight a war then told he had to stop before he could win it. As he says on at least one occasion, “we’re going to win this war!” Less Colonel Kurtz than Captain Ahab he’s as almost as dangerous an enemy as the giant lizards that live under Skull Island.

As Weaver Larson acts her socks off, expressing wide eyed amazement at everything she sees. Though her billing doesn’t reflect it, in some ways she’s the film’s lead—at least the film’s human lead—providing an emotional core and, much like Wray in 1933 and Watts in 2005, being the one to forge a connection with Kong. She’s no damsel in distress however, and despite wielding a camera instead of a gun she’s no shrinking violet and has a lot of agency.

Some reviewers have taken umbrage with Reilly’s marooned aviator, but I really liked his character and I thought he, like Larson, added a lot of emotional heft to the film, some people have thought he didn’t fit tonally but, at the end of the day, it’s a film about a giant ape and an island full of monsters, and you need larger than life characters.

If there’s a weak link it’s oddly Hiddleston. He’s a good actor, and has proven he can convince as an action hero, but his former SAS captain feels a little too modern. He’s too smooth and too buff, and it doesn’t help that his character is wafer thin, and one can’t help but think someone a little earthier, Tom Hardy perhaps, might have been more convincing.


Well Loki what we have here…

At its heart Skull Island is, in part, a war film, albeit one more like Predator than Saving Private Ryan, and part of its success is down to providing characters who could just be cannon fodder with personality. In fact some of the most amusing scenes in the film come courtesy of Shea Whigham and Jason Mitchell’s sardonic double act.

Kong is the star of the show however. He might not be quite as expressive and emotional as the Kong from Jackson’s film, but he has less screen time to engage with the audience, yet still does. Which isn’t to say Kong is a shrinking violet the audience barely sees, in what some have cited as a brave move we see Kong very early on. I don’t see why this is a problem, we know what Kong looks like so let’s get him out there front and centre early on, it certainly helps make this a much more enjoyable experience than Gareth Edwards’ drab Godzilla, which featured a great creature we barely saw, and there are plenty of other creatures to sneak up on us.

The pacing is good, the cinematography superb, evoking films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon etc. and the effects are for the most part excellent, though in places a little shaky. It’s worth staying for the end of credits scene, although this does mean sitting through a lot of credits I’m afraid.

Maybe it’s a tad too throwaway, and time will tell how rewatchable it is, but for me it’s the most enjoyable monster movie in a long time. Long live Kong!


  1. I think Kong was always going to be a problematic film for Jackson to remake because of the ‘primitive natives’ part of the narrative – which he got round to a degree with the introduction of inbreeding, but it wasn’t 100% successful IMO. It’d be interesting to see a Kong film made by an actual Polynesian writer/director.

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