2017 – USA
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Toby Kebbell, John C. Reilly, Terry Notary
Words: Nathan Scatcherd
A dragonfly lands peacefully on a branch as US army helicopters descend on a lush green jungle, and promptly start dropping bombs on it. The 1973 setting is hammered home by a selection of period-appropriate ‘greatest rock hits’, from Sabbath to Creedence Clearwater Revival to The Stooges. As the lush, seemingly peaceful land is torn asunder, the flames of the destruction are reflected in the shades of a madly grinning soldier. The comments about this new King Kong movie feeling like a giant monster stepped into Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness are ubiquitous, but deserved; Tom Hiddleston’s ultra-capable and unflappable tracker/mercenary character is even called Conrad, and funnily enough, this movie also features a Colonel driven to madness by his inability to mentally leave the battlefield.
Skull Island’s trailers make the action appear perhaps more brainless than it is in the film itself. In giant monster movie tradition, the narrative is trying to Say Something about man’s violent nature – specifically the destruction of that which we don’t understand – and, of course, that the film is set in ‘73 is no accident in this regard; our story takes place just after the American army were defeated in the Vietnam war, and the spectre of that war hangs over much of the proceedings here. This is especially true of Samuel L. Jackson as Colonel Packard, a hardened soldier who carries burning resentment and frustration at America’s loss in Vietnam (at one point referring to it as a war America did not even lose, but “left”), and directs his bottled up fury at Kong.
Of course, such heavy themes are never quite allowed to blossom into anything particularly nuanced while the film is – to be fair, understandably – trying to draw attention to all the weird and horrible ways people die when trapped on a mysterious monster island; an island not home to just the titular ape king we know and love, but a whole host of gigantic insects, monstrous giant squid and pterodactyls with blades for faces. Skull Island is, as the title makes clear, almost a character here in itself, and the look at its wider ecosystem outside of Kong really sells the adventurous action movie vibe the film shoots for and occasionally nails. Skull Island isn’t trying to be a grand operatic tragedy like the original King Kong, or the admirable if overlong Peter Jackson film – it may have some obvious political, anti-war leanings, but it mostly just wants to be a rollercoaster monster movie in proud B-movie tradition (and in its best moments, it succeeds).
Kong himself is pretty cool, of course, acting not as an antagonistic force so much as a lonely king ruling over his island home, protecting the human natives from the creepily-designed Skull Crawlers, our flesh-eating ‘bad’ monsters. The film walks a tricky line between pathos and comedy – several of the soldiers have an ongoing joke about a letter one of them is writing to his son, and later the same device is used in a way that’s supposed to be sobering and mournful, but comes off as corny. That said, the film’s best moments go to John C. Reilly as an ex-WWII pilot who crashed on the island in 1944, and has ingratiated himself among the natives. While Reilly’s knack for goofy comedy is certainly played on at points, the humour remains nicely understated when frequently offset with the more bombastic, and sometimes surprisingly gruesome, action.
And as we all know, shared universes are the big trend at the moment, with Skull Island offering some connections to a certain other popular giant monster franchise, gently setting the two up for the inevitable grudge match to come (also… stay after the credits).