Things get pretty crazy when you party on Skull Island. A squadron of helicopters is strafing the Vietnamese jungle, recklessly dropping depth charges to the sound of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” while grunts banter and a Nixon bobblehead leeringly presides over frenzied war-movie cutting. The composition is pulp poetry, writ large in the B-movie palette of apocalypse magic hour. Abruptly, a massive palm tree comes crashing through the windshield of one of the choppers in violent POV. Shots spin chaotically, Nixon gets upended like a devil cross, and Ozzy Osbourne’s voice recedes into ghoulish reverb on the soundtrack. The culprit is one pissed-off local— an enormous, angry simian, to be precise—who swats at the intruders in ways that would give Merian C. Cooper nightmares. There’s an ingeniously crude cut from a soldier falling to into the ape’s jaws to a fellow crewmember taking a hearty bite into his sandwich. “That was an unconventional encounter,” sandwich guy is forced to admit, before indifferently resuming his lunch.
One of cinema’s greatest unconventional encounters, King Kong has a rich and storied history, from Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 tearjerker to the strange interspecies detente of Toho’s King Kong vs. Godzilla (62) to the oil-crisis profiteering takedown of John Guillerman’s underrated 1976 reboot. This is the first time we’ve been treated to his antics since Peter Jackson’s lavish—and toothless—2005 remake, which lovingly offered an extended fan letter but since feels like it’s faded into goofy cultural footnote.
Skull Island, cranked out through the Legendary Pictures’ factory that also gave us Godzilla (14) and Jurassic World, isn’t connected to Jackson’s picture—it’s trashier, funkier, messily engaged on a socio-political level, and a hell of a lot more fun. Opening on a 1945-set prologue in which two crash-landed pilots duel in Sergio Leone widescreen before being pawed down by a greater force, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film swiftly segues into a rapid-fire trip across mid-20th-century conflict, cycling through various wars and nuclear tests that neatly situate the movie as a pseudo-political piece. The action proper begins in 1973, amid America’s retreat from Vietnam and embrace of sideburns and polyester, where—as a character quips, with mercifully one of the few winks to a contemporary audience—“there’ll never be a more screwed up time in Washington.”
For a movie of its type, Skull Island takes its time establishing its period milieu, steeped in anti-war blowback and the early ’70s’ popular fascination with mysticism and the occult. Taking a cue from Godzilla, we learn that nuclear tests in the South Pacific have disturbed the titular island, and a crackpot explorer—John Goodman’s tweed-clad Bill Randa—wants to lead an expedition to unearth its ancient inhabitants. Randa convinces the government to brush him off with some money, and he heads to Vietnam with a local US military escort, led by Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Packard, a burned-out vet who regards his box of purple hearts with less affection than his bottle of Bud. Along for the ride: a British ex-military commando turned mercenary named Conrad (Tom Hiddleston, who should really have kept the beard), and anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver—played by Brie Larson with all the earnest conviction of a role that demands she strip down to a tank top and fire a flare into the cranium of a giant lizard.
Much of this takes a necessary back seat once Kong finally arrives, but the film has set up such a heady mix of archetype and scattergun cultural commentary that the action’s spectacular silliness feels grounded by weightier stuff to chew on. The ape’s traditional symbiosis with the island natives—always one of the trickiest elements of the movies’ dark continent othering—is preserved, which this Kong tries to negotiate with a Heart of Darkness narrative (not for nothing is Hiddleston’s character named Conrad.)
In Skull Island, the natives are in thrall not just to Kong but to Hank Marlow (doubling down on the Conrad), a certifiably crazy World War Two castaway played by John C. Reilly as a mixture of Dennis Hopper, Marlon Brando and Dr. Steve Brule—he even sports a leather bomber emblazoned with the slogan “Good for your health,” bless. Thus we have a mad prince liaising with a monkey king, whose benevolence protects the locals from the impressive menagerie of CGI beasts threatening to rise up from the island’s subterranean swamp—to say nothing of the many other wondrous creations, including water yaks, octopi, bark monsters and giant spiders, rendered in crisp CG and the spirit of Son of Kong’s creature rumbles.
Kong himself is deliberately monstrous, devoid of the humanity that has both infused his more soulful moments and soured some of his worst missteps. He doesn’t fall for the white man’s idealised blonde here, and feels less encumbered by the weird racial imagery that often creeps into the films as a result. This Kong is vicious and not to be fucked with, and arguably nobler for it. He’s nature, vast and indifferent and unknowable, and—if you please—an effective enough analogy for the brutality of war (Viet Kong presumably didn’t escape the screenwriters’ working titles.) Frankly, critiques that this Kong has been detrimentally stripped of his personality feel very off base; his beastliness is refreshing, and almost surely the point.
Skull Island manages to hold this precarious balance of haphazard social commentary and B-movie thrills for an admirable distance, assisted immensely by the levity of the screenplay and performances—in particular Reilly’s genuinely funny creation—that render the stock dialogue knowingly zingy. “I can’t tell if I’m talking or I’m not talking,” Reilly’s Marlow blurts out, the movie happy to give him free reign as the improvising time-traveling madman. Under the direction of Vogt-Roberts, another filmmaker plucked from first-time Sundance anonymity to supervise an effects tentpole, Skull Island gorges on a tasty banquet of sources, lifting from vintage monster pulp to Jurassic Park (yes, Sam Jackson says “Hold on to your butts”) to a dangerous abundance of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; one would hope that Legendary wrote papa Francis a nice thank you note, and attached a cheque. The punch of Vogt-Roberts’ imagery is no doubt jazzed by DP Larry Fong, who finds a happy medium between the stentorian fascism of his work for Zack Snyder and the halcyon glow of his photography on the likes of Super 8. The CG work is great, too: the island’s villainous lizard demons, in particular, with their otherworldly reptilian carriage and threatening, eyeless skulls, might have escaped some Margritte vision of hell. The film also abounds with secondary aesthetic pleasures: a stacked soundtrack of the Stooges, Creedence and Bowie only the most preposterous among them—because apparently the crew saw fit to bring their record collection along with their survival essentials. “What kind of music is this?” Reilly’s swing-era refugee even asks as the needle drops on “Ziggy Stardust”, perhaps more puzzled than a man who lives on an island full of prehistoric monsters ought to be.
Still, Skull Island remains a 2017 blockbuster hopeful, and the movie’s more mechanical climactic act means some of the more interesting, subversive stuff gets lost in the noise and motion of the ancient beast war. Compared to an actual contemporary film from the era, 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes—which embraced a full-on militant race war analogy—Skull Island’s apolitical back stretch is disappointingly lacking in following through its earlier conviction. 1 The film’s most flavourless characters—Hiddleston and Larson’s hot interlopers—are treated to heroic Hollywood moments in capitulation to commercial concern, while the arcs of Goodman and Jackson’s more complex creations are cut short. That said, their cannon-fodder demise is perhaps cleverer than one might suspect—Jackson had been treated to an epic standoff moment with Kong, bellowing about “this is one war we’re not gonna lose”, only to be indifferently dispatched like a fly on a battlefield.
But really, who’s to complain when there’s a Marvel-style sting in Skull Island’s tail that suggests Legendary is planning a whole slate of kaiju movies—complete with King Ghidorah and a certain radioactive lizard whose unmistakable roar pierces the darkness of the final frames. A shared universe with dueling monsters instead of boring superheroes? Bring those babies on.