The ‘cinematic universe’ is a hot button term in modern Hollywood filmmaking. Every studio is looking at their current list of owned properties and trying to mash them together like a four year old with a box of toys.
Marvel Studios have clearly become the titans with their film-web series-network TV, and meanwhile Warner Bros/DC are trying to better their work. While Fox still is still dicking around with whatever they’re trying to do with their Marvel properties, and Universal is doing a monster-horror mash up, it’s Legendary that is really the true successor to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Kong: Skull Island is the second entry into the Legendary MonsterVerse after Gareth Edwards’ sober-reboot of Godzilla, connected mainly by the mysterious Monarch organisation that seems intent on pissing off as many big monsters as it can.
This time around, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, director of the fantastic The Kings of Summer and owner of the best beard in Hollywood, is at the helm. Similarly to the leap that Gareth Edwards made from micro-drama Monsters to his monster mash production, Vogt-Roberts brings some of his own sense of childish joy to this big blockbuster.
Set in the tail end of the Vietnam War, Monarch agent Rander (John Goodman) recruits a team consisting of Colonel Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and his super team of soldiers, lone wolf SAS tracker Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), war photographer Weaver (Brie Larson) and scientist Brooks (Corey Hawkins). As they enter the Island they are attacked by a massive ape, and discover that this long forgotten island is in fact protected by the ape, from much more sinister creatures.
It’s important to recognise the films to which Kong owes a debt, the obvious ones being Vietnam movies, the likes of Apocalypse Now looming large in the film’s imagery not least in the use of soldiers and popular music (as well as that totally boss IMAX poster), Platoon also features, as well as some very good references to the likes of Top Gun. In many of the scenes it seems that Vogt-Roberts is trying to actually get as far away from the tone and style of Godzilla as humanly possible, relishing his big monster lead, throwing in fun characters, and going for less Spielberg-Jaws and more Spielberg-Jurassic Park.
It’s a very fun film soundtrack; it’s filled with 70s Vietnam era music, and we’re treated to Credence Clearwater Revival, David Bowie, Black Sabbath and very tellingly, Jefferson Airplane. But the film’s music use feels organic, it feels like it belongs, more in tune with when Guardians of the Galaxy used it, than the strange fisting of songs that Suicide Squad used. That’s not to say the score by Henry Jackman isn’t also totally rad, because it is.
But at it’s heart, the movie is a big monster flick and the film never forgets that; it’s stylish, shot beautifully, evoking both modern styles of filmmaking and vintage. There’s not a lot of cuts in action, but there is a lot of slowmotion to emphasise events, acts or deaths. Unlike Peter Jackson’s love novel to the original film, this is a film that wants to be it’s own thing, throwing in comedy, heart and scenes that are horror inflected. In one sequence it seems to resemble the very famous death in Cannibal Holocaust that leads to a monster fight.
As for the Island itself, it’s beautiful, and actually feels less like CGI hell than an actual jungle. The Vietnam feel gives real heat and dirt to the surroundings and the design of not only Kong, but the other monsters lurking on the island. Big bugs are repulsive, and snappy crocodile dinosaur things are properly thrilling. If you want big monster fisticuffs, then wait for the graveyard sequence, it’s the stand out.
Then of course there’s the performances. The cast aren’t given a lot to do, given that it’s a franchise picture and it’s a fairly big cast, but there is enough in the sketches that gives you reasons to be happy. Hiddleston channels his Night Manager character for Conrad, while Brie Larson is reprising her witty, clever part from 21 Jump Street. Jackson seems more engaged here than he has for a long time, giving this the effort he would give a Tarantino film, and spars with John Goodman who is as creepy as he was in 10 Cloverfield Lane.
The supporting players all do really well, while John C Reilly steals every scene he’s in as Marlow, the WW2 vet stranded on the island. Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Shea Whigham and Jing Tian all excel, giving the characters and situations a little nuance and depth, and for the betterment of the film, the Skull Island natives are treated here much better than in the original Kong or even Peter Jackson’s. They’re not dark skinned savages out to kill the white folk, they’re civilised, beyond our petty nature, able to communicate without words. One scene between the islanders and Reilly is the emotional crux of the film.
It’s not without flaws of course, as the characters are fairly shallow, and the world building gets in the way of the plot, but even so the sense of fun is so contagious you just go along with it. In a time when films are getting darker and darker it’s great that we have one here that is going for big grins and actually manages it, not least when it comes to the big man himself. There’s also not a lot of time for Kong-people interaction, but the little there is feels like a continuation of the original films emotional plot.
It may appear to be a big dumb blockbuster, but there’s a love of cinema’s history here, references abound in pretty much every scene and while many have compared it to Apocalypse Now, it’s more like Heart of Darkness, the novella on which it’s based. A main plot point is based around going up a river to retrieve a native and discovering something about yourself you didn’t know. It’s also no coincidence that one character is called Conrad (author Joseph Conrad) and another Marlow (the protagonist of the novella), and while Ahab is the clear character point for Sam Jackson’s Packard, there’s more than a little Kurtz (present in both versions) in him.
It’s good fun, filled with great action (samurai sword, slow-mo gas-mask attack is all we’ll say), jokes, good performances and thrilling monsters that promise when more of these Monarch creatures show up, it’s going to be a big bust up for planet Earth. Go see it for the fun of it, for the stars enjoying themselves, and if you’re a fan of Jurassic Park. As one ill-fated character played by a famous MF-bomb dropper said in that movie: hang on to your butts.