Jordan Vogt-Roberts is the latest indie director to be headhunted for Hollywood’s seemingly endless cycle of sequels, reboots and re-whatevers. Joining the likes of Colin Trevorrow (whose Safety Not Guaranteed landed him Jurassic World) and James Gunn (whose Super led to Guardians of the Galaxy), Vogt-Roberts is most known for Stand By Me-a-like The Kings of Summer, and has now directed Kong: Skull Island. And what do you know, it’s paid off. Kong is, of course, Warner Bros. attempt to keep all of its hands in all of its pies; but it is also a hell of a lot more fun than it has any right to be.
It’s the 1970s. America is losing abandoning the war in Vietnam, and needs something to dull the pain. Cue Bill Randa (John Goodman), who proposes a resource gathering operation to mysterious Skull Island, before the Russians find out about it and beat them to it. Washington agrees, and Randa sets about assembling a team. That team includes ex-SAS tracker Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).
Each of these characters has their own reasons for going to the island, and consequently the plot is messy tangle of conflicting motives and ideals. But that’s OK, because plot isn’t what we’re here for, is it? No, we’re here to see spectacle, to see giant monsters punching each other, to see tiny humans variously crushed, skewered and eaten by those same giant monsters. And Kong: Skull Island provides. What surprises, then, is that Kong proves itself to be more than a mere monster royale. Vogt-Roberts has brought two things to the table: a dry sense of humour, and a keen cinematic eye.
Much of that humour is delivered by John C. Reilly’s Marlow, a WWII fighter pilot marooned on Skull Island for the last 30 years. Marlow is Kong’s comedic ace in the hole. His three decade exile has done wonders for his sanity, on top of which he’s a relic of a bygone era, oblivious to the march of progress beyond the island. Reilly infuses Marlow with an unhinged goofiness, a naivety tempered with unpredictability. His reaction to finding out we put a man on the moon is priceless.
As for that keen cinematic eye, Vogt-Roberts has shot Kong with a playfulness and attention to detail that elevates it above your standard creature feature. As you might have guess from two characters named Conrad and Marlow, there is a little Heart of Darkness here, mainly by way of Apocalypse Now, and so we are treated to a shot of helicopters flying before the sunset. Only this time, the sun is eclipsed by a giant gorilla. Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” takes the place of “Ride of the Valkyries”, and demonstrates Vogt-Roberts commitment to period (I was also delighted to hear “Ziggy Stardust”).
Most impressive of all is Vogt-Roberts command of action. Kong’s monster fights eschew the fast cutting, shaky cam style that infests much of action cinema. Instead, they are shot with an almost languid confidence, long sweeping takes of monsters punching each other, the camera swooping around action as if filming a ballet rather than a brawl.
They’re good brawls, too. Kong himself is a striking figure, a jacked up version of the 1933 original. But he is far from the star of the show. It isn’t so much that Kong is eclipsed by the giant insects, octopuses and lizard-things that share the island, as he just exists alongside them. It’s an interesting move, and one that makes sense given Warner Bros. teased Kong/Godzilla shared universe.
All told, Kong: Skull Island is a film that delights in itself. It delights in its period setting. It delights in its cineliterate style. It delights in monsters punching other monsters. You can’t help but be delighted along with it.