Film review: King Kong is back larger than life to battle humans

The film may not boast the poignancy of the original 1933 King Kong, which saw hunters take Kong away from Skull Island, but the environmental theme still resonates here

The oversized monster in Kong: Skull Island. Warner Bros Pictures via AP
Powered by automated translation

Kong: Skull Island

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson, John Goodman, John C Reilly

Three stars

One of cinema’s most iconic monsters, King Kong has been regularly reprised by filmmakers, most recently by Peter Jackson in his 2005 film. This latest incarnation pushes the action forward a few decades, to the early 1970s and the end of the Vietnam War. Satellite mapping is still in its infancy, so it makes sense that the great ape’s natural habitat, the ominously-named Skull Island, has yet to be explored.

Led by John Goodman’s scientist, a US government-funded expedition heads to this mysterious, cloud-covered isle. There’s military might, with a platoon of combat-weary soldiers fresh out of Vietnam, led by Samuel L Jackson’s Lt. Col. Packard, and there’s jungle cunning in the shape of British tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Along for the ride is Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver, a self-described “anti-war photographer”.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) is all too aware that modern audiences know what to expect with Kong – so there's little point hiding the giant simian. We glimpse him in the film's prologue, set during Second World War, when a Japanese soldier and his United States counterpart both crash-land on the island. By the time Packard's men approach in helicopters, a scene that more than nods to the Ride of the Valkyries' scene in Apocalypse Now, Kong stands tall – 30 metres to be precise – swatting choppers out of the sky.

It’s a thrilling sequence, and one that sets up the film’s primary battle, as Packard vows to take down the beast that killed half of his platoon.

"I know an enemy when I see it," he growls. Nor is Kong the only oversized monster on this hellish island. Giant bugs and lizards lurk around every corner, all too willing to prey on these unsuspecting humans. Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers springs to mind, as inadequately-armed soldiers do battle with carnivorous creatures.

The film may not boast the poignancy of the original 1933 King Kong, which saw hunters take Kong away from Skull Island, but the environmental theme still resonates here. The sight of Packard's men dropping seismic charges suggests that man is all too guilty of destroying nature. The depiction of Kong, expertly realised by the visual effects team, also shows the ape as vulnerable. A protector of the island but not superhuman, he bleeds just like any other primate.

Also present is John C Reilly, who plays the bearded Marlow, the US soldier seen in the prologue. Stranded on the island for almost three decades, he is part Robinson Crusoe, part Dennis Hopper from Apocalypse Now. It doesn't entirely pay off; Reilly veers unevenly between stir-crazy comic relief and heart-tugging homesickness, wanting to get back to the son he has never met.

Still, despite flaws that include the rather inert Hiddleston and Larson, it's far better than 2014's Godzilla (there are plans afoot to bring the titular Japanese monster and Kong together in a future film). Ultimately it is a blockbuster that doesn't forget its B-movie roots: just the shot of Kong and Samuel Jackson's glaring eyes melding into each other like a Sergio Leone Western is worth the ticket price alone.