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Film review | Skull Island: Having beastly fun on a monster paradise

Kong: Skull Island is a film that wears its influences on its sleeve but then just gets on with telling a rollicking and ludicrous story full of sound and fury, and apologising for very little • 3.5/5

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
22 March 2017, 7:45am
Hear him roar: Kong is back and he’s having none of you pesky humans trample on his territory
Hear him roar: Kong is back and he’s having none of you pesky humans trample on his territory
Deemed crackpots by the mainstream scientific community, Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his young partner Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are determined to get funding for an expedition to an island in the South Pacific – dubbed ‘Skull Island’ – which is an uncharted piece of territory that they believe contains unique flora and fauna.

Though the tail-end of the Vietnam War may not be the best time to go to the American government with begging bowl in hand, the powers-to-be finally relent, even accepting to give them military escort as led by the formidable Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Completing the team are expert British tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and conscientious “anti-war” photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) ... who soon realise they may not have joined the most ethically wholesome bunch after the team comes face to face with the true flora and fauna of Skull Island. 

Chief of this not-so-merry-band of indigenous island dwellers is Kong, a giant ape who is just about keeping a cap on the island’s invasive species, and its ecosystem alive. When Packard’s men suffer the wrath of Kong’s defensive attack – he vows revenge; a fact that puts the entire team into jeopardy. 

Revenge: Samuel L. Jackson
Revenge: Samuel L. Jackson
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film announces itself as a refreshingly childish piece of pulp, as an American WWII fighter pilot – whom we later learn is a younger version of a key character – is shown plummeting down to Skull Island while issuing forth a comical wail, framed perfectly in his descent by the scorching sun. A rival Japanese pilot also lands with him – both are sole survivors of their respective missions – and the fact that he sports an inexplicable samurai sword as part of his usual military getup tells you all you need to know about the kind of film Roberts is determined to make. 

Though there is a basic message about exploitative military jingoism vs the sublime beauty of ‘untouched’ lands – made obvious by the Vietnam War milieu and embodied with gusto by the incorrigible Samuel L. Jackson, whose raw commitment to the trashiest material never fails to disappoint – at its core, Skull Island is a pulp adventure first and foremost, whose thematic underbelly is only there to crank up the tension among its diverse band of explorers as they cut their way through a monster-ridden paradise. 

Of course, you’ve come here for the monster fights more than anything else, and I’m happy to report that Skull Island is not only generously populated with impressive-cum-terrifying beasties, but also that they’re rendered with a grimy, lived-in sense for character design which, while clearly being done entirely in CGI, displays none of the wonky laziness that the style implies. Kong himself succeeds in looking both imposing and agile; a warrior-king (indeed, god) who is often called upon to pounce around and get his hands dirty in the interest of keeping his island safe from threats both from within and without.

But our rag-tag band doesn’t just have Kong to contend with, and thankfully each monster they’re assailed by on the treacherous terrain they’ve decided to encroach upon (with exploratory bombs as well as their own itchy feet) comes with its own peculiar set of skills and/or gross-out hook. The big kahunas here are the ‘Skullcrawlers’ which emerge from the volcanic depths sporting scraped-off lizard heads and forked tongues, but a giant spider attack is also memorable, as is an early sequence of Kong skimming the riverbed for lunch... 

Kong: Skull Island is a film that wears its influences on its sleeve but then just gets on with telling a rollicking and ludicrous story full of sound and fury, and apologising for very little. It may not have the elegiac undercurrents of the original, but as a piece of adventure pulp it gleefully channels both the perennial tales of H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and delivers an escapist pre-summer blockbuster treat that’s low on pretentiousness but high on guilty pleasures.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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