Kong: Skull Island review: "Derivative and a little dumb but consistently fun"

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Derivative and a little dumb but consistently fun: there’s personality and panache to spare in this monster blockbuster. With reservations, Skull Island is a swinging success.

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When it comes to movie monsters, Kong is king. But in Skull Island, the Eighth Wonder of the World has competition from a tropical paradise full of mythical man-eaters. Not just the latest Kong re-imagining, Skull Island is also the second instalment in Legendary’s MonsterVerse, which will see Merian C. Cooper’s hirsute anti-hero throw down with Godzilla in 2020. In other words, there’s a lot riding on the mighty monkey’s shoulders.

Following a frankly bonkers prologue, the action jumps forward to 1974, where government officials John Goodman and Corey Hawkins assemble a ragtag party to survey the uncharted Skull Island.

Among the recruits: a former SAS tracker (Tom Hiddleston), a photojournalist (Brie Larson) and a helicopter squadron led by the crazed Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). The intrusion doesn’t go down well with the island’s protector – 100ft ape King Kong. But with something even deadlier stirring in the earth, Kong soon becomes the least of their concerns.

This isn’t the film you think it is. In contrast to its ultra-serious first trailer, Skull Island is fun – pure matinee pulp masquerading as modern blockbuster. At a time when producers have more franchise clout than ever, Kong is a rare director-driven effects movie.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Kings of Summer) keeps proceedings energetic and fantastically absurd – the first time the island is glimpsed, it explodes on screen, obscured behind a Richard Nixon bobblehead. The action is slickly staged and thrillingly kinetic, with a pleasing tactility to the effects work, while the exotic location shoot pays dividends.

It’s a satisfying repositioning of Kong as monstrous lonely god. The first time we see him he’s framed to fright. But he’s also a sympathetic beast, Terry Notary’s mo-cap and ILM’s artistry working effectively in unison. Besides, there are also giant water buffalo, serene log creatures and Skull Crawlers – killer critters Kong has gargantuan beef with. If anything, more indigenous island life would have been welcome.

Likely there wasn’t time, given the enormous ensemble cast. Practically everyone gets solid screen time, even if it’s never enough to care when they die. Jackson is suitably intense as the Ahab-like military man, but it’s John C. Reilly’s stranded WW2 soldier who gets the most compelling arc, a heartfelt story underpinning his fruit-loop insanity.

Toby Kebbell draws the short straw with a character who may as well be called Private Cliché, while Hiddleston and Larson are curiously underserved by straight-laced dialogue and a noticeable absence from the action. The film also takes a few too many of its cues from Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Coupled with the Now That’s Vietnam Movies! compilation soundtrack, it never entirely forges its own identity.

Kudos, however, to a franchise film that doesn’t go to agonising lengths to set up its sequel, outside of a crossover-teasing post-credits scene. Though with Kong and Godzilla existing on opposite ends of the tonal and aesthetic spectrum, reconciling the two will first require a battle of the behemoths behind the scenes.

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Jordan Farley
Deputy Editor, Total Film

I'm the Deputy Editor at Total Film magazine, overseeing the features section of every issue where you can read exclusive, in-depth interviews and see first-look images from the biggest films. I was previously the News Editor at sci-fi, fantasy and horror movie bible SFX. You'll find my name on news, reviews, and features covering every type of movie, from the latest French arthouse release to the biggest Hollywood blockbuster. My work has also featured in Official PlayStation Magazine and Edge.