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Kong: Skull Island Review

“Is that a monkey….?” – Jack Chapman



Jeez, I owe that ape my lifestyle.

Had I not been entranced by a TV viewing of the original film at the tender age of 8, my life would’ve been so different. Although my tastes leaned toward TV shows like Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea which, from time to time featured giant monsters – King Kong was actually the first monster movie I ever saw.

It literally caught me at just the right age. It had everything. Mystery, adventure, dinosaurs, excitement, jungle chases, narrow escapes, property damage in a huge city – and most of all, a protagonist that was both sympathetic and dangerous at the same time. I was kind of flirting with taking an interest in soccer at the time, as just about everybody my age does – but a Saturday evening showing of King Kong on ITV, one of the two channels available to us in 1968 put me on what was, and remains for me, the right path.

So long, disposable income. Hello, obsessive compulsive pursuit of film, film trivia and film memorabilia.

Since then, I’ve amassed a pretty hefty film and collectible collection. I’ve managed to become a freelance writer for two major magazines – and none of this would’ve happened without the ape.

He’s actually right in front of me, when I sit at my desk in the study, in the form of a sculpt by Todd McFarlaine that I bought many years ago that stands in a place of honour and pride.

Kong model

Kong model close up

Another treasured item is a book that I bought way…..WAAAAY back when I was ten. A comic book adaptation of the film.  Bought when I was nine or ten – battered, and beloved – this book was the first item in what would become a lifetime of collecting.

Kong graphic novel

I remember the 1976 remake, I was sixteen. I was looking forward to an updated Kong, standing with one mighty foot on each of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre as promised in the poster artwork, swatting at jet fighters and crushing them effortlessly. That promise wasn’t kept. The poster promised a lot more than the final scenes delivered. All in all, it wasn’t anywhere near to the sheer wonder of the original film.

Peter Jackson’s remake from 2005 blew me away. Much as I love the old black and white film, Jackson’s version was a loving and respectful tribute to it and was in every way a worthy remake. I was happy. Happier still with the expanded version on Blu-ray, the reason being that the extended scenes happened on Skull Island.

Which brings us neatly to Kong: Skull Island.

I’ll assume that we ALL know the classic story of a film maker and his adventurous crew who has a mysterious map to a strange island shrouded by mist and home to a primitive tribe who guard a secret that lives on the other side of a great wall.

Although I love the final act of the film when Kong is captured and breaks loose, wreaking havoc in New York – the real meat of the film happens on Skull Island, Kong’s natural habitat. Untouched by evolution or progress, the jungle that lies beyond the great wall is home not only to Kong, but also to several types of dinosaurs that include Tyrannosaurs and Pterodactyls as well as giant serpentine creatures and in Jackson’s version, carnivorous albino grubs. The explorers pursue the mighty Kong through the jungle, many of the falling prey to the hungry indigenous menagerie of nature’s worst foul-ups.

In fact, Jackson’s version had a tie-in book describing all the various creatures that were created for the movie, many unseen in the final cut. So, when I heard the title “Kong: Skull Island”, I assumed that this would be a prequel or a sequel to the original and we’d be spending more time amid the deadly monstrosities. In a way, I was right – and in a way, I was wrong.

As we know, Kong dies in the original story. Plummeting down to Fifth Avenue from his perch on top of the Empire State Building, riddled with bullets from a squadron of biplanes, so how come in the trailer he’s bigger than ever and taking on helicopter gunships and winning? I thought the answer lay in the scene where we saw Kong’s home on the mountaintop on Skull Island, where there were skeletal remains of giant gorillas – Kong wasn’t the one and only in Jackson’s film. Evidently, he was the latest – and there may be more.

Yep – I got that wrong too.

Kong: Skull Island isn’t a prequel nor a sequel. It’s a standalone with no relation to the previous screen incarnations of the creature. I’m assuming this because our intrepid bunch of explorers have had difficulty getting funding for their expedition and are treated with a degree of scepticism. Nobody says “Yeah, there are monsters – remember that big fuckin’ ape on the Empire State?”

The year is 1973, the soundtrack reflects that so you know it’s pretty much going to rock. It’s the era of the Vietnam war. An exploratory team are going to a mysterious island in the Pacific that is shrouded from the rest of the world in a perpetual storm, so it’s one of the last uncharted land areas on the planet. Thus, the explorers have some soldiers fresh from their stint in Vietnam with them for protection.

Leading the team is Bill Randa played by John Goodman. Now, John Goodman is an actor I’ve come to enjoy and respect very much. He’s made the leap from light comedy to some impressive dramas – consider his performance in Cloverfield Lane. Here, he just continues his momentum. The military is led by the legendary Samuel L. Jackson, as effortlessly cool and surly as ever. In a breakout role from his signature Loki is Tom Hiddleston as an ex-military can survive anything kind of guy. There are scientists and (of course) a lone female news photographer played by Brie Larsen.

As they break the storm in their helicopters in their approach to Skull Island – their problems are far from over. They’re just beginning, as a matter of fact. The trunk of a full grown tree is flung at the squadron of choppers and we’re away.

Refreshingly, Kong is introduced very early in the film, rather than about halfway through as is the custom in most monster movies – certainly the case with Godzilla a couple of years ago. The resulting battle between Kong and the helicopters is amazing – but is really pretty one sided. This isn’t the Kong who valiantly stood his last stand before being fatally injured by some flimsy biplanes. This monster is more than twice the height of anything we’ve seen before and has an attitude. Basically you don’t come to HIS kingdom, blow shit up and expect to get away with it.

So, split up into initially two groups, the explorers have to make their way to a point on the other side of the island, staying alive not only from the rampages of a 300 feet tall rampaging killer gorilla eager to protect his turf, but also the other species of  creatures in the vicinity. Thankfully, the penis-like grubs from the Jackson film are absent, but there are new horrors. There are giant spiders, unseen giant ants who are liable to swoop from overhead, massive bovine-like beasts who appear initially to be mounds of land in a body of water.

But the most chilling threat are undoubtedly the ones who live below ground. The island is apparently hollow, and the REAL horrors are beneath. And they come to the surface for their prey. (As if a rampaging giant ape wasn’t enough horror). Chief among these are the skullcrawlers. Hard to describe, but imagine a narrow, goat-like skull with no eyes, and a slug-like Jabba the Hutt body, pulled along by two arms.

Basically, the plot then becomes a struggle for survival as the dwindling troops have to head ever further into danger before they have a chance of being rescued. Overall, the film has a definite Apocalypse Now vibe running through it, particularly with the soldiers’ interaction and the constant threat of something, somewhere from either above, below or behind the next tree being ready to strike with deadly force. I never thought I’d see napalm being used against Kong, nor did I think I’d see a standoff between Kong and Samuel L. Jackson. But I did – and the result was everything I imagined it would be.

So, a radically different take on Kong. A satisfying one that uses the talents of Industrial Light and Magic to their best advantage (other than when they’re working on Star Wars films, of course.) But why is THIS Kong so damn big? Continuity error?

Nope – it has long been planned that following the success of Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla in 2015, that Godzilla would in fact face off against other giant monsters in a new franchise, reminiscent of the TOHO films of the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties….and so on. (This is apart from the fact that TOHO, Godzilla’s creators, have now started to revive the original series with the release of Shin Godzilla in Japan last year.) So, long story short – Kong had to be as big as he is in this film to face off against Godzilla in films to come. Otherwise he’d be only chest height.

If the above is news to you, for an even bigger and better surprise - make sure you sit through ALL of the credits. the sting at the end is astounding.

Copyright © 2010 - 2017 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.


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