By and large, big, dumb fun monster blockbusters are not exactly known for pushing the envelope.
Beholden by their very nature to an A to B narrative – they are, if nothing else, escape from danger movies on an epic scale – with little to no wiggle room, they are usually populated by cardboard cutout trope-laden characters, perfunctory dialogue that does the business and not much else, and a series of action pieces that are driven less by character or narrative devices than by the simply need to have something happen.
It’s not necessarily a criticism, more an observation, but enjoyable though they are in a park-your-mind-in-neutral kind of way, they don’t offer much more reward than a simple, “behind you!” kind of visceral thrill.
It appears that no one gave the memo to the producers of Kong: Skull Island, which happily break all the blockbuster monster movie conventions with the same gusto and rage-filled enthusiasm that the titular giant ape brings to bear on pretty much everything he touches.
If you want things broken, smashed, blown up or disembowelled, this is most certainly your movie; but if you also want well-wrought characters, both main and secondary, some thoughtful historical, socio-political and cultural backgrounding and some damn witty dialogue that actually dares move beyond the briskly utilitarian, then Kong: Skull Island could well be your new monster movie bae.
Practically from the first frame, the film commits to delivering a more intelligent survival thriller than the run of the mill offerings usually on offer with a quick, seamless montage that takes you from the heady idealism and possibility of the immediate post-world war two environment to the cynicism and dislocation of the early ’70s era with the Vietnam War in full flight.
Setting Kong: Skull Island in this time period offers a myriad possibilities such as a kickass Apocalypse Now suitable soundtrack and a cast of characters such as the nihilistically-inclined, unhinged Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), but far more importantly it allows for the kind of joyously reckless spirit of inquisitive exploration, borne of a world newly-awakened to satellite technology, that would simply not work as well now in our hyped-watched world.
The idea of a perpetually storm-shrouded island where evolution never really stopped and giant creatures emerge from cavernous underground ecosystems – known as the Hollow Earth Theory, advanced by one of the boffins on the expedition, Houstin Brooks (Corey Hawkins) – makes sense in the wild and free ’70s.
As does the cast of characters assembled, from ex-British Special Services gun-for-hire James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and William “Bill” Randa, head of a US government organisation that seeks large, unknown life forms, all of whom, with many other civilian and military personnel with no choice in the matter, end on the mysterious island where they are all seeking not just Kong but something missing from their own lives.
That’s right, this is a monster movie with existential longing – not even Kong is immune from it, bereft of others of his kind and with the mantle of responsibility of looking after the island resting heavily on his massive shoulders – and it’s used effectively to flesh out all of the characters in ways that take them beyond the usual tired old cliches.
The screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly pleasingly takes the time to grant each of the characters, with an elegant precision that sometimes only requires a word or two to give us a sense of a person such as committed dad and all-around good guy Major Chapman (Tony Kebbell), some sense of self that means we care about what happens to them.
Not in a “there’s another death to add to the growing list” kind of way but in an emotionally-resonant way that you might not expect to encounter in a film like this; indeed it’s the sense of well rounded personhood that grants the film a depth it would not have otherwise have.
Hand-in-hand with this richer-than-expected characterisation is a willingness to balance the requisite action scenes with gigantic animals doing their darndest (mostly) to eat every human in sight – Kong is not the only mega-sized creature on the island, not by a long shot – with moments of real, meaningful human interaction.
It’s not indie-level ruminations of course but it’s a significant step up from the run-of-the-mill monster movie and means that you reach the end of the film not feeling like you’ve gone ten rounds with a hyperactive action-junkie narrative, a plus when the big, epic finale hits the screen and it’s on for young and old, giant ape and enormous flesh-eating reptiles alike.
Throw in some near-brilliant cinematography, courtesy of Larry Fong – he pretty much makes a moving artwork of helicopters in flight – an inspired use of sound or its lack thereof, which amps up the tension in a fog-filled valley of bones where humanity is very much the prey du jour, and a film-stealing star turn by John C. Reilly as Lieutentant Hank Marlow, a soldier marooned on the island back in 1944 and eager to leave with the expeditionary force, and you have one of the best-realised monster flicks to come along in quite some time.
Kong: Skull Island is not such a daring leap off the good old template that fans of the genre will be left wondering if they have wandered into a searing French philosophical indie effort by mistake, but its commitment to rising above the usual tropes and hoary old classics means that the film is refreshingly different and far more substantial than its genremates.
You can only hope that the makes of monster films realise there is a more than a little value in investing in great characters, layered mythos and a well-written screenplay, that they come to appreciate that investing the kind of effort that has gone into making this film pays off in spades.
Not only do you have an audience who is given a far more immersive, rewarding moviegoing experience than they might have reasonably had any cause to expect, but by raising the bar and delivering an exellent film that hopefully does supremely well at the box office, you raise the real possibility of more movies of this quality in the future.
Which given the current dire state of many blockbuster films, long drawing from a dry and barren creative well, can only be a good thing.