Kong Skull Island review: a rip-roaring retro monster-movie romp

Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson and Samuel L Jackson go ape in this irresistible Godzilla prequel, which sees Kong bigger and meaner than ever before

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Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Cert: 12A
Genre: Action
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell
Running Time: 1 hr 58 mins

It begins with the sound of machine guns and screaming aeroplanes. Close your eyes and you will surely imagine a giant ape climbing the Empire State Building in dreamy monochrome. But the second film in the (groan) MonsterVerse sequence – a sort of prequel to Gareth Edwards' Godzilla – is taking us somewhere else.

The credits zoom through mid- 20th century American history to find Bill Randi (John Goodman), a paranoid, sub-governmental spook, approaching Pennsylvania Avenue in the dying days of the Nixon administration. “Mark my words, there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington!” he says. Ha ha! It’s almost as if those lines were slipped into the film at some point after November 8th.

Anyway, Bill has got hold of the idea that something interesting is happening beneath permanent cloud cover on a recently discovered island in the South Pacific. There follows one of those irresistible sequences in which the hero travels the world gathering eccentric experts. The urbane James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is a mercenary straight out of Frederick Forsyth.

The charismatic, charming Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) will take the photographs. Mad army officer Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson), depressed by the end of the Vietnam conflict, is ready to drop Napalm on anything that impedes his path.


Who saw this coming? Kong: Skull Island and Apocalypse Now should just get a room together. There really is a sequence in which helicopters surge in for the attack while blasting brash chords through powerful speakers. It's Black Sabbath rather than Wagner, but the reference is clear enough. You will notice that Hiddleston's character is named for the author of Heart of Darkness. Later on, they meet a lost American airman (John C Reilly) who, like the hero of that source for Apocalypse Now, sweats under the name Marlow.

The weight of influence should crush the life out of Skull Island, but the film is handled with such humour and gusto that it proves impossible to resist. Jordan Vogt-Roberts, director of The Kings of Summer, has given us a romp that is less sluggish than the 1976 remake and less pompous than Peter Jackson's enormous 2005 retread. Larson has swagger to spare. Reilly is properly touching as a man who hasn't seen home for 30 years. Kong himself is bigger and meaner than ever before (if, inevitably, less poignant than the original).

What really makes the picture fly, however, is the shameless embrace of retro sensibilities. Larry Fong’s cinematography (ahem) apes aged Kodachrome. The score finds room for the Stooges, Creedence, Bowie and, yes, Vera Lynn. More fun than we had a right to expect.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist