Welcome to Skull Island, “a place where myth and science meet,” according to one leading character early in the story. Long before the K-word is uttered, the viewer explicitly learns that this is no fanciful, audacious tourist attraction like Jurassic Park, but a terrifying hellhole, home to an alternative version of nature, red in tooth and claw, and with really big fists.
It’s 1973, and tough-as-tacks army colonel Samuel L Jackson is given one last mission before his unit leaves Vietnam for good (“We didn’t lose the war,” he says. “We abandoned it.”). He and his men must ferry a party of civilians, led by pushy scientist John Goodman and steely Brit tracker Tom Hiddleston, to an uncharted South Pacific island, hitherto hidden from the world by a freak circular storm system.
The scientists’ cover story of studying geology and weather conditions is blown within seconds of a fleet of helicopters breaking through the clouds, the film’s first impressive set piece introducing the titular skyscraper-sized primate indulging in a rigorous bout of chopper-swatting. From thereon, the core group of survivors must find a way back to their homes and families, but not before the single-minded Jackson avenges the soldiers who perished in the attack.
But keep your powder dry, colonel! Traditional monster-movie conventions dictate that Kong is not, as Talking Heads might have put it, a psycho g’rilla. Rather, he is a selectively gentle giant guarding his territory, and protecting the smaller, more timid inhabitants of the island from the violently gluttonous beasties of a similar massiveness to his own.
In keeping with the 1976 reboot of the 1933 original, and Peter Jackson’s overblown 2005 retelling, the Kong remains the same, but director Jordan Vogt-Roberts wrangles a hugely imaginative coterie of new creatures from the lagoon, land and air to both help and hinder (mostly hinder) the luckless homo sapiens. Compared to the shrieking larger-than-life lizards, the formation-flying pterodactyl-ish limb-biters, and a grotesque tree trunk-type thing, our ape is positively cuddly.
As for the aforementioned humans, we’re given the requisite rag-bag of archetypes familiar to bygone adventure/disaster epics; wide-eyed innocent squaddies, their battle-scarred superiors, stuffy academics, shady industrialists and a smattering of mavericks for good measure. Just reading the A-list names in the opening credits invites viewers to get ready for a game of who-gets-out-alive bingo.
Granted, the script by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly has no pretensions to high art, but even the thickest slices of ham dialogue are forgivable when delivered by actors of this calibre, straight-faced and stylishly punctuating the undeniably exciting (and scary) effects.
Jackson adds to his ever-expanding portfolio of badasses without breaking any new ground, and Goodman ticks all the boxes you’d expect from a head honcho with sinister ulterior motives. Hiddleston’s decommissioned SAS officer- turned-tracker serves as the matinée-idol swashbuckler (think Errol Flynn with sat-nav), while the nominal Fay Wray of the piece comes in the shape of Brie Larson’s feisty photojournalist with a conscience – “I’m an anti–war photographer,” she insists.
The surprise package is John C Reilly’s veteran fighter pilot, a maniacally comic presence with few social filters who does most of his thinking out loud. For reasons we won’t go into here, he understands Kong and the ways of the island more than most. At a stretch, there are parallels with the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now, and Vogt-Roberts makes a few more subtle, blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em references to the likes of Full Metal Jacket and Platoon.
It’s not, however, a film about military conflict; it’s a vaguely military Kong flick. Fears voiced in the first few minutes that a Russian expedition might beat Jackson to the island come to naught, although a sneaky scene after the end credits (stay seated, film-goers) hints that humankind may not quite be finished with Skull Island. On the evidence of this first frightening and thrill-packed visit, it’ll be a return journey worth taking.
Kong: Skull Island is released in cinemas on Thursday 9 March