It's an unspoken rule of monster movies that you keep your star – ie, the actual monster – hidden from view for as long as possible. You need to constantly tease the audience, just offering a glimpse of the creature every so often, keeping them in suspense until the big reveal and the monster goes all-out and starts destroying buildings or throwing cars and ships around. But the makers of Kong: Skull Island don't care for such rules.
Kong is probably the most famous movie monster of all – he first appeared in the 1933 stop-motion classic (which was remade in 1976 and 2005) and has shown up in various sequels and spin-offs, often alongside Godzilla. There would be very few people on the planet who have not seen at least one King Kong film, and who don't know that the big lug looks like, so the blokes behind Kong: Skull Island – director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writers Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein – clearly decided to just go for it and get their boy on screen as early as possible. And so we meet the big fella about five minutes in, when a pair of WWII pilots crash on Skull Island - one American and one Japanese - and Kong intervenes as they try to kill each other.
Cut to 1973. The secret scientific group Monarch, headed by Bill Randa (John Goodman), organises an expedition to a mysterious island that satellites have found in the South Pacific. The island is surround by perpetual electrical storms that satellites cannot penetrate, so a team is sent to see what's there for themselves. Randa recruits former British SAS Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to lead the expedition party, which also consists of photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), biologist San Lin (Jing Tian) and Landsat employee Victor Nieves (John Ortiz). Randa also recruits the Sky Devils helicopter squadron led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson) – fresh from America's failed war in Vietnam – to escort them and keep them safe from any nasties they might encounter.
Kong: Skull Island is most definitely a brash, loud and eye-popping B-movie, and it doesn't pretend to be anything other than that
Of course, military types being military types, they manage to piss Kong off within about five minutes of getting to the island, and it all kicks off, with Kong taking down a few of the choppers and chowing down on the odd soldier or two. Still smarting from Vietnam, Packard is determined to take Kong down, but Conrad and the rest of the team realise that Kong is not a threat but was just protecting his island and its inhabitants – a point reinforced when they encounter Hank Marlow (John C Reilly), the American pilot who was stranded on the island in WWII, and the local natives. Kong is their guardian, who protects them from some of the other giant nasties on the island – in particular the reptilian Skull Crawlers. So long story short, mayhem breaks out.
At its heart, Kong: Skull Island is nothing more than a good, old-fashioned monster movie. Yes, there are some other themes at play – protecting the environment, and the horrors of war (there are many allusions to Apocalypse Now) – but the monster mayhem is really what it all boils down to. And on that front, it's a total hoot. The action is fast and furious, the film itself is well-paced, the script decent (if not amazing) and the cast all solid and having plenty of fun – they all seem overjoyed to be in an actual King Kong movie. One slight quibble is that a few of the characters don't get a lot to do and seem a little wasted, none more so than Tian Jing as the biologist San Lin, She's barely given much to do, which is a real shame as Tian was easily the best thing about the recent The Great Wall, and it would have been great to see more of her here. Conversely, it's always fun to see the great Samuel L chewing the scenery as a soldier, and Reilly is wonderful fun as the lost vet who is overjoyed to finally be found. And as you would expect, Larson and Hiddleston are both solid and watchable, and they give their roles everything they've got.
Skull Island's biggest strength, though, is Kong himself. Unlike most previous outings, Kong is all CGI here, but what CGI – probably the best rendering of an imaginary creature yet committed to film (and yes, even better than the recent amazing Planet of the Apes films). You really do believe that this giant ape is a living, breathing creature, and the film is so much better for it. Kong: Skull Island is most definitely a brash, loud and eye-popping B-movie, and it doesn't pretend to be anything other than that. Often funny and never dull, it's a great addition to the Kong cinematic library – and it really whets the appetite for the King's coming meet-up with Godzilla.