Following a brief prologue, the action jumps forward to 1974, where government officials Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) assemble a ragtag renegade crew to survey the uncharted Skull Island.
Among the recruits are a former SAS tracker (Tom Hiddleston), a photojournalist (Brie Larson) and a helicopter squadron led by the crazed Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). The intrusion doesn't go down well with the island's protector – 100ft ape King Kong. But with something even deadlier stirring in the earth, Kong soon becomes the least of their concerns.
This isn't the film you think it is. In stark contrast to somewhat serious first trailer, Kong: Skull Island is fun – pure matinee pulp masquerading as a modern blockbuster. At a time when producers have more franchise clout than ever, Kong is a rare director driven effects movie.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Kings Of Summer) keeps proceedings energetic and fantastically absurd – the first time the island is glimpsed, it explodes on screen, obscured behind a Richard Nixon bobblehead. The action is slickly staged and thrillingly kinetic, with a pleasing tactility to the effects work, while the exotic location shoot pays dividends.
It is a satisfying repositioning of Kong as monstrous lonely god. The first time we see him he is framed to fright. But he is also a sympathetic beast, Terry Notary's performance capture and Industrial Light & Magic's artistry working effectively in unison. Fur and sinew moving naturally, Kong feels tangible. Besides, there are also giant water buffalo, serene log creatures and Skull Crawlers – giant, bipedal lizards who killed Kong's family and, given the chance, would wipe out all human life on the island. If anything, more indigenous island life would have been welcome.
Likely there wasn't time, given the enormous ensemble cast. Practically everyone gets solid screen time, even if it is never enough to care when they die. Jackson is suitably intense as the Ahab-like military man, but it is John C. Reilly's (Carnage) marooned World War II pilot who gets the most compelling arc, a heartfelt story underpinning his insanity.
Toby Kebbell (War Horse) draws the short straw as the clichéd Private, while Hiddleston and Larson are curiously underserved by straight laced dialogue and a noticeable absence from the action. The film also takes a few too many cues from Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005).
Kudos, however, to a franchise film that doesn't go to agonising lengths to set up its sequel, outside of a crossover teasing post-credits scene. Though with Kong and Godzilla existing on opposite ends of the tonal and aesthetic spectrum, reconciling the two will first require a battle of the behemoths behind the scenes.
It may be derivative and a little dumb, but there is plenty of personality and panache to spare in this monster blockbuster. With a few reservations, Kong: Skull Island is a swinging success.