Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins
Since he first scaled the heights of the Empire State Building way back in 1933, King Kong has endured as one of the most iconic creations in cinema. I mean, we all know the story, right? Uncharted island, mythical creatures, giant ape etc. It’s a tale everyone and their dog would know. Hell, even Peter Jackson re-envisioned the story back in 2005 with his gloriously epic – if somewhat bloated – iteration of the giant primate. So, if you’re going to bring the big guy back, then you better have a damn good reason or a new angle to justify its existence beyond reasons that are purely of the financial.
Luckily then, Kong: Skull Island has enough going for it to set it apart from previous iterations, whilst still remaining true to its title character’s legacy and origins. Featuring plenty of awe-inspiring monster mashing spectacle and beautifully realized design, Kong: Skull Island is a wonderfully entertaining B-Movie made on an A-list blockbuster budget. Unfortunately, it’s almost squandered by bland characterization and a narrative that is perfunctory at best. In fact, Skull Island is such a mixed bag of monster mash and near woeful everything else, that I initially found it hard to reconcile between the monster smash’em up and the meandering banality of the human characters we were supposed to be rooting for.
After a Hell in the Pacific inspired prologue, the film fast forwards to 1973 with the US winding down its operations in Vietnam and the Nixon administration engulfed in Watergate. A prescient piece of dialogue proudly proclaims that “there will never be a more screwed up time in Washington”. John Goodman and Corey Hawkins’ government scientists manage to obtain funding to organize a military led expedition to an uncharted island in the middle of the pacific in an attempt to discover its long-hidden secrets before those pesky Russians get there first.Along for the ride are Tom Hiddleston’s gruff (yet still remarkably posh) ex-SAS Captain, Brie Larson’s photojournalist, and Samuel L. Jackson’s helicopter squadron leader still reeling from the US withdrawal from Vietnam. It isn’t long after these intrepid group of explorers arrive in their fleet of choppers, dropping their explosive seismic charges, that they awaken the island’s titular inhabitant, who proceeds to reduce the fleet to nothing more than smouldering ruins, stranding our explorers on an island with secrets far more terrifying than a pissed off ape with a grudge.
That’s pretty much it as far as the narrative goes, but hey, you don’t go to a film involving a giant ape who fights lizard monsters for narrative complexity. And my word, do we get some glorious monster action. Director Jordan Vogt Roberts and his team of screenwriters wisely ditch the narrative of old, keeping the action confined to Skull Island and splitting our group of heroes into two separate groups, as each desperately tries to keep one step ahead of the terrifyingly well-realized creatures populating the island.
Despite only having directed the small independent coming-of-age drama The Kings of Summer, Roberts proves himself more than adept at handling the monster mayhem with aplomb. However, in the midst of it all, Roberts and his team, including mo-cap performer Terry Notary, never forget to imbue Kong himself with real personality. Unlike Gareth Edwards’ more sombre (and ultimately quite dull) rendition of Godzilla back in 2014, Kong is a magnanimous presence, brought stirringly to life by Planet of the Apes veteran, Notary. His battles with the lizard inspired “Skullcrawlers” have a real weight, and whenever any larger than life creature is on screen, the film is a joy. One masterful scene set in a mass graveyard will no doubt go down as one of the standout action sequences of the year.The 70’s period setting is also a huge benefit. With echoes of Vietnam and even the US involvement in territories around the globe, the film works in elements amongst the monster mashing, complete with a soundtrack designed to evoke memories of past war movies.
However… remember that mixed bag I was talking about? All those thrilling monster battles amount to nought when you have characters you care absolutely nothing about. Charismatic performers like Hiddleston and Larson are reduced to nothing more but bland cyphers, existing merely to push the plot along, whilst others, particularly those in uniform, are left wandering without much to work with. Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly are the only ones managing to come away with any sort of depth, with Jackson as the battle-hardened Packard, searching for a new war after the blunder of Vietnam, whilst Reilly inadvertently becomes the heart and soul of the film as a World War II pilot left stranded on the island since 1944. The dialogue is hammy, characters make silly decisions and the lack of complexity makes it hard for us to give a damn about anyone.
For many, this won’t be a problem and some would say that I should lighten up – who needs depth with a movie about a giant ape slugging it out with giant lizards? Well, when you don’t care whether characters perish or survive, all that fighting comes to nothing, precisely because there are no stakes involved.
Kong: Skull Island is a mixed bag that does exactly what it sets out to do but will hardly last long in the memory banks.