Kong: Skull Island (Cert 12A)
US (2017) Dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts
It seems you can’t keep a good ape down. Having first appeared in 1933, the brainchild of Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace has since spawned a son, a distant cousin, a Japanese cousin, a Japanese mecha-cousin, a cartoon version and two remakes and a largely ignored sequel. Now, 84 years later, Kong returns for another big screen outing!
From the writer of the recent Godzilla reboot, Kong: Skull Island is set in 1973 and begins in the US where the government is in disarray, Watergate is about to burst wide open and the military is still smarting from pulling out of Vietnam. Feeling the country is losing face in the eyes of the world, Bill Randa (John Goodman) of a secret organisation called Monarch proposes the US military restores its name by scoring an easy victory somewhere, and has just the location – the remote and uncharted Skull Island.
While Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) rounds up his team of soldiers, Randa recruits SAS tracker Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to document the mission. Upon arriving at Skull Island explosives are dropped from the helicopters which enrages the island’s guardian, the sky-scraping ape Kong!
The age-old adage “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” is pretty much the moral of this of this creature feature and serves as a rather bold indictment of the US military and its habit of putting bravado before manners. It is rather uncommon for a blockbuster of such a fantastic nature to have such a pertinent message but there is a chance this will have escaped flag waving members of the audience.
Viewing this from an outsider’s perspective, it is not difficult to side with Kong as the helicopters encroach on his air space and drop bombs over the dense forestry – even if it is to the sounds of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. One is forced to roll their eyes and think “What do you expect?” as one by one Kong swats the invaders from the sky, racking up an impressive body count in short order.
Pacifist Weaver has her suspicions about this mission which Randa reveals at gunpoint to being a cover so he could rediscover fabled creatures long since forgotten by history. The bombs, designed by seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), certainly did that, awakening the giant reptilian beast called Skull Crawlers, which prey on anything that moves.
Being your typical bellicose US soldier, Packard decides that Kong must pay for killing his men and certainly remains undeterred by the Skull Crawlers showing up. Even the sagacious advice of US pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), located living with a native tribe having been stranded on the island since 1944, can’t persuade Packard to pack up and go home quietly.
In the battle between man and beast, the odds usually go in favour of the beast and in this case, since Kong is immensely bigger than the Empire State Building his 1933 ancestor climbed, Packard is dreaming if he thinks he and his few remaining soldiers can do Kong any harm, even with their firepower. This is not a spoiler just common sense, something lacking on Packard’s part.
The 1933 original was a groundbreaking marvel on the special effects front, not limited to Kong himself but the camerawork during the climactic battle atop the Empire State building. With CGI and advanced technology at their disposal of the legendary John Dykstra and his team, the collision between Kong and the helicopters share the same adrenaline rush of dread and excitement felt in the original as another aircraft is swatted from the sky.
On this occasion we are afforded a 360-degree internal view from the helicopter as Kong’s mammoth fist connects and, if lucky, the ground comes spiralling towards the passengers with alarming velocity. The unlucky ones find their craft ripped into pieces or used as a club to hit another helicopter with expected devastating and fatal results.
Kong himself is masterly creation in terms of acknowledging its 1933 predecessor in its design whilst echoing the primate mannerisms and movements of Andy Serkis’ performance in the 2005 remake. The Skull Crawlers DNA is found in sources observant anime fans will have spotted; director Jordan Vogt-Roberts cites Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and sci-fi classic Neon Genesis Evangelion as influences for their designs.
Vogt-Roberts is less subtle with his homage to Apocalypse Now, lifting the helicopters against the setting sun shot wholesale on a few occasions, although his has the added bonus of a giant ape blocking the scenery. Like Peter Jackson’s 2005 film, this is epic in scale and presentation, making this a feast for the eyes in terms of imagery and action.
Don’t go looking for character development in this film, or for that matter any semblance of character definition, as you won’t find any. In fact, some cast members are arguably indispensible, including Tom Hiddleston’s SAS soldier. He may have top billing but this role could have been filled by anybody and if he was killed off with the others, no big deal.
Similarly there just to make up the numbers is Chinese actress Tian Jing as a Monarch biologist, possibly also to bolster the diversity issue with many male roles played by black actors. Jing is the only other prominent female alongside Brie Larson, another role feeling like token casting but as the resident photographer, Weaver at least has a purpose beyond eye candy – except in Kong’s eyes of course!
It becomes apparent very quickly that the key to enjoying this film is not to take it seriously otherwise one becomes consumed with picking at the minutiae that doesn’t warrant such attention. So, sit back, switch off your brain and enjoy the thrill ride that Kong: Skull Island provides in spades.
Oh, and be sure to stay until the end of the credits – I didn’t and missed a teaser for a possible sequel…
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black