There’s a lot of psychological distance between the amazing indelible image of television’s supreme naturalist David Attenborough getting his hair messed around by a family of affectionate, curious gorillas and a thirty foot specimen rampaging through New York, before falling off the Empire State. Indeed, it’s a sign of mankind’s contradictory nature when a magnificent hominid primate is safer captive in a zoo enclosure as an exhibit than living wild in its Cameroon habitat.
Thinking of our ability to kill anything that moves and breathes makes light of a major character’s death discovered when a giant lizard vomits out his skull. Kong: Skull Island is an acceptable breezy affair. The giant gorilla with a heart and no genitals stands as a symbol of our selves, good and evil, a kind of Jekyll and Hyde, Dr Shipman easing the pain of the elderly, Blair demanding we wipe out Iraqi civilisation for humanitarian reasons.
Watching an inherently cruel story of death and destruction we’re able to keep at the forefront of our mind the film is a lot of rubbish – piffle is a good old-world description.
Having recently seen The Great Wall, apparently built to keep out hordes of murderous mythical beasts, their agent has managed to get them more work in yet another reprise of a movie starring King Kong, the gorilla with a death wish and the ability to hide on a very small island, and in a warehouse in Universal’s theme park.
This time the carnage is layered with a wartime backstory. After a brief prologue set in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War, the story zips us into the last days of the Vietnam war, a time when Americans were warned Commies were coming. If Vietnam ‘went Commie’ every country from there to Ireland and then the USA would fall like a pack of dominoes under the murderous spell of those baby eating monsters.
In fact, the Vietnam ‘war’ that dropped ten times more bombs on a beautiful country than were dropped in the whole of the Second World War, was yet another illegal invasion by the west, sold to us as the “the domino theory,” replete with false newspaper stories of US ships attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, and innocent civilians tortured.
And so in Skull Island if there’s one monster there has to be many, all coming at us. And there’s lots and lots of ways of killing folk.
Following King Kong tradition, and US imperialist spirit, it’s an American explorer-businessman Bill Randa, (John Goodman) who attempts to convince his government superiors to let him take a reconnoitre to a skull-shaped island that’s been isolated for centuries by a ring of all-powerful storms. Those dark storm clouds never seem to appear on the island, only around the island. We call it fog. Randa deems this “the land where God did not finish creation … the place where myth and science meet.”
Stupidly given the green light, maybe in the hope he’ll gets lost and die, Randa goes off to build a team of clueless cartographers, wacky scientists, and a helicopter brigade led by hard-ass, bull-headed, big-mouth sergeant Preston Packard, (Samuel L. Jackson).
Heading his motley crew is a roughneck -Etonian educated? – limey tracker named James Conrad, (Tom Hiddleston), an actor with eyes too close together, and a twenty inch forehead. Lead love interest? – strictly for women who like posh totty.
Toughing along as ballsy eye candy is photojournalist Mason Weaver, (Brie Larson), who smartly deducts Randa’s “mapping exercise” is a ruse for something darker.
As soon as the helicopters approach the island, however, they’re biffed, banged and swatted out of the sky by cinema’s favourite giant primate. Crashing on different parts of the island, what remains of the team struggles to survive, reconnect and escape. If only Randa had chosen to bag a Munro instead. And so, in time honoured fashion, the hunters become the hunted.
As tradition demands, military automaton Packard and his shoot ’em dead philosophy comes into head-on conflict with the noble Conrad and the compassionate Weaver – especially after they run into Hank Marlow, (John C. Reilly), a stranded, nutty WWII pilot surely there for comic relief. I half-expected him to wear a red nose.
Bearded Marlow – neatly clipped yet not a razor or scissors in sight, has lived on the island for decades a Robinson Crusoe clone. He informs them that Kong is, in fact, the good guy. Turns out Kong protects the island’s natives, unlike his original who ate them on a kebab stick whenever he could get his giant hands on one. Kong keeps everybody, fearsome monsters and all, in check. Kong is the power of Mother Nature.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and his team conjure enough wonder, menace and suspense to keep us watching: it’s that old attraction again, the pornography of violence.
People die in creatively graphic ways, and the spectacle of brawling beasts is beautiful. You get a glimpse into what audiences must have felt when first setting eyes on the original – and probably always the best – 1933 version, when audiences first gaped at Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong and a screaming Fay Wray.
Sadly, like every Kong movie since – and Godzilla too, there’s something cold and soulless about the whole enterprise. In order to keep us happy the studio dishes up the same fare as last time but better cooked and with some garnish, the filmmakers striving for greater resonance and meaning. There’s even an attempt to work a theme of fathers and sons into the narrative, a good Christian ethic.
Marlow yearns to see his son, who was born right before he crashed; Conrad talks about his own long-lost father; soldiers write home to their kids; and Packard, for all his gung-ho attitude, is a father figure to his troops. It’s the American goo that sticks that nation together. This is sugar sweetener as sprinkling. You think you’re getting character study but it’s only icing without the cake. The again, if you watch it in 3-D dodging and diving busy avoiding imaginary objects and half-chewed bodies flying at you, you might not realise the film is straining for intelligence.
There’s some additional business about how Kong lost his parents, but repetition doesn’t give us exploration. In the struggle between sober subtext and monster-movie antics, the silliness mostly wins. I’m guessing, but I could be right, a lot of the cast were more keen on a visit to Queensland, Australia, where the film was shot, than on the screenplay.
Vogt-Roberts’ previous feature was the disappointing independent comedy The Kings of Summer, which for all its shallowness displayed moments of interesting stylization. In Skull Island he shows himself to be a hard working journeyman. You don’t get anything innovative but it’s a job well done. The visual aspects are Grade A, the script B-movie, an action adventure in which to lose two hours.
At least Kong: Skull Island isn’t bedraggled with false perspective leant by swooping camera shots and vertiginous Avatar free falls, or nauseas circular angles around and around, and around talking heads again, (the student filmmaker’s fall back) to keep us interested. There’s no slow-motion boredom, a technique invented by the great master Akira Kurosawa to elevate dignity in death and energy on screen. Like The Great Wall, it’s the effects that keep us seated. And if that’s what you like, then that’s what you’ll like.
Critics are divided between defining it as an exhilerting action movie, and an old fashioned creature feature. They’re all correct. But in the end, Kong: Skull Island is just a lot of monkey business, a remake for a new generation, same as every Star Wars movie since the first one. The Saturday afternoon matinee film has become the week’s main blockbuster, and we all the dumber for it.
- Star Rating: 3 stars
- Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson
- Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
- Writer: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
- Music: Henry Jackman
- Cinematography: Larry Fong
- Duration: Two hours
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?