IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 117 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1973, former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad is hired by government agent Bill Randa to guide an expedition to map out “Skull Island”. Randa also recruits the Sky Devils, a helicopter squadron led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard to escort them. The group is soon joined by pacifist photojournalist Mason Weaver, who plans to expose it believing it’s a corrupt military op. Arriving on Skull Island, Packard’s men begin dropping explosives to determine if the ground is hollow, but the helicopters are suddenly attacked by a huge bipedal gorilla and the survivors split into two groups. Their only hope for rescue is a re-supply team that will meet them at the island’s northern end in three days time. Randa reveals his affiliation to the secret government organization Monarch to Packard and the expedition’s true purpose: to acquire proof of the existence of forgotten monsters….and not just the giant ape….
I guess you could say that they’re playing it safe with Kong: Skull Island. Rather than give us a third remake of the 1933 King Kong, they’ve presented us with a pretty generic, simple monster movie set almost entirely on an island reminiscent of Jurassic Park 3, combined with elements of a war movie, which also functions as a kind of prequel to the 2914 Godzilla. And they’ve generally succeeded, the film’s general lack of ambition not hampering the entertainment factor. For fans of the giant ape, it’s full of little references to earlier films, in particular the much-derided [but very commercially successful] 1977 King Kong, and increases the amount of action after the criticism of there not being enough in Godzilla – you’re never more than ten minutes away from a monster attack or some guns blazing – though despite the trailer suggesting otherwise, the star of the film isn’t in it that much more than the star of Godzilla was in this [though I didn’t see Godzilla’s relatively small amount of screen time to be a problem, he was actually less seen in some of the early Japanese Godzilla pictures]. And the Kong in this film isn’t much like the Kong we know, having such a different personality that some fans are probably refusing to accept that this is a Kong film at all, though one thing seems certain to me – despite my undying love for the 1933 classic which I fell in love with when I was about 8 and still adore – the Eighth Wonder of the World has never looked better.
A prologue set in 1944, taking place as the sun sets and bathes everything in a lovely golden hue [probably digitally enhanced but it looks great anyway], sees an American and a Japanese pilot both crash-land on Skull Island. Before you can say Hell In The Pacific they’re immediately at each other’s throats, but then we see Kong’s huge hand and a very brief, indistinct glimpse of his face before we fast-forward to 1973, the titles rather unnecessarily taking us through some of the important events that happened in the mean time. The expedition to Skull Island is set up in little time, the film adopting an Apocalypse Now vibe as it does, though I didn’t think it was as strong as some seem to do, the only annoying thing for me being the rock numbers – or rather the few bars of rock numbers – that were obviously felt necessary to remind viewers that we’re in 1973. The music is fine and a few of the songs would have worked okay but instead they cram them in and it quickly becomes overkill. The 1977 film is obviously leant on a bit with “not war but anti-war” photojournalist Mason Weaver rather reminiscent of the Jack Prescott character played by Jeff Bridges despite being a different sex, and Skull Island surrounded by a fog bank which keeps it sealed off from the outside world. The journey through the stormy clouds is quite a thrilling moment and then the soldiers start bombing the ground, not caring about the effects on any local wildlife – which means it’s entirely understandable that an enraged Kong suddenly appears to start smashing the helicopters up and into each other in quite a thrilling partial throwback to the climaxes of some of the other Kongs with some great shots, the most notable being a lengthy one from inside a falling helicopter which is then stopped from falling by Kong so he can eat the people inside.
What plot there is chiefly resolves itself into little more than lots of wondering about as the military and the civilians are divided and try to find each other, though when they do things just get worse. Conrad and his lot just want to get to the place where the supply team will appear, but Packard turns into a Captain Ahab-type figure [a perfect part for Samuel L. Jackson] as he becomes obsessed with killing the thing that slew some of his men. “This is one war we won’t lose” he cries in one of several references to the Vietnam war, while Kong, who protects the island against other beasties which live underground, quickly becomes a good guy. Once again we have a Kong who’s just a bit too “nice”, unlike the one in 1933 who may have been largely sympathetic but was still shown as a vicious beast [who can forget the shocking moment he picks up that woman, thinking she’s his love, then drops her to her death when he realises he was mistaken?]. I don’t think we’ll ever see a really ferocious Kong again [and of course they even toned down Godzilla’s destructive urges – at least in terms of what we see on screen – for his American reboot] and I can’t be the only fan of the character to find that to be a bit of a shame.
Fortunately there are still some dangerous creatures in this movie and they’re called Skullcrawlers. The scene where they get their name is quite amusing in a film which has a few chuckles but still – despite what the trailer may have suggested – resists the temptation to drown the story in unnecessary laughs which is more than I say for some recent Marvel efforts which come across as being rather smarmy. There’s a brief encounter between Kong and a giant octopus a la King Kong Vs Godzilla, but the usual dinosaurs are replaced by far odder, even surreal, creatures straight out of an anime, like a giant insect seemingly made of a tree, and a vulture skull supported by lizard forelegs and a snake’s tail. They’re quite unnerving and seem to constantly pop up to attack the humans or to be quickly dispatched by Kong. The largest of them gets a proper fight with the ape near the end and it’s not a great monster brawl but is quite well done all the same. Throughout the film Kong gets to do familiar things like use a tree trunk as a weapon and bend back the jaws of another monster, though he doesn’t do his jaw clicking routine, nor does he fall in love with the heroine. Many won’t miss the lack of inclusion of the usual romantic subplot considering how absurd – not to mention perverse – it really is, though it’s one of the things that makes this Kong lack much of the soul and heart of previous incarnations. And he’s also a hell of a lot bigger than normal – though that’s obviously because they’re setting him up as a future opponent for Godzilla in a remake of the 1962 monster mash-up.
By and large the CGI gets the job done – they are even some scenes in water which tend not to look great in films – and Kong – two parts the 1976 incarnation, one part the 2005 bne but bipedal this time – looks fabulous. While I have a love for stop motion and ‘suitmation’ which will never die, I have to hand it to the visual effects folks in this and Godzilla for making the title characters as convincing as possible, coming across as living, breathing animals, and the large amount of actual location footage is refreshing too. Only the typically poor [why can’t they just go back to blowing up some models like they used to?] computer generated explosions really let the side down. Previously a comedy director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts proves himself to be very adept at handling an action-filled, effects-heavy picture, and resists the infuriatingly common modern temptation to cut sequences up into tiny pieces. He actually wants us to see Kong doing stuff, and he also does his best to make Kong look as cool as possible, giving him some great entrances and shots like being silhouetted against a sunset. And, while it’s probably political correctness that has caused the natives to be portrayed with dignity this time, it’s a welcome change, as is a slightly heavier – without becoming preachy – emphasis on the environmental elements vaguely present in most Kong movies.
While it’s nice that this film is for much of the time an ensemble piece, the human side of things is a mixed bag. Brie Larson is fine though saddled with a thinly sketched role, but Tom Hiddleston – despite being introduced winning a bar brawl – is unconvincing as a gruff mercenary, and Tian Jing barely has a character to even play. If there’s a human star of the show, it’s the perennially underrated John C. Reilly, playing a combination of Colonel Kurtz and Ben Gunn, who steals most of the scenes he’s in, bringing much poignancy and humour. It’s him and the writing and journey of his character which gives some heart to a film which feels a little mechanical. Henry Jackman’s music is adequate, but like many scores today, it has obviously been composed on the computer, not on paper, meaning that the orchestra is limited to only performing what the computer can emulate which results in a somewhat artificial sound. Overall though this is still a decent adventure romp and is probably – taking into consideration the fact that it aims a bit lower – a slightly better film than Godzilla, something which bodes very well for this developing franchise that, even if you’re not a rabid giant monster fan like myself, you have to admit is a breath of fresh air in a cinematic world dominated by superheroes. And – well, you probably already know that there’s an end credit scene. It’s quite cool even if you’re not a Godzilla fan, but if you are than it might make you feel like cheering. I know I did.