Ever since the King of the Apes first appeared on the silver screen in 1933 he has been both a terrifying presence and one that has defined cinematic history. The tyrannosaurus may have a memorable roar, but Kong’s chest pounding is just as intimidating. His latest incarnation, in Jordan Vogt-Roberts Kong: Skull Island (2017), falls short of both these ideas though, delivering the biggest modern-day incarnation of the menacing monster but one that manages little with all his might. He’s got the chest-pounding down-pat. He’s got the growl. He’s even got that glimmer in his eye for the busty blonde. But he just doesn’t have that something special, that something incredible. That something that brings the film above a glorified and formulaic Apocalypse Now style (1979) re-telling. Complete with orange hues, helicopter homage and a napalm fireball.
Opening with the crash-landing of a World War II fighter pilot and his enemy combatant, it isn’t that long before we get our first glimpse of the title ape, as the behemoth stuns the duo amidst their clifftop battle-to-the-death. Just as the adrenaline hits though we find ourselves flung forward in time to Washington circa 1973, were we meet a research team made up of Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), who are looking for someone to bankroll their plight to find some mythical animals ‘that were here long before us’. Bullshitting their way on the back of another mission the pair also manage to secure some military backing in the form of pissed-off Vietnam vet Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), his troupe of threadbare men and a chiselled renegade SAS tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). No mission would be complete though without someone to document proceedings (or more accurately some stereotypical female role), with Brie Larson’s antiwar photographer Mason Weaver helping round out the unlikely bunch. Bonding over seventies rock and flying off into a literal electrical storm-laden sunset is just the beginning of their adventure together though, with the crashes, creatures and character-deaths coming thick and fast over the remaining hour and a half runtime.
Visually the movie is a step above Peter Jackson’s 2005 effort, punching above the weight of a cliché storyline and adding some true razzle dazzle. While Andy Serkis’ motion-capture creature may have had far more emotion in his grizzly jowls, the action moments here don’t simply aim to be bigger and better, but deliver something refreshingly intense. When the helicopters go down, audiences cringe at the impact and when the monsters attack, they bring a real sense of weight with them. The ecosystem is more detailed than previous filmic incarnations too, giving birth to razor-beaked pterodactyls, bark-encrusted stick insects, a much-too-large spider, some domineering water buffalo, and the real villains of the piece – some reptilian snake dinosaurs that look terrifying up-front and plain preposterous from the back. In an age of psychedelic superhero films and expansive spacey sci-fi’s, it is a real feat to feel something so very new here on our own earthy shores.
On the acting front, the cast certainly work well together, having clearly got to know each other throughout the months spent filming in exotic and isolated locations. Within the title figures Hiddleston feels the most strangely miscast though, brought in as the muscle, smarts and all round hero archetype. But in trying to fill so many shoes, he fails to fit even one. Not only does his posh accent feel jagged in the jungle setting, but with so much time devoted to the ensemble, we never really get to know his character outside of a throwaway line to his father. Nevertheless, he’s killer eye-candy, his blue t-shirt clinging to him in all the right places to satisfy those who tuned in solely to see him finally headline an action-adventure. In contrast, after her award-winning turn in captive-drama Room (2015) Larson has the hippy vibe down-pat, bringing a real effervescence and spark to the photo-journo. After showing off her comedic chops and badass ‘take no shit’ attitude here, she is bound to please in her upcoming turn as Captain Marvel. Samuel L. Jackson, usually a champion of pretty much any role he’s given, puts in his most unlikable bastard performance in quite some time. And frankly, it’s just plain bad. Maybe it’s the writing – after all he is playing a military team leader who tries to take down an animal simply because he thinks he’s higher up on the intelligence scale. Or maybe it’s because it doesn’t feel any different to the hundreds of villains he’s played before.
Despite being a creature feature at heart, there is a strange political undercurrent to Kong: Skull Island. One so brief one could be mistaken for thinking it’s not there at all. It comes as John Goodman’s Randa steps out of a car at the Capitol, claiming ‘Mark my words, there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington!’ Meant as a reference to its seventies setting - where America’s presence in the unpopular Vietnam War and the upcoming Watergate scandal are full force – of course, it comes off as a tongue-in-cheek dig at President Trump’s turn in office. And for all the sly smiles and quiet chuckles it brings to the face of businessman’s opposition (myself included), it just seems incredibly unnecessary. It’s not just politics that find its way into Kong; Skull Island though, with racial stereotypes also prevailing. It may be set in the seventies, but there is something to be said for a modern story that projects a black antagonist against two white protagonists, at times almost comparing him to the ape himself. Such storyline frailties are never fully acknowledged, but are pushed to the back of the audience’s mind to make way for a killer soundtrack. If Kong himself could be represented by music, it would no doubt be the sweet tunes of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising or the late David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. And not since Star Trek Beyond’s (2016) epic Sabotage scene has music been better matched to a scene than it does when the crew’s helicopters get smacked down by the mighty beast to the hype of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.
If I had to pick a ‘best bit’ concerning Kong: Skull Island, besides the hilarious and heart-warming performance from John C. Reilly and the cult classic soundtrack, it would be that the action sticks to Kong’s home turf. Not once do we see him scaling a skyscraper or simplified to the horrendous line ‘twas beauty that killed the beast’. Instead, he is a badass that wrecks helicopters with no apologies and munches on live calamari like there is no tomorrow. He is an animal: wild, full of rage and without the hints of humanity previous films have given him. When he does get a glimmer of a soul it is well-earned and brief, exactly the way it should be. While at times it feels like the film is overreaching purely for its future instalments, anyone who knows anything about Legendary Pictures pursuit of the perfect monster movie universe, knows that eventually the giant gorilla will face off against Godzilla himself. Something heavily hinted at in the ever-more-common post-credits scene. So, although it may never rise above its b-movie status, Kong: Skull Island is a fun popcorn flick that aims low and delivers. Especially if you’re all about that sequel.
Rating: 3 Growling Gorillas out of 5
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