Kong: Skull Island is the fourth American incarnation of the giant ape (check out the others and more in our Origins article here) and the hope here is for its studio, Legendary Pictures, to introduce him to their newly established “Monsterverse” after Godzilla’s re-birth in 2014. In many ways, K:SI improves on Gareth Edwards’ ponderous Godzilla, but it still fails to give us a compelling reason to see these icons return to the screen beyond generating box office via empty spectacle. Not that K:SI doesn’t try to give us a little more to think about this time around.
First up, if you were expecting a self-aware romp in the vein of the original Pirates of the Carribean which was stipulated in the film’s excellent trailers then K:SI is going to ask you to adjust your expectations on the fly. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts -in his first big budget helming job- has more serious allusions in mind, and possibly ones not befitting of a film about a big monkey punching other big creatures in the face.
After a brief flashback to 1944 where two downed World War II pilots have their fight to death interrupted by a massive furry paw, we zip forward to 1973 as the US is about to pull out of Vietnam and John Goodman’s crackpot government official must quickly get his expedition to a newly discovered island underway before funding is pulled. We then meet a sizeable cast of characters before we’re whisked off to Skull Island to drop seismic charges in an attempt to prove Goodman’s “Hollow Earth” theory.
A common criticism of the three previous versions of the standard Kong story is that it always features a laborious trip to Skull Island but K:SI wastes no time whatsoever in introducing our protagonists to the massive monkey as he takes down their helicopters in a fit of rage. The survivors of the group get separated with one half led by Samuel L. Jackson’s war-loving Colonel aiming to take down the mighty Kong, while the other -headed by Tom Hiddleston’s British mercenary and Brie Larson’s war photographer- seeks to get the hell out of dodge by reaching the boats at the other end of the island.
Along the way, the latter group meets John C. Reilly’s stranded WWII pilot who’s become accustomed to the island’s unusual nature (he is nowhere near as much fun as the film’s promos led us to believe, though). What follows is a rather breathless sequence of monster showdowns and chases through the jungle in which the human characters are just as often witnesses as prey, before the two groups must decide to either let Kong continue to protect the island from the vicious “Skull Crawlers” or to destroy all monsters once and for all. All sounds like a great recipe for some big, dumb fun, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.
Do you remember when Jamie Bell wouldn’t shut up about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in Peter Jackson’s King Kong? Well, it seems Vogt-Roberts wants to draw a similar comparison (it’s no coincidence Hiddleston’s character is called Conrad) by aspiring to 1979’s Apocalypse, Now. It’s not really clear why these two filmmakers feel that Joseph Conrad or Francis Ford-Coppola both missed a trick by not having a huge rampaging ape in their masterpieces of war and madness but it’s certainly a pretentious delusion to believe all this monkey business is in the same vein.
There’s no doubt the inexperienced director wants K:SI to feel as much like a war movie as a monster mash and the two aspects aren’t always easy bedfellows for him. At best, you could relate K:SI to James Cameron’s Aliens -which is a genuinely successful attempt to wrap Vietnam allegory in a creature feature- but it feels more like Jurassic Park 3 crossed with Tropic Thunder. This isn’t quite as damning as it sounds thanks to some excellent special effects and a distinct aesthetic. These help create a vague sense of homogeny to proceedings, which is necessary since the film frequently bites off more than it can chew.
CASTING THE NET TOO WIDE
While K:SI boasts an impressive all-star cast combining screen stalwarts like Goodman and Jackson with hot properties Hiddleston and Larson, the film simply cannot decide who the protagonist is and spreads its focus too thinly across its characters. John Goodman, in particular, gets precious little to work with in a cipher of a role that exists purely to get the everybody to the island in the first place. Samuel L. Jackson acts by numbers as the film’s antagonist as the embattled army colonel who takes an instant dislike to Kong and seeks to strike him down with furious anger.
Brie Larson’s plucky photographer is spared the Darrow-in-distress duties that one would usually associate with the main female cast member when this ape’s on the prowl. As a result, though, her character is completely tokenistic as she gets one all-too-brief interaction with a more gentlemanly Kong than we’re used to. Still, it’s far from the fall from grace suffered by most young Best Actress winners when taking on more light-hearted projects after getting their hands on the Oscar.
However, someone who can hang their head in shame and see this as a missed opportunity is “the man who would be Bond”, Tom Hiddleston. After his convincing turn in the BBC’s spy thriller, The Night Manager, last year left many feeling his promotion to 007 was almost inevitable, his bland performance here as a straight-up action hero should be giving the Bond producers reason to consider his appointment a little longer.
Of course, the protagonist of a Kong movie should be the King himself, but this version of the prodigious primate seemingly mistakes simplistic for iconic. While he’s not quite the peripheral figure that Godzilla was in his own movie 3 years ago, there’s so little to Kong other than him wailing on a selection of monsters -who mainly look like they failed the audition for the latest Dark Souls game- that he’s difficult to care about in any meaningful sense. He’s certainly a far cry from Andy Serkis’s superbly sympathetic simian, who reduced many an audience member to tears with his final fall over a decade ago. If this was supposed to be a re-invention of Kong’s character for this new franchise then they forgot to actually give him any fresh characteristics, apart from being less fond of kidnapping screaming damsels these days.
All of this just brings us to one question that’s sprung up all too often with recent attempts to build a new shared cinematic universe: why did we need yet another film explaining the origin of character we’re all overwhelmingly familiar with?
LEAVING US HANGING
Although there are a few nods to the existence of a certain unusually large lizard roaming the oceans, K:SI gives us precious little to go off that it is part of something bigger. Anyone hoping for any tantalizing shots of Toho’s famous monsters coming into contact with Kong or each other will be sorely disappointed. On the one hand, this does allow K:SI to stand as a singular piece rather than an episode but there doesn’t seem to be much groundwork being done here for future installments.
This leaves Kong: Skull Island feeling less like an origins story and more like an excursion to have some fun with the movies’ most famous ape; all of which would be have been more welcome had Legendary Pictures decided to monkey around some more rather than upping the portent instead. It does demonstrate some progress from 2014’s Godzilla for the so-called MonsterVerse, but they need to pull these beasts into sharper focus if they wish to supplant the previous versions in audiences’ hearts and minds.
‘KONG: SKULL ISLAND’ HAS JUST ENOUGH ACTION AND SPECTACLE TO JUSTIFY THE PRICE OF A TICKET. BUT IT’S ANOTHER INCIDENTAL ORIGIN FILM IN A FRANCHISE THAT’S RISKING THE SAME FATE.