There is one sequence in ‘Kong: Skull Island’ that absolutely justifies the price of admission. After a series of ill-advised bombs have been dropped to stir the ecosystem within Skull Island, an uncharted landmass that has attracted the attention of military and scientist alike, its nominal keeper of the peace, over-sized lone primate Kong takes out a swarm of helicopters. The director Jordan Vogt-Roberts keeps his camera rooted inside one helicopter as it is grabbed by the mighty Kong and given a good shake. Of course, we know the occupants will survive, at least for the duration, as they include some of the stars of the movie. Nevertheless, it is a thrilling way to get the audience to feel the power of Kong – and also to inspire a future theme park ride.
What does Vogt-Roberts do for an encore? Not much. We are in ‘The Land that Time Forgot’ territory, in which a misfit group end up in unfamiliar terrain and struggle to survive against an onslaught of mostly lethal creatures inspired by Japanese moviemakers in order to make it to the ‘exfil’ site, a term not used in 1973 when the film is set.
It is easy to see why Warner Bros took on the Kong franchise, previously the intellectual property of Universal Studios, Columbia Pictures and RKO Radio Pictures. Here, Kong, whose parents were killed by some lethal underground lizards – their bones remain exposed – is re-imagined as Batman, a tortured hero, who keeps the inhabitants safe from said lizards. Given the choice between Ben Affleck and a motion-captured ape, I know who I would cast in the role. The human cast are simply sightseers or expendable – sometimes both. As anti-war photographer, Mason Weaver, Brie Larson is only the latest Best Actress Oscar winner, after Charlize Theron, Halle Berry and Marion Cotillard, to flounder in a superhero movie.
The film begins excitingly with two airmen – one American, the other Japanese – parachuting onto Skull Island in World War Two. The Japanese man pursues his American adversary, who is about as good a shot from distance as a Stormtrooper in a ‘Star Wars’ film. The Japanese man pulls out a sword, which is exactly what you would expect him to carry whilst using a parachute – what, he might have something stuck between his teeth! As the two men face each other off over a cliff edge, a familiar figure appears. As pre-credit sequences go, this is up there with the best of James Bond.
Thereafter, we are introduced to funding-strapped government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) who pops out of a taxi to comment, as the Watergate hearings were cranking up ‘there may never be a more crazy time in America’ (a Trump barb if ever I heard one). He is at Capitol Hill to lobby for funding for a trip to track down a mythical beast allegedly identified by a satellite photograph. No, I didn’t follow this logic either. Senator Al Wallis (Richard Jenkins under heavy make-up) – a nod to 1960s movie producer Hal B Wallis – turns them down for funds but says they can tag along to a military expedition led by US Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who is on one last mission before his outfit quits South East Asia for good. Jackson is perfect casting for a movie like this, but lately he has been rather dialled-down in the ranting department. I mean what do you have to do to really rile Jackson these days: mistake him for Laurence Fishburne? Jackson doesn’t spiral into an agitated monologue as you might expect. He stares – and stares hard. Vogt-Roberts has turned Jules Winnfield from ‘Pulp Fiction’ into Paddington Bear.
The cast is rounded out by Tom Hiddleston as James Conrad, a British ex-SAS mercenary pool-sharking his way through Saigon, who sounds neither hard-drinking nor cynical. Hiddleston is in good shape and is photographed wearing a tight fitting tee-shirt but he never at any point appears to be playing a character, rather a dispenser of expository dialogue. He strikes up a conversation with Mason because – who wouldn’t?
Vogt-Roberts’ inspiration is ‘Apocalypse Now’, a journey into a forbidding landscape that turned men mad. Except that there are no transformations here. Faculties remain intact; only the body count mounts as a variety of creatures are introduced to reduce the cast list – one character is memorably swallowed up whilst taking photographs. As the character makes his way through the creature’s digestive tract, segments of its body are lit up from within by exploding flashbulbs.
A late entry in the drama is John C. Reilly’s marooned World War II airman, Hank Marlow, who offers comic relief. Effortlessly stealing the movie, he is one of the few characters within emotional depth. His counterpoint is Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell), one of Packard’s soldiers separated from the main group, whose letters are mocked by his companions. He prompts the other soldiers to behave in a less cavalier manner when they go searching for him.
Whereas the last ‘King Kong’ film directed by Peter Jackson clocked in at almost three hours, Vogt-Roberts, who came to prominence with his 2013 indie coming-of-age film ‘The Kings of Summer’, ensures that his film comes in at a multiplex friendly sub-two hours. At times, he cuts corners. In one scene, Conrad and Mason are separated from Packard’s soldiers; in the next they are re-united. You get a sense that some of the guts of the movie – its emotional impact – have been extracted, before Kong does indeed perform this act quite literally. It is far less satisfying than other blockbusters.
The biggest disappointment is Kong himself, a relatively inexpressive ape for all of the state-of-the-art computer-generated chest beating. At one point, Mason touches the bridge of Kong’s nose – an improbable feat as the wind from Kong’s nostrils would make her topple over. It is a gesture that is supposed to speak to Kong’s tortured emotional state. However, guidance on dealing with gorillas recommends that you don’t look them in the eye for fear of being misinterpreted. Instead, you should drop to one knee and appear side on. Given the film is set in 1973, Mason may have heard of primatologist Dian Fossey, who founded the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda in 1967. However, Fossey did not complete her PhD until 1974 and didn’t publish her landmark memoir, ‘Goriilas in the Mist’ until 1983. So Mason’s behaviour isn’t exactly based on peer-reviewed texts.
If you sit through the end credits, you will be rewarding with a scene that begins, ‘why are you sitting in the dark?’ This hints of a sequel that Kong: Skull Island’s $61 million US opening weekend might just generate. This reviewer, though, is unconvinced.