Kong: Skull Island (2017)

The ape headlines and all other parts of the movie get crushed in Kong: Skull Island

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Cast: Tom Hiddleston (James Conrad), Samuel L. Jackson (Colonel Preston Packard), John Goodman (Bill Randa), Brie Larson (Mason Weaver), John C Reilly (Hank Marlow), Corey Hawkins (Houston Brooks), Toby Kebbell (Major Jack Chapman), John Ortiz (Victor Nieves), Jing Tian (San Lin), Jason Mitchell (Glenn Mills), Shea Whigham (Earl Cole), Thomas Mann (Reg Slivko), Richard Jenkins (Senator Al Willis)

Kong: Skull Islandis another attempt to kickstart a monster franchise (rumours abound that eventually Kong and Godzilla duke it out. I’d start worrying about all those major landmarks.). So anyway, Kong: Skull Island sees a team of explorers head towards the mysterious Skull Island to… well to poke around I think. Actually the aims of the expedition rarely trouble the screenwriters so they shouldn’t trouble us. Anyway, Kong (larger than ever) is deeply pissed at this invasion of his territory so trashes every helicopter going. Our heroes are stranded on the island, while their incursion releases numerous monsters who endanger the whole world that only Kong can stop.

This pretty feeble film is a crumby repackage of numerous (much better) films – and yet another example of a generation of film-makers producing films whose only points of reference are older, better movies. This one plays like Apocalypse Now humped by King Kong. Perhaps one day we’ll actually get some truly original, distinctive films that make their own points rather than reworking others. And perhaps we’ll still get genre films that actually are interested in character and development, rather than bashing and blowing things up.

Anyway, the human characters are almost completely pointless in this B-movie retread. I was wondering how they persuaded such an illustrious cast of actors to come on board. This mystery was solved when I watched a remarkably bland DVD-feature – Tom Hiddleston’s video diary. This was basically shots of Hiddleston talking about having a great couple of weeks in Hawaii flying in helicopters, four weeks sunning himself in Australia and three weeks of travelling down a Vietnamese river. And he got paid millions of dollars to do it. No wonder he ends the video saying he’d recommend this life to anyone.

It certainly wasn’t the character that lured him in. Conrad is interesting for precisely one scene – as a troubled drunk in the bar – before he reverts into clean shaven, upright and heroic. His vaunted skills as a tracker are never used. His set-up as the natural survivor and leader never comes to fruition. His relationship with Brie Larson is based solely on them being the two most attractive members of the cast. As for Larson: has an Oscar-winning actress ever followed up her win with such a truly pointless, empty, non-part? 

The film is completely uninterested in human beings – it can’t even bother to make those that buy it early in the film distinctive individuals. Even the ones left at the end barely pass as people we know. Only John C Reilly crafts a truly engaging character as a sort of Ben Gunn figure. Samuel L Jackson gets the “soldier maddened by war” so that we have the typical “the real danger is man” sub-plot, but everything is by the numbers. The characters are so mix-and-match that you feel no peril at any point. It’s so cynical that it can even drop in a Chinese scientist from nowhere (who does nothing at all in the film) solely to try and sell the film to that market.

Our nominal heroes: most of them I’ve already forgotten

Kong is the real focus of the movie – and there is limited interest you can get out of a gigantic ape bashing and ripping things apart. Protracted battles go on and on and on. You really see the difference between the work of Andy Serkis and Peter Jackson in their Kong movie and this one. That Kong actually felt like a character you could bond with. This is just the wet-dream of a boy who grew up watching too many Harryhausen pictures, a behemoth who everyone stares at with wonder but whom the audience never feels any emotional investment in. And for all the faults of Jackson’s Kong, it was a film with brains, with heart, made with artistry and which understood character and emotion give meaning to spectacle, rather than being dull speed bumps a film needs to get over.

The film aims sometimes for an Apocalypse Now-style dread of humanity and the madness of war etc. etc. – but nearly always misses. The humans (and their aims) are such non-event blanks that we can’t care less about the danger of humanity. The film itself has none of the poetry of Apocalypse Now, and instead just wants a lot of (PG rated) violence and a bit of madness. Some of the madness even seems a bit uncomfortable – a tribe of natives are treated as humble exotics. It’s aiming to piggy-back on an attitude of America being humbled by Vietnam and lashing out – but never adds any material in the story to actually take this idea anywhere. Calling characters Conrad and Marlow doesn’t suddenly give it a Heart of Darkness depth – it just makes you think the screenwriters thumbed through CliffNotes before naming their characters. 

Instead the film winds on, never really getting entertaining, boring us with the characters and taking way too long lingering over monsters and bashings. The only thing the film loves is the bang, the buck and the “ain’t it SO COOL” shots of a monster ape hitting things. It’s totally empty, boring trash and it has all the grace and skill of a child’s home movie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s professionally made – but totally empty. Nothing in there is designed to stick with the audience or even remotely make them think. Harryhausen movies had a depth and magic to them that inspired a generation. Films, like this one, churned out by today’s imitators are empty light shows that won’t last a week in the imagination.

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