KONG: SKULL ISLAND



The river snaked through the war like a main circuit cable plugging me straight into Kong!



            Like most people, when I heard that this film was being made, I mentally rolled my eyes and thought: 'What a gigantically bad idea'.  Then, when I heard it was to tie-in with the hugely under-whelming Godzilla (2014), I mentally threw up my hands in exasperation.

Until I saw the first trailer.  This trailer:
 

            After that, my response was a very childish “Shut up and take my money.”  Well, now they have.
            I love a title sequence, they’re a relatively rare thing these days, in the age of the 140 character attention span, but, like Godzilla, the film to which this is, indeed, a stable-mate, we get a big info dump of newsreel footage going from the South Pacific nuclear tests to the Viet-Nam war, while the credits roll.
            But, in truth, that’s pretty-much where the stylistic similarities end.  Where Godzilla was desperately humourless, this film benefits from a vein of humour which runs throughout.  
            This is the first film I’ve seen from Jordan Vogt-Roberts but, according to the Book of Wiki, he has mostly worked in comedy.  It seems that Warners have taken a leaf out of Marvel’s comic, since they learned some time ago (round about the time that Jon Favreau made such a phenomenal success of the first Iron Man) that comedy directors make great crowd-pleasing action films.

Although it lacks the pathos of Peter Jackson's Kong from 2005, it does have many glorious moments.  Images that stay with you long after the drive home!
           The writers must have also watched Jurassic Park (1993) and realised that the thing which made it the gold standard in monster movies isn’t the CGI, to which we are almost immune, these days, it’s Jeff Goldblum’s wry one-liners, it was the guy on the toilet; it was the humour. 
            Here we have the verbal wit of characters like Cole, the pilot (Shea Whigham), drily assessing their world-shaking first skirmish with Kong as “an unconventional encounter”.  But there is also visual irony in the way several characters are snatched away just at the moment of being saved.  One notable moment features a heroic sacrifice which, through a deft use of bathos, is as delightfully horrible as it is laugh-out-loud funny.
            Wisely, this story is set part-way between the nuclear blasts of the 1950s which supposedly released Godzilla, and the present day, giving the film a pleasingly retro feel and allowing the story they are intending to tell over several films to create some genuine back story.  The 1970s Viet-Nam War Movie aesthetic also allows for some kick-ass tunes on the soundtrack!
            Throughout, the concessions to the 70s are handled lightly, most characters wear uniforms, so there’s no danger of flares and, similarly, we don’t have to worry about any sideburns or porn-star ’taches.

 
What's left of John Goodman gives a typically solid performance as Randa, the man who talks everyone into visiting the island.
            In a crowded cast-list, we have, essentially, two groups: The Scientists, led by John Goodman, fulfilling the Dickie Attenborough role of being the visionary who gets everyone to the  island.  Brooks (Corey Hawkins), the Geologist, is there to be Dr. Exposition, teasing us with his theory about the existence of a ‘Hollow Earth’ from which all these prehistoric beasties ( or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, as he is pleased to call them) hail.  It’s a cracking notion, redolent of the romantic science fantasies of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Annoyingly, we don’t get to see that world.  Presumably they’re saving that for a later movie. 
            Then, in the blue corner, we have The Military.  Samuel Jackson’s Lt Col Packard loves his men, and they he, but he can’t face the end of the Viet-Nam war and his impending desk-job, so he is delighted to lead his men into harm’s way one last time.
            Toby Kebbell’s Maj. Chapman  serves, to some extent, as moral compass for Jackson, but they are separated leaving Col. Packard to go slowly mad, while Kebbell is left sitting on a prehistoric log waiting to be rescued.  It’s not the best use of Kebbell’s skills, but it allows Jackson to create a layered and nuanced character, something I didn’t expect to see in a film about giant monsters punching each other.

 
Remember that moment in Deep Blue Sea (1999) when Sam Jackson thought he was gonna get to face-off against a shark, and didn't.  He's been waiting a long time for his big chance
            Acting as referee between these two groups we have the Bear Grylls type tracker, Conrad, played by Tom Hiddleston; and alongside him the ‘anti-war photographer’, Mason Weaver, played by Brie Larson hot on the heels of her Best Actress Oscar.  In his first major leading role, Hiddleston is, essentially, cast against type, but he manages to come across as a convincing action-man (much more so that Adrien Brody - a similarly curious casting choice - in the 2005 version of King Kong, at any rate).  Larson is warm and amusing, but is mostly just there to stare in wide-eyed shock at the latest monster.  But, hey, at least she doesn’t have to do it in heels.

 
"I dunno, I think I could get my eyes a bit wider ..."
            So, the gang saddle-up and fly their ’copters over to this island, with nary a hint of Wagner music, thankfully, and promptly start dropping explosives into the jungle.  Well, when did that ever go wrong?
            Unlike the teaser trailer, there’s no hedging here, no coy playing with the audience’s expectations; on Skull Island things escalate quickly!  Kong is front and centre immediately, plucking helicopters out of the sky and smashing them together.  Just as well they brought a sizeable number of disposable soldiers, 'cos a lot of people die in this first skirmish.
            Vogt-Roberts has a wonderful eye for luminous details so, in the middle of this chaotic fight scene, we get painterly images of Kong back-lit by the setting sun, moody slow-motion shots of the copter rotors, a close up of a shell casing rattling around on a vibrating floor, and these passing moments lift the quality of the whole endeavour.
            The influences on this film are fairly obvious.  They draw on Jurassic Park and the previous King Kongs, for obvious reasons.  The Viet-Nam setting lets them wheel out all the ’60s and ’70s classics last heard in the late ’80s, when ‘the Viet-Nam War Film’ was a short-lived genre.  They pepper the film with nods particularly to the genre’s pioneer, 1979’s Apocalypse Now (hence the entirely official pastiche poster at the top of this review).  Hiddleston’s tracker is called Conrad and the grizzled World War II vet they discover on the island (a delightful John C. Reilly) is called Marlow.  Okay, we get it.  Very good.

 
There are some downright BEAUTIFUL effects shots in this film.  Worth the price of admission alone!
            Just as the film is taking a darker tone, given Packard’s developing obsession with killing Kong at all costs (couldn’t they have bitten the bullet and called him Kurtz?) along comes Marlow with his cheery, eccentric demeanour .  As he shakes the soldiers hands he happily informs them “You’re a good bunch of boys to die with!” 
            It’s worth mentioning that, even though Hiddleston gets top billing, this is an ensemble piece, several characters stand out and have their moments of glory.  And the impression they make is doubly impressive, given that the actual star of the show is the 200 foot tall CGI gorilla, whipped-up by the hundreds and hundreds of IT techs whose names you have to sit through, waiting for that inevitable end-of-credits scene.

 
Wide enough, Jordan?  I think I've got more ...
            Eventually, as Packard’s blood-lust draws them further and further into dinosaur territory, the story starts to get sillier and sillier.  At one point they are stalked by a lizard which gives away its position with flashing lights.  This scene reminded me of Hook being hunted by his ticking crocodile.  Then, the finale is, inevitably, a massive punch-up between massive monsters.  As such, it left me cold, but then scenes of giant robots belting each other in Transformers films has the same effect.  It’s just me, I guess.
            However, the inspiration that I felt was lacking in the closing moments of the film, is more than made up for by the delightful range of characters, the fantastic set-pieces, the clever plot-twists and the overall sense of fun the film maintains.
            Everything that Jurassic World (2015) got wrong, Skull Island gets right!

"How the hell do we defeat this armour-plated dinosaur from the centre of the Earth?"
"I can do my REALLY wide-eyed thing, if it'll help ..."

Kong: Skull Island
Cert: 12A
Dir: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Script:  Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
Dur: a brisk 118 mins. 



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