This may be one of the few times my aversion to trailers may not have paid off. Happiness and satisfaction, as always, are functions of expectations. My baseline going into Kong: Skull Island was Peter Jackson’s King Kong which I can’t say I properly engaged, but damn, the sequences with the oversized spiders and scorpions and man sucking grubs still creep me out to this day.
Fast forward to the latest King Kong reboot, this time helmed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (going the mega-budget way after the wonderful Kings of Summer) and I hoped for a sense of trepidation, some Predator-esque chills and horror. I got none of that. In truth, I was in a state of confusion trying to come to terms with the film’s tone. The script’s unevenness doesn’t help that regard. Satire, camp, action, comedy – Skull Island juggles all these tendencies with the comedy being the biggest ball.
The simpler things stand out in Skull Island; like the presentation of nature as a character, our protagonist, embodied by a spectacular ape who isn’t filmed with Gareth Evans’ sidling reverence of Godzilla but as an overwhelming visual presence with a propensity for the wrath of the Old Testament God but equally capable of the tenderness drawn out of the New. Kong is such an awe inspiring entity, brought to life with ferocious grace by the magic of motion capture. The human characters come off as insignificant as their size and limited development. But then we spend most of our time with them, a bit of a problem.
After a quick opening salvo running from World War II, to the winding down of the Vietnam War, Washington is basically in a heightened mess with antiwar protests and Richard Nixon. In a moment that surely was included after the US election, John Goodman’s Bill Randa, a conspiracy nut quips: “there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington”. I bet that would have been much funnier coming in a bundle of 80’s cynicism concocted by Oliver Stone. The antiwar vibe certainly feels like its pandering to Stone. Randa worms his way through protesters at the Capitol to talk his way to funding for an expedition to a remote island off south East Asia.
Randa is sure there is something hidden away of that uncharted island. Much like the audience, he knows what it is hence his request for a military escort led by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson playing Samuel L. Jackson playing the black-ops interrogator in Unthinkable) and an ex-SAS tracker, Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Just to assure as Conrad is a bad ass, we get to see him beat up some guys with snooker accoutrements. To round off the top of this ensemble cast (which includes Toby Kebbell, Corey Hawkings, Jason Mitchel, John C. Reilly among others) is a renowned antiwar photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) who tags along to cover proceedings.
It’s been a while since I could pen down sheer spectacle as a film’s most appealing component. Skull Island probably peaks from the sequence where the crew flies in on choppers towards the rugged island through a menacing swirling storm. The film proceeds to evoke one of the most iconic antiwar moments in film from Apocalypse Now with a chopper blasting out some rock into this virgin atmosphere as other choppers bomb the island. In Coppola’s 1979 classic, Vietnamese farmers are seen running for their lives much like the innocent fauna here. But Vietnam didn’t have Kong who starts nature’s counter attack with a tree trunk smashing through a chopper.
Kong’s vengeful onslaught leaves the crew stranded on the island. The question is do we really care? Packard and the army are the enemy here. Jackson’s character is actually well rounded, hurting from the abandonment of the Vietnam war. The epic fury in his eyes after Kong’s wrecking ball act is straight from hell, complemented by the raging flames around him as Kong’s stunning silhouette basks in the sunset. Packard belonged in a more nuanced film, to be honest. Whilst there are some jarring components to the military contingent, like the excessive firepower and damning toxic gas, the other soldiers sometimes border on characters from a Tropic Thunder sequel.
A certain sense peril is grossly lacking. There is an early line about the island having basically everything looking to kill you. There is some danger in form of the expected oversized creatures and a creepy giant spider and a leviathan of a giant octopus. But after an hour, I was out there like the Conceited meme. Most of the characters that amuse will make it alive. Then John C. Reilly’s character, Hank, shows up, in a moment that cannibalises Apocalypse Now. Much like Jackson as Packard, there are merits to Hank, who is a great comic presence with a lot of organic wry liners (and a ton of exposition) but they really should not be in the same film.
It’s clear early on nature receives top billing. All Hiddleston has to offer are running, reaction shots and that one ridiculous 300-lite action sequence. Larson’s Mason is pretty much in the same boat though she provides the humanist connect between man and nature. She’s the white woman in a film about King Kong so feel free to wager on Kong carefully cradling her in his massive palms. Vogt-Roberts does well to milk some empathy for Kong and you could argue no human in-between was needed. He impressively establishes some vulnerability to Kong; not only physically with deep cuts in his palm from helicopter propellers or the gash on his arm but, with his compelling back story and an underlying sense of duty.
Oh, there is a big bad in the form of a vicious prehistoric-looking reptile that would be dark, mud and dragon type if it were a Pokémon. The battle, kinetic enough, lacked the cinematic grace of Gareth Edwards’ heavenly handling of the final battle sequence in Godzilla. A sense of disappointment lingered for me owing to the ultimately dull narrative. The screenplay is all over the place tonally but its vision of Kong the spectacle is commendable. The anti-war subtext was welcome, though dated and it made long for the Vietnam war dramas of whence, which I guess is something.
By: Delali Adogla-Bessafirstname.lastname@example.org/Ghana