By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
The prospect of yet another King Kong reboot seemed like a risky one, especially after Peter Jackson’s respectful 2005 love letter to the 1933 original was deemed a box-office disappointment, despite making $550 million worldwide. With so many Hollywood blockbusters unable to deliver the goods in recent times, it is with joyous surprise that Kong: Skull Island bucks the trend, forging the kind of colourful and exhilarating large scale entertainment that audiences are crying out for.
The opening, set in 1944, may take movie-goers by surprise, and film buffs may think they’ve walked into a redux of John Boorman’s 1968 classic Hell in the Pacific, instead of King Kong. This prologue segues into stock footage of mankind’s triumphs and missteps over the following decades, eventually finishing on the year 1973. With the Vietnam War coming to a disastrous end, and Richard Nixon’s administration also in turmoil, the country is definitely in a chaotic state. Attempting to make the most of this political upheaval is conspiracy theorist Bill Randa (John Goodman), who along with fellow colleague Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), convince exasperated Washington senator Willis (Richard Jenkins) to endorse a fact-finding mission to an uncharted South Pacific island. This location, which might soon be discovered by Russian satellites, may or may not contain creatures never before seen by human eyes.
Partnered with a scientific company, represented on the expedition by Victor Nieves (John Ortiz) and his associates, the group will be transported to the mysterious island by the U.S. military, who are pulling out of Vietnam in large numbers. Heading what will be deemed a military operation is Commander Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a decorated veteran who not only detests that the war is ending, but is furious that the whole endeavour has been classed as a failure. Itching for combat, Packard jumps at the opportunity to enter and conquer unknown territory. His platoon, which includes Cole (Shea Whigham), Mills (Jason Mitchell), and Chapman (Toby Kebbell), are suitably unimpressed with the new detail, as they were looking forward to seeing family and friends.
Additionally hired for the trek is noted tracker/mercenary James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and ambitious war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), even though both feel they are not being told the whole story by Randa.
When this heavily armed collective reach the suitably named Skull Island, they will be greeted by a colossal beast who doesn’t take kindly to strangers dropping bombs on his homeland.
Kong: Skull Island strives to be more than your typical summer blockbuster, working a number of serious themes underneath the destruction happening onscreen. The anti-war sentiment supplied by screenwriters Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Max Borenstein (Godzilla) and Derek Connolly (Safety Not Guaranteed) is apparent throughout, and though some of the writing does become somewhat heavy-handed, the trio give audiences something to think about while they are enjoying the explosive action. This examination of war and a want for peace, told via a story filled with fantastic beasts, is reminiscent of Jules Verne, and it’s a connection not lost on these savvy scribes. The strong influences of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick enrich this already knowing script. Admittedly, some of the comic dialogue doesn’t work, with certain, lightweight banter missing the mark.
It is fascinating (and a little depressing) that film-makers still need to concoct films that are filled with war-related symbolism and politically charged messages, using the fantasy genre to comment on hostilities occurring around the world and at home. Kong: Skull Island would not be out-of-place alongside The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), It Came from Outer Space (1953), Godzilla (1954), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The technology may have changed, but the fears largely remain the same. The film cleverly draws on the human race’s cycle of violence, effectively connecting bloody conflicts of the past such as WWII and the Vietnam War, to contemporary ones still happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. A scene involving a huge, smoking crater, full of bones and toxic green gas, bluntly sums up what the film-makers are trying to say. The era-specific songs are exceptionally well-chosen.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose only other feature film credit is the low budget, coming-of-age drama The Kings of Summer (2013), wears all these cinematic references on his sleeve. Inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary Apocalypse Now (1979), Vogt-Roberts lends a similar visual style and surreal tone to proceedings, except this trip into madness actually involves real-life monsters. Some may quibble that the homage almost borders on imitation, but Vogt-Roberts uses Conrad’s source material and Coppola’s one-of-a-kind movie extravaganza purposefully, successfully fusing compelling ideas with potent images.
That is not to say there is no fun to be had at all. The island full of spectacular creatures is present, as are a number of encounters involving either Kong or the human visitors, both of whom battle some of the local wildlife. Again, a number of films come to mind, such as Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island (1961), The Land That Time Forgot (1975), and The People That Time Forgot (1977). One moment involving Hiddleston and a samurai sword shows that Vogt-Roberts isn’t afraid to go comic-book crazy. The final confrontation between Kong and his main monster nemesis, in hindsight, might go one step too far.
Technically the film is outstanding. The visual effects, largely by Industrial Light and Magic, are completely convincing, making sure that Kong is a plausible creation who believably shares the same space with his human co-stars. The same attention to detail is lavished upon other massive beasts who roam the island landscape, something some big budget productions fail to do. However, regular wildlife doesn’t fair as well, particularly any deer that are spotted in the area. The score by Henry Jackman (Captain America: Civil War) is nicely old-fashioned, and the editing by Richard Pearson (The Accountant, United 93) never misses a beat.
Vogt-Roberts and cinematographer Larry Fong (Watchmen, Super 8) work wonders as a team, employing rich colours, impressive space and depth, to magnificent effect, and use the 70’s period to provide memorable, thought-provoking imagery. The pair also place Kong: Skull Island among that small group of films that imaginatively weaves the 3D process into the tale they are putting on screen, using the much-abused (and misunderstood) format with style and flair.
Performances serve the material well. Hiddleston, coming off strong work in Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak and Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, is cool and confident as J. Conrad (his character’s name has added meaning). The same goes for Brie Larson, who successfully follows up her brilliant, Oscar-winning turn in Room, and will soon be seen in Ben Wheatley’s 70’s set, John Woo-inspired action/thriller Free Fire. The supporting cast are fine, including Goodman (great to see him back in full swing again), Whigham (Take Shelter, Splinter, True Detective), Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton), Tian Jing (The Great Wall), and Toby Kebbell, who also provides the motion capture work for Kong.
The two stand-outs however are Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly, the former getting his meatiest role to date in a blockbuster film (and making the most of it), while the latter offers a perfectly pitched comic performance as Hank Marlow, managing to be funny while not trivialising his character and the predicament he has found himself in.
Kong: Skull Island is a wild ride, filled with excitement and adventure, smartly interlaced with intelligently crafted messages that are placed behind all the fantastical mayhem. It is damn good entertainment, and a prime example of why it is essential to see films like this on the big screen. By the way, make sure you stay through the end credits.
Bill Randa: This is a satellite photo of an unchartered island in the South Pacific, a place where myth and science meet.
Houston Brooks: We’ll use explosives to shake the earth, helping us to map the surface of the island.
James Conrad: You’re dropping bombs.
Houston Brooks: Scientific instruments.
James Conrad: [to Randa] You came here looking for a tracker. Who or what am I tracking?