Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Running Time: 118 mins
Synopsis: It’s 1973, the Vietnam War has just ended and thanks to the development of new satellite imagery a mysterious hidden island in the Pacific has been discovered. An expedition mounted by John Goodman’s researcher and former SAS operative James Conrad (Hiddleston) comes under numerous threats from the volatile island, not least an 100ft ape by the name of Kong.
On the surface Monster movies should be relatively simple to make, take one large beastie, throw in a few more little ones for him to fight, mix in some human characters to act as exposition deliverers not to mention cannon fodder and you have your movie. But just doing that can offer thrills but little else, standing out from the crowd is a tough challenge, and one Legendary Entertainment is tackling with their new Kajiu (as these big beasts are referred to) franchise. The King of all Monsters, Godzilla, was first on the scene back in 2014, and was a flawed yet effective beginning. Helped immeasurably from its stunning effects and well-constructed action beats but let down from poor characterisation. The next chapter in this saga (Godzilla 2 and Kong V Godzilla are both incoming) introduces that legendary monkey, King Kong, and ultimately cannot fix the problems its elder brother faced.
Barely catching a breath we witness the WW2 set battle between a Japanese and American pilot, that begins in the air, lands on the titular island and ends with a very rude and very large guest to break up the fight. Then it is onto another major war, the Vietnam War, as it comes to an end. Into this pot steps John Goodman’s Monster researcher Bill Randa, who works for Monarch (a company that played a major part in Godzilla), and wishes to use some of the fleeing military to venture to a newly discovered (and conspicuously skull shaped) island. Goodman gives good foreboding here, but it is almost immediately apparent that this script will be gloriously on the nose. Cheese I can stand in a film, particularly one starring a giant ape, but here it falls far too heavily on the other side, with strong performers such as Goodman failing to give them the necessary wink wink this sort of material craves.
No sooner has Bill been given permission that we meet the various other members of the exploring team. All whom get little to no backstory. Tom Hiddleston’s Captain Conrad is introduced, conveniently, beating up some thugs in a bar (just so we all know he is not to be messed with) before Goodman helpfully tells us he is “the best tracker in the business.” Hiddleston starts off bored here, and maintains that throughout the entire flick, with little of the charm or charisma he so displayed in pretty much any film he features. Brie Larson also suffers the same fate, never elevating her war photographer Mason Weaver, to anything more than a female bystander. Attempts to forge a kinship to Kong, one of numerous slyly clever nods to the original 1933 story, are haphazardly delivered, and do not lead anywhere notably interesting.
The army grunts that join their expedition fare slightly better. Led by Samuel L Jackson’s Colonel Packard, they are a ragtag bunch that build a genuine sense of camaraderie. Key standout is Shea Whigham who brings a delightfully dry sardonic delivery to some of his lines, and fosters some warm kinship with his fellow soldiers. Jackson’s aggressive Colonel is most intriguing though, faced with the humiliation of their Vietnam retreat, to then see his men brutally crushed by this 100ft ape fires a rage in him that inevitably drives him to the point of madness. It is a familiar idea, and one of many thematic ties to Apocalypse Now, but he gives it a ferocity and genuine pathos of how much all this loss weighs on him. Plus who else could stare down a giant monkey, bathed in flames, and look conceivably like he could be the scarier monster?!
The films biggest (human) standout is no doubt John C. Reilly as the downed WW2 pilot from the opening. Stuck on the island for 20 years and becoming embedded with the freaky looking not to mention completely mute locals, he brings a mixture of big laughs and mournful sadness for the time he has lost trapped there. But here is the rub, and one that is encompassing of the entire film, the tone he strikes is wildly all over the place. He seems to have stepped in from another, more comedic, film. Despite some soft laughs to begin with and a pumping 70s soundtrack, the tone is one of measured seriousness. Similar to 2014s Godzilla but here the leap it takes introducing Reilly’s character adds an altogether more silly lighthearted feel. Not that some dosage of humour would have gone amiss in that 2014 monster fest (in fact it is one of its key flaws) but here the balance is not very well struck. Coming in at moments of horror or drama and undermining the atmosphere it works hard to build. He is certainly funny and offers some of the most crowd-pleasing moments outside of the giant beast fights, but it tilts the film clumsily off its central axis.
All this is well and good but what of the actual creatures, the reason most audiences will even venture to see this. Well it is a mixed bag. Kong himself is a terrific creation. Bigger than in previous versions (how else can we expect him to face off against the behemoth that is Godzilla) and framed by Vogt-Roberts in some truly breathtaking shots. Kong manages to tug on the heart, without the need to shoe-horn in the female infatuation of other versions, but through a family saga. This Kong is the last of his kind and has to face the monster that killed his parents. Motion captured by Terry Notary, he is undoubtedly the star and although not photo-real he is more tangible than ever, helped by setting him amongst the real environments of Vietnam itself.
The other beasts that call the island home are a mixture of monstrous and friendly. All are well-designed but can be tiresome through the overwhelming CGI utilised to bring them to life. Action beats are steadily paced throughout the film but are marred by hopelessly childish reliance on slow motion. I understand Vogt-Roberts wishes us to linger on these moments but they actually lose their potency after the hundredth time of seeing things slow right down. At one point there is slo-mo within slo-mo and it elicited unintentional guffaws. The adventure feel does become infectious as you wonder what insane scenario the team will come across next, and seeing people being viciously skewered by these monsters never gets old, but the editing is slapdash at best. Characters will be on the floor catching their breath from a nasty encounter, then immediately we cut to them in a whole new location continuing the same conversations is just one example of how the film lurches forward with no logic. It settles down towards the end as the separated teams converge for a final showdown, but big action scenes such as the helicopters V Kong battle as they arrive on the island is nothing but confusing.
Having only directed one film, the little seen indie The Kings of Summer, I can’t help feel that Jordan Vogt-Roberts has bitten off more than he can chew here. He is clearly a fan of this universe, and there is sense of playful inventive energy to the creatures and the set-pieces. In fact said helicopter scene has numerous grace notes that catch the eye, but the desire to keep this film moving forward comes at the loss of tension and steady story building. Critics may have baulked at Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla but his eye for structuring a set-piece was hugely effective, not to mention he crafted some keen emotional moments in the opening stretch. Here, though, there is a lack of control and the hideous script does little favours. A series of clunkers that even the best of the biz cannot make believable, it is meant to tap into that flighty adventure serial spirit but is instead hopelessly inept. Kong: Skull Island certainly gets the big guy correct, and a post-credit teaser of the larger world he inhabits is tantalising, but until these films get the human element going in the right direction they will never be anything more than throwaway noisefests.
Verdict: Big action, big effects and one, stunningly realised, big ape offer thrills but a wavering tone, flat characters, an even flatter script and flimsy direction leave this Kong a little less Kingly than anticipated.