Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, Toby Kebbell, Thomas Mann, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Jing Tian, John Ortiz and John C. Reilly
Plot: A band of military men, recently sent home from the Vietnam war, an ex-SAS tracker (Hiddleston) and an anti-war photographer (Larson) are gathered to explore an uncharted island.
In fairness to Kong: Skull Island, it is exactly what it says on the tin. Less a remake of the epic 1933 film about a giant gorilla who falls in love with Ann Darrow, a romance which ends miserably atop the Empire State Building, and more of a completely different reimagining which sees a different set of characters, from a totally different timeline (this movie moves the action from the New York Depression to the aftermath of the Vietnam War), go to the same island and meet the same monkey. Everything else is, to describe the movie’s own vocabulary, uncharted territory. And as a result, we have a film that, unashamedly, announces itself as a King Kong movie without the heart. There is no tragic love story, no heart-breaking ending – this is a movie that is far more focused on seeing the titular ape beat the hell out of some over-sized monsters. And your love of this movie will totally depend on how easy that pill is to swallow. Arguably, this is the best we are going to get out of King Kong from here on out, another telling of the same story coming across as a shameless cash-grab. And admittedly, at its very worst, this is a B Movie with a multi-million dollar budget, complete with red shirts, grizzly deaths and a blonde female who looks stunning even when faced with an extreme trek through a hazardous jungle.
Let’s start with the bad. This is King Kong with the subtlety of a brick. The original story had its fair share of grand schemes and wider readings. At its very heart, King Kong is a movie suggesting that man is a destructive force to nature and the true monster in a film filled with monsters. This is never quite told to the audience until the final chapter in the 1933 original, when we close the story with a dead monkey that never understood why the humans were harming him. It was powerful and iconic, cementing itself into movie history. Skull Island is very much about the same moral. An early skirmish between the military unit and Kong sees Samuel L. Jackson’s commander unleashing his inner Apocalypse Now and waging war on the ape that killed his squadron. He, of course, totally misses the point that he was the one to bear down in Kong’s home in attack helicopters. However, this point, while always interesting, is told to us with some much over-direction. It is just missing some subtitles telling us that humans are pricks. One shot sees Samuel L. Jackson and Kong make fiery glares at each other over the wreckage of a burning helicopter. It is a glorious shot and, if anything else, Vogt-Roberts knows his cinematography, but story-wise, it hands the audience too much. There is no fun for this critic in dissecting a point if the director already handed us the sparks-notes reading during the film. Another piece the film critically fails on is over-playing Kong, the star of the show. Despite having all the technology in the world, this is probably the least human Kong on-screen. The 1933 animatronic Kong was bursting with character and 2005 saw Andy Serkis in a motion capture suit taking us on a range of emotions so broad, his characterisation puts most Leonardo Di Caprio biopics to shame. Here Kong’s job is to simply beat monsters up, never really having an Ann Darrow figure to play off against. A large part of this is the script, which, again, overplays the King element of the film. It was hinted in the original that Kong was both king and god of Skull Island. He swung from branch to branch, calling the island his own. The natives feared and worshipped him. No one ever called him King. In Skull Island, John C. Reilly pops up halfway through and takes us on a narrative montage, explaining that Kong is a genuine king and perhaps god to the people here. Kong has been rewritten from a force of nature to a guardian superhero who looks after the animals of the island from the evil Skullcrawlers, the true “villains” of the island. It all gets a bit superhero movie, seeing Kong totally break character to give the lead characters, who he has no right not to kill on sight, knowing glances. In aiming for greatness, Vogt-Roberts has sucked all the depth from his movie.
What Vogt-Roberts has done is give us a fun movie, though. While I sat there, shaking my head at every plot development and predictable “shock” death, I had to admit that I was thoroughly entertained and hardly bored throughout. The fights, while lacking that nail-biting Peter Jackson thrill, are good fun. They are short and sweet (Vogt-Roberts always seems more concerned with the next monster, rather than the one currently on the screen), quick skirmishes that echo the 1933 style over the drawn-out Jackson take on Skull Island. The monsters are far more inventive than ‘dinosaur’ or ‘giant bat’. The marine squad take on a creature that can only be described as a cross between a spider and a tree. A Kraken takes a chunk out of Kong. The Skullcrawlers also make for a fun finale punch-up. Yes, this movie might be shallow, but it is all good fun. Take the characters, for example. They are a cross between stapled cliches, to fun caricatures. The casting is almost a little too good. Put Hiddleston, Larson and Goodman in your movie and you up the bar perhaps higher than Skull Island can reach. Hiddleston, especially, is so far beyond this material he almost seems a little lost trying to worm some depth from the stock hero role. But everyone makes the most out of their part, not settling on coasting through a blockbuster like other top stars are guilty of. Brie Larson, in particular, is a bundle of energy, a true talent. Samuel L. Jackson also steals the best quote of the movie. It is beautifully understated, a reference to one of his past films, and you won’t miss it, when it comes along. Everyone else is perhaps crammed into the plot, one too many big actors in tiny roles. John C. Reilly will be the divisive one. Arguably he has the best role, a pilot from WWII stranded on Skull Island for 28 years, stealing the more emotional beats from the film. But he keeps the role contained using his stock Reilly charisma, which stops the drama from flowing quite as well as it wants to.
Final Verdict: Miles from the power of the original story, or even the reboots, but Skull Island is a guilty popcorn B Movie, improved by top of the range actors.