Kong Skull Island: Film Review
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, John C Reilly, Samuel L Jackson
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Kong may be King of all he surveys, but in this mesh-up of Apocalypse Now and The Land That Time Forgot, his human counterparts are a little wanting.
But that's not to detract from the spectacle of the mega-monster's return in this fantasy film so reminiscent of the past.
As the new franchises start to emerge, a Monsterverse is being set up and it's this latest which reintroduces the beastie last seen ploughing down Auckland's streets under Sir Peter Jackson's watch.
Starting off over the South Pacific in the dying days of the Second World War and then zipping forward to 1973, the story's thrust centres around an expedition to a mysterious Pacific Atoll known as Skull Island. Headed up by John Goodman's government agent Bill Randa, and made up of a ragtag bunch including a former SASer turned mercenary (Hiddleston, complete with piercing blue eyes), a photo-journalist (Larson), a bunch of scientists (including The Walking Dead and 24: Legacy star Corey Hawkins) and a bunch of just-out-of-Vietnam grunts, headed up by Samuel L Jackson's jaded-after-years-of-war-and-lacking-a-purpose Colonel Packard, the gang set off.
However, upon arrival at the Island, they're attacked by Kong, the protector of the world.
Smashed to pieces, the group's split asunder and finding themselves separated in a jungle environment and with different creatures all around threatening them, the race is on to get to the extraction point alive.
But, it soon transpires Kong is not the only threat on the island...
Kong Skull Island is, in effect, a generically pulpy trash monster-bash of a movie.
Its B-movie ethos is redolent of the old Saturday morning matinee screenings, where stars would slum it to be seen next to the creatures and the mass audiences who'd lap the pulpy trappings up.
In fact, the film's A-listers simply do no more than find themselves lined up as prey in a kind of brutal meshing of The Land That Time Forgot and Apocalypse Now in Kong Skull Island.
And much like those films, where despite Doug McClure's acting chops, the creatures and the FX were the stars; and depressingly, with Kong Skull Island, that's the same here.
Once again, a rote collection of humans, with scant character thrown in amongst an ethnically diverse bunch (for which Kong Skull Island gets a thumbs up) are proffered up to be fodder for the creatures, and we're supposed to care thanks to a modicum of interaction.
Essentially, the movie slows when they have to escape the island, with tantalising bits thrown in simply for set up. The worst is Jing Tian's scientist who says very little and is clearly there to tick some kind of box for Chinese box office. Even Hiddleston's clearly-modelled-on-Nathan-Drake mercenary reveals that his father went missing over Hamburg in a desperate ploy to set up a dangling thread for future films. Larson fares equally badly, and while she doesn't exactly go full Fay Wray, her character's clearly wanting. As the film goes on, it's clear the director's more interested in visuals and positions the characters in stock shots that feel ripped from a storyboard or an art book.
More successful is the arc afforded to John C Reilly's hirsute lost-in-time pilot, whose quirks in the trailer belie a deeply resonant emotional story that's worth the price of admission alone. There's a large case to state that Reilly is actually the lead of this film without a shadow of a doubt.
Equally, Samuel L Jackson's Colonel, a soldier without a war, but looking for an enemy is an alternate take on Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kurtz, that's as daffy as the preponderance of director Vogt-Roberts' over-reliance on slow-mo helicopter shots and 70s soundtrack that could be a Vietnam movie's greatest hits. (It's ok, we get it - you've seen Apocalypse Now and are rather fond of it)
The film's at its dumb and derivative best when it doesn't monkey around and when its titular monster is on screen, battling either the human invaders (though admittedly, it's no competition) or fighting to protect the other creatures from the beasts that lie below. Kong's CGI is an impressively solid piece of work, with the ILM team preferring to concentrate on the scale and scope of the beast and a few facials, rather than the full range of emotions. And some sequences of Kong against the backgrounds really do shine, a testament to both the effortless melding of CGI and atmosphere.
It's here the sound and fury of the film builds on its B-movie aspirations and while it's clear this is Legendary Pictures' push for a franchise (with a Kong Godzilla pic in the works), if future films are to be successful, they need to do more work on the human elements of the film or abandon that and just fully embrace the monsters-fighting-each-other premise.