Two World War Two pilots (one American and one Japanese)crash land on a deserted pacific island. They face off and begin a sprawling hand to hand fight that leads them to a cliff edge. As the Japanese warrior looks to have bested the pilot with his katana - two hands with fingers the size of buses smash down beside them. Drawing his ape self up to see what these puny humans are doing, the eponymous Kong, the King of Skull Island is revealed to the audience and the soldiers. “Kong: Skull Island” wastes no time bringing us face to face with the new, epic face of the mountainous ape.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts has been handed the directorial reins of this massive (in more ways than one) film and clearly has a vision for grandeur of scale required for this latest version of cinema’s original gangster ape. Vogt Roberts characters’ are in awe of the gargantuan beast. Vogt and writers Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connelly's influences are so prevalent that it’s kind of a motley mosaic of “Aliens,” “Apocalypse Now” and splashes of “Jurassic Park.” One can imagine Vogt and co. on the set, graffitiing their helmets like soldiers from “Full Metal Jacket,” with their inspirations. Thankfully, the connections to an impending interconnected series of movie monsters doesn’t interrupt the vision for the tale at hand. In fact there are moments where the “Kong: Skull Island” elevates itself above mere ‘B’ action shlock to reveal some attempts at philosophical purpose.
1973. Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are members of a fringe U.S government organisation called Monarch. When new satellites discover an undiscovered island in the pacific ocean Randa lobbies to visit there before the Russians. Assembling scientists (John Ortiz’s Victor Nieves, Tian Jing’s San), a former SAS tracker (Tom Hiddleston’s James Conrad - wait they named him….hmmm), a photo journalist (Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver) and a military escort (Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard and crew); they set out for Skull Island and get a rude awakening when they find that it’s occupied.
The convoy of soldiers and their misguided bombing runs for ‘science’ are an immediate threat that Kong is quick to deal with. While the experiments are cut short, the preliminary results from their experiments reveal that Skull Island is a gateway, a ‘hell mouth’ in Buffy parlance, to a subterranean world full of monsters. The ‘skull crawlers’ beneath the island are held at bay by the giant and easily irritated monkey stomping around above.
The phrase ‘don’t poke the bear’ comes to mind. The motion captured ape (performed by Toby Kebbell, alumni of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) delivers on the simian reality but also adds that additional sophistication of movement in wrestling and tossing boulders at helicopters with the accuracy of a cricket fielder. This disruption from this group of humans may have tipped the balance on the island and allow the skull crawlers to escape.
Packard (Jackson) will stop at nothing to avenge his fallen crew after Kong swats them out of the sky. He’s intent to avenge what he refers to as the ‘abandonment’ of the war effort. This time instead of overcoming human nature and guerrilla warfare, it’s nature’s ‘gorilla’ warfare keeping man and beast at bay. Man versus nature is not a new concept in science fiction perhaps, but this one handles the balance of nature’s unforgiving temperament and how we, the humans must learn to navigate it as to not leave our species open to something decidedly more unforgiving.
Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connelly take John Gatin’s super sizing of our favourite great ape andtake their time to introduce the array of characters that we’re going to follow. THEY apply logical decisions for their archetypes that make it so easy for you to be drawn in. Gilroy, Borenstein and Connelly reappraise Kong as a force for good and balance, much in the same way we saw Godzilla play the hero in Gareth Edwards’ 2014 adaptation. There’s more to “Kong: Skull Island” than the films that inspired the filmmakers. The ambivalent politics of Kong ARE reminiscent of Paul Verhoven’s “Starship Troopers.” This time Kong becomes an anti-colonial force. It’s often been theorised that the original King Kong was a projection of white America’s fear of the black man and now he’s the might that provides consequence to colonial exploitation and U.S military occupation. “Godzilla” shared a similar ability to absorb the negative consequences of the nuclear age.
Brie Larson’s talent and charisma make photo journalist Mason Weaver an incredibly engaging character. Vogt-Roberts captures her allure and somewhat refreshingly, doesn’t force her to assume the Fay Wray damsel position that perhaps we were all expecting. John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow, the pilot from the beginning of the film is an amalgam of Newt and Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist from “Apocalypse Now.” From the moment that you see him, he releases the pressure valve for the film and gives everyone permission to laugh in the face of the seriousness of this mission’s predicament. He becomes the focus of the film from the second that he’s on screen.
Jackson’s Packard goes full Col. Kurtz crazy and seeks Vietnam War vengeance with the venom of Reagan era movie heroes like Chuck Norris and Rambo. Jackson’s the only actor in the world that could stare down the beast and believe that he’s a match. Jackson’s got that great ability to add dimension to a role so that he feels serious and like he’s sending it up simultaneously. The team of soldiers; Chapman (Kebbell), Slivko (Mann), Cole (Shea Whigham) and Mills (Jason ‘Easy E’ Mills) are a great generational cross section and bounce off one another beautifully. If they didn’t spark, a whole section of the film falls away. Tom Hiddleston is charmless as British SAS operative tasked to track Kong. The whole time it feels like he wants us to believe he’s Daniel Craig and all we’re seeing is Roger Moore.
“Kong: Skull Island” is big action film, with big ideas with a deep ensemble that becomes something more than big dumb fun. Military flexing and laying claim to nature is levelled by the big likeable but not quite cuddly powerhouse Kong.