Kong: Skull Island is a strange beast of a movie. It is the third American reboot featuring “The Eighth Wonder of the World”. While it does follows the traditional plot of the those previous films (a mysterious island is discovered; a mad/greedy/stupid entrepreneur makes a voyage to chart it; chaos ensures in the form of a giant ape), this latest rendition oddly seems to owe more to the narrative and visual design of Francis Ford Coppola‘s classic war movie Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, on which the former was based, than any creature feature flick.
Set at the end of the Vietnam War, a US government official (John Goodman, in the Carl Denham/entrepreneur role) spearheads an exploration of an uncharted island, bringing along for the ride a squad of helicopter pilots (led by Samuel L. Jackson), a British mercenary (Tom Hiddleston) and an anti-war photojournalist (Brie Larson). From the moment they get off the boat (in a sequence that deliberately evokes the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ invasion scene) the plot switches to Apocalypse Now. This includes a voyage up river in a small boat, the obvious twist of who the real Colonel Kurtz is, and the addition of John C. Reilly as a watered down version of Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist that is even named Marlow after the protagonist from Conrad’s source material.
Much like Coppola’s masterpiece, Kong: Skull Island tries to invoke some political commentary and make some points about the rights of indigenous people to defend their lands against foreign invaders. But whereas Coppola created a film that’s power was in its hellish, vivid and powerful journey of a man’s descent into hell as an inevitable by-product of war, Skull Island is really about, well… a giant monkey. Unlike the previous iterations, once they get on the island the action stays there for the duration of the movie – a wise choice that streamlines the story.
The story is derivative and is at times laughably stupid (including the actions of possibly the worst army officer in cinema history who seems to actively want to attract the attention of the monsters that call the island home). Furthermore, the screenplay offers very little for an incredible cast to chew on (particularly Larson who after her Oscar last year is entirely wasted here). However, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and cinematographer Larry Fong do manage to conjure up some undeniably powerful imagery throughout the film – especially in putting Kong and the other creatures in size perspective to the humans. They also create what will be two of the year’s most spectacular action set pieces in the helicopter fight with Kong (guess who wins) and the crazed graveyard shootout.
Despite its failings, Kong: Skull Island is at least trying to make some serious points, and even if it isn’t smart enough to pull it off that’s worth at least something when most big budget remakes don’t even make an attempt. It has also been made by some clearly skilled individuals, and even if this wasn’t the best use of their talents, it does make for a relatively innocuous two hours at the cinema.
Kong: Skull Island is in cinemas from 9th March through Roadshow Films.