Sunday 26 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island - The Rough & The Smooth

Going ape: King Kong's back and appears to be in Apocalypse Now

Now everyone has had the chance to see Kong: Skull Island, here's my review. Please note, it contains big spoilers and goes on a bit...

Kong: Skull Island
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson
Running time: 1 hour 58 mins

It's 1973, Richard Nixon is in the White House and the Vietnam War has just ended. Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) - representatives of a top-secret organisation called Monarch - persuade the US government to fund an expedition to Skull Island, a mysterious, uncharted land mass in the Pacific Ocean. Accompanied by 'Nam vet Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson), former SAS tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), pacifist photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and battalions of soldiers and scientists, they drop explosive charges all over the island purportedly to help map the place but secretly to flush out something 'interesting'. However, they get rather more than they bargained for as, disturbed by the wanton destruction of his home, Kong - a 100-foot ape - attacks the fleet of helicopters in which they'd travelled to the island, killing almost everyone on board.

Split into two groups, following Kong's attack - one led by Packard, the other by Conrad - they trek through dense jungle and other inhospitable terrain, encountering a variety of giant creatures along the way, including Kong's arch-enemies the skullcrawlers. Conrad's group also stumbles across Hank Marlow (John C Reilly), a US airman who has been stranded on the island since being shot down during World War II. Marlow has spent the last 29 years living with a tribe native to the island - the Iwis - and he reveals how Kong is not only their god but the last of his kind after the skullcrawlers killed the rest of his family.

The survivors plan to escape Skull Island and, thanks to the ingenuity of Marlow and a long-dead Japanese pilot shot down at the same time he was, have the means. But Packard is going nowhere - not until he's gained revenge on Kong for the deaths of his men...

Life of Reilly: John C is downed WWII airman Hank Marlow


1. I tried - and mostly succeeded - to remain spoiler free for the movie, which meant I had no idea there was a post-credits scene, and managed to miss it the first time I saw the film. These tacked-on-at-the-end bits have become a real pain. After I've sat through a movie, all I want to do is get out of the cinema as soon as possible, not remain in my seat for another 10 minutes while loads of other people rumble past and over me on their way to the exit. I know moviegoers who like to stick around for the credits because they think it's polite to check out all those who worked on the film. But I've already shown my appreciation for those people's efforts, by buying a ticket to see their work up on the screen. Maybe cinema managers could put a little sign on the door as you enter that says: "Please note: This movie has a post-credits scene - remain in your seat to the very end."

2. There are, perhaps, far too many characters, and quite a few of them aren't fleshed out nearly as much as they should be. This is forgivable with some of the supporting players but rather less so when it comes to the film's stars. Tom Hiddleston's Conrad, is posh, English, tough and, erm, that's about it, while John Goodman's monster hunter gets one good line (see below), delivers a whole lot of exposition, and is then eaten. Brie Larson's anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver isn't a lot better served and I suspect discussions about her character might have gone something like this...

STUDIO EXECUTIVE: So, Brie's character... what's she like?
WRITER: She wears a tight-fitting grey vest that shows off her ample bosom.
STUDIO EXECUTIVE: I see... and is this tight-fitting grey vest ever... wet?
WRITER: Sure, once or twice.
STUDIO EXECUTIVE: Cool - this is gold. And does she ever run about in this tight-fitting grey vest?
STUDIO EXECUTIVE: Kid, you're a frickin' genius. Add another 10 bucks to whatever we're paying you.

Vest in show: Brie Larson is photojournalist Mason Weaver

3. On the subject of under-utilised characters, there were times I actually forgot Corey Hawkins' seismologist Houston Brooks and Tian Jing's biologist San Lin were even in the film. It was as if they were only included so they could pop up again in the post-credits sequence as agents of Monarch without audiences wondering who the heck they were.

4. As the US army choppers fly through thick cloud and violent storms to reach Skull Island, Jackson gets to deliver one of his trademark blood 'n' thunder speeches - it's meant to be the story of Icarus, I think. Unfortunately, I could hardly hear a single word of it over the helicopter blades and rumbles of thunder.

5. Cognisant of the criticism 2014's Godzilla deservedly received for showing too little of the monster, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts clearly decided to go in the completely opposite direction. Not only was Kong front and centre in all the trailers but, even if you'd been able to avoid them, he appears in the first five minutes of the film, looming up out of the jungle gloom as a far younger Hank Marlow and his Japanese enemy fight to the death. A little more mystery might have been appreciated.

A monster calls: John Goodman is Monarch agent, Bill Randa

6. So how does Skull Island work as an ecosystem exactly? There are a lot of normal-sized creatures (birds and suchlike), but also Kong and the skullcrawlers (great name for a band). We also see a huge spider, a massive water buffalo, a colossal octopus, and a giant stick insect thing. But only one of each. Reilly's character tells us there are also giant ants and, in one scene, we see a triceratops' skull. Dinosaurs, monsters and regular animals, all living on an island together; some in abundance, some seemingly one of a kind. What gives?

7. Disappointingly, The Dickies' You Drive Me Ape (You Big Gorilla) is nowhere to be found on the movie's soundtrack. Setting it in 1973 is no excuse.

Punk monkeys: The Dickies going ape


1. The sound of old-fashioned fighter planes and their rat-a-tat guns in the film's excellent pre-credits scene - suddenly I was seven years old again and picturing Kong standing atop the Empire State Building. A very evocative opening.

2. I love the idea that someone thought, "You know what a new King Kong movie needs more than anything else? To be a bit more like Apocalypse Now." And that seemingly mad idea works like a charm here. The snazzy IMAX poster at the top of this review and the fact Skull Island was filmed in Vietnam are really just the tip of the iceberg, Francis Ford Coppola's '70s classic was clearly a big influence on great swathes of the film - the choppers, the evocative rock soundtrack (Black Sabbath, Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival), the jungle, the napalm, the big, blazing sun, even the fact Hiddleston's character - Conrad - is clearly named after Joseph Conrad upon whose Heart Of DarknessApocalypse Now is based. And, of course, Packard has gone full Colonel Kurtz crazy by the end of the film.

Gorilla marketing: The official Skull Island trailer

3. “Washington will never be as screwed up as it is now,” deadpans Goodman in an amusingly ironic line at the beginning of the film. Not all of the dialogue sparkles but, every now and again, the film's screenwriting team serve up a real zinger.

4. The look of searing hatred and defiance Jackson shoots the giant ape after the creature has wiped out most of his soldiers in the film's bravura 'Choppers v Kong' battle. Few actors can bring that sort of presence or intensity to bear. In fact, Jackson is the best thing about Kong: Skull Island, his character Preston Packard comfortably its most complicated and compelling player. He's a man clearly defined by conflict and visibly unhappy at the end of the war ("We didn't lose the war, we abandoned it"). Genuinely reticent to return to the States, the chance to beat Kong (after losing to a rather different sort of Cong) is, for him, manna from heaven.

Pulp friction: Samuel L Jackson is vengeful 'Nam vet Packard

5. Reilly's stranded - and slightly crazy - World War II airman Marlow runs Jackson very close in the film's MVP stakes. The fact he's been stuck on the island for 29 years makes him a genuinely sympathetic, even heroic, character (his wife and son don't know if he's alive or dead), but the fact he knows nothing of 1973's 'modern world' is frequently well utilised for light relief. His bemused reaction to hearing David Bowie for the first time is a particular highlight, and you feel like punching the air when he gets a well deserved, emotionally upbeat ending.

6. The human tribe that lives on Skull Island - the Iwis - are refreshingly dull. Lesser filmmakers than Vogt-Roberts (who cut his teeth in TV and with indie hit The Kings Of Summer) would have had Riley's character 'Americanise' them. They'd have been playing baseball, tooting away on improvised jazz instruments, and the whole thing would have been oh-so-cute and thoroughly cringe-making. I really like the fact they are pretty much as Marlow had found them decades before - unknowable, strange and just a little bit threatening.

7. Kong's monstrous foes on the island are christened 'skullcrawlers' by Reilly's character ("Cause it sounds neat"). The revolting creatures - part-crocodile, part-snake, all total bastard - are truly the stuff of nightmares and I hope we see them again.

8. Visual effects have become so ridiculously good in the last couple of years (the likes of The Jungle Book and The BFG seem to have pushed everyone to up their game), that we're now rather blasé about them. But the effects artists deserve a big shout out here because their work is flawless. Not just in the action-packed battle scenes but in smaller ways too. I was particularly struck by the soulfulness of Kong's eyes - you could not just see but feel the pain and sadness in them.

Open wide: Skull Island's skullcrawlers are the stuff of nightmares 

9. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's 1933 King Kong didn't just thrill me as a kid, it was perhaps the first film that managed to break my heart too. As well as being genuinely upset by the movie's brutal climax, for the first time in my life, I'd glimpsed injustice. I really didn't like the way it felt. And the guy at the end of the movie had it wrong. It wasn't "beauty that killed the beast", it was greedy, nasty, savage human beings. Although director Vogt-Roberts can't match the original's emotional gut-punch (Kong wins and lives this time), when Packard announces his plan to kill the giant ape, that sense of injustice came flooding back. "Blimey," I thought to myself, "This bloke really gets it!" 

10. As much as I object to after-credits scenes, at least this one is worth the wait. Firstly because it finally gives Corey Hawkins (as seismologist Houston Brooks) and Tian Jing (as biologist San Lin) something to do but mainly for the line "Kong is not the only king...", and that final spine-shuddering roar. Wow.

Wild thing: Kong battles monsters and men on Skull Island

11. Skull Island is an awful lot better than Legendary's first Monsterverse movie, Gareth Edwards' dismal Godzilla. It's so good, in fact, I'm now very much looking forward to 2019's Godzilla: King Of Monsters and the following year's Kong v Godzilla. At this point, I feel I should mention a 'difficult' Romanian arthouse film, lest you think I've taken leave of my senses. Cristian Mungiu's Beyond The Hills. There you go...

Result: Rough 7 Smooth 11 - it's a comfortable win for a thoroughly enjoyable, albeit imperfect, blockbuster.

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