Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson, John Goodman, Toby Kebbell, Thomas Mann, Shea Whigham, John C Reilly
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
In 2012, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts trudged up into the woods to shoot a small independent film. The Kings of Summer was about a group of children armed with nothing more than endless curiosity and the limitless possibilities of childhood. Away, finally, from the adults they despised, they built a tree house, swam in lakes, explored their new world, and schemed about hiding away in it forever. They didn’t need monsters and mayhem. They could just dream it up.
Three years later, Vogt-Roberts would return to explore the wilderness once again, this time with approximately $185 million more in his pockets, some of the biggest actors in the world by his side, and all the resources he could ever need to make his wildest fantasies a reality.
Funnily enough, none of the state-of-the-art technical wizardry, none of those glamorous faces, untouched by the grit and grime of an unfriendly jungle, not even the stunning sight of a monkey the size of a building could create that same sense of awe those kids conjured up with just sheer will and boundless imagination.
Were it not for the classic films he is pulling from – films like Platoon and more obviously, Apocalypse Now – Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island, which is set during the last days of the Vietnam War, could easily be mistaken for a prettier, more cine-literate Transformers film, obsessed as it is with providing little more than the empty sight of watching large creatures pound each other to a pulp while thinly drawn humans annoyingly keep getting in the way.
But between all that monster action – which, let’s face it, should be enough for most – there is the inconvenient task of populating the story with real people. Here, they made the completely miscalculated decision of going with quantity over quality. At any given point in this film, there are at least a dozen central characters, a vast majority of whom are there just to make sure Kong and the rest of Skull Island’s monstrous inhabitants get breakfast every couple of hours.
While condolences must go out to each and every one of them for having been treated so poorly (except perhaps Samuel L Jackson, who doesn’t seem like he cares anymore, as long as his contractually obligated yelling quota is met), spare a thought for poor Toby Kebbell, who spends the entire film by himself, either writing letters, or fantasising about writing letters.
And then there’s Tom Hiddleston, who plays a Bear Grylls-type named Conrad because, you know, his heart is full of darkness. He’s hired by John Goodman’s mysterious scientist, who brings together a set of diverse characters to help him explore the legendary Skull Island, as the survival guide of the expedition. The group is rounded off by a bunch of army guys, led by Samuel L Jackson’s noisy lieutenant, several expendable scientists, John C Reilly (marooned on the island since World War II and perhaps the only one really having any sort of fun), a photographer (played by the wasted Brie Larson), and the obligatory Chinese actor.
Kong is the second film in the MonsterVerse series that began with 2014’s Godzilla, which is a much better movie than most give it credit for. It is, in a nutshell, everything that this one isn’t: Visionary, stylish, tonally consistent, and surprisingly philosophical. New species are discovered everyday on our planet, which is a staggeringly humbling idea. Godzilla was intelligent enough to explore this theme. Humanity has spent an eternity deluding itself into believing that it is at the top of the food chain. For a planet that has yet to be fully explored, yet to have all its mysteries solved, it is foolish to think otherwise.
Unfortunately, Kong is mostly empty spectacle. It’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong; DP Larry Fong, forgive the pun, apes the hell out of Vittorio Storaro’s work on Apocalypse Now – right down to the smoky, auburn hues – but his visuals are by far the best thing about this film. Especially in the action sequences, which are undeniably impressive. But with what only barely qualifies as character development for Kong, who should ideally have been number one on the list of characters that needed fleshing out, the film makes him seem like little more than a temperamental beast who is overused to the point of being blas.
Their insistence to contrive him into virtually every pivotal moment in the film completely robs him of all majesty. Had the humans been more interesting, their awestruck words would’ve done the trick, but they aren’t, so it doesn’t.
Godzilla meanwhile, is a textbook (written, of course, by Jaws) example of how to correctly portray monsters in these movies. The idea should always be to use them sparingly, to milk the legend, to build suspense, and not to chuck them about willy-nilly like they’re some sort of sheep.
This is King Kong! It should’ve roared, it should’ve been wonderful, towering, breathtakingly larger-than-life.
I never thought I’d say this, but were that uneasy romantic subplot from Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong to be removed, it would be a better movie than this.