Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L Jackson, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell, Shea Wigham, Thomas Mann and John C Reilly.
Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly.
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
The latest incarnation of moviedom’s iconic great ape is the sole convincingly emotional character in Kong: Skull Island, a decibel-defying mash-up of grand-scale monster movie, grunt-level military fantasy and state of the art effects showcase. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has the good sense to leave his human stars alone to earn their paycheques, instead ensuring the big, beautiful visual thrills of Hollywood’s umpteenth monster-monkey movie are delivered in spades.
As the Vietnam War effort winds down, crypto-zoologist Bill Randa (John Goodman) grasps his last opportunity to oversee a military-led exploration of Skull Island, an uncharted South Pacific jungle paradise. Soon, he and offsider Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are on the high seas, under the slightly-too-twitchy eye of career soldier Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson, bringing his unhinged A-game) and the heavily armed troop of future dead people. Along for the ride are Tom Hiddleston as dreamboat tracker James Conrad (who, oddly, does little tracking) and Brie Larson as tough gal photojournalist Mason Weaver.
Braving a massive storm front and emerging over the spectacular environment (mostly Australia and Vietnam), Vogt-Robert’s indulges in what amounts to helicopter porn, his whirring camera putting you in the cabins of the aircraft, capturing both the scale of the expedition’s journey of discovery and the terror as the angry ape brings the squadron mercilessly back to earth. A wondrous CGI creation that conveys both body (muscle and hair convinces) and soul (yes, they get the eyes right), the majestic monkey doesn’t take kindly to being flushed out by Randa’s dirty-bombs. Desperate to regroup, the survivors make their way through jungles filled with all manner of fantasy-sized beasts, most worryingly the breed of subterranean screeching lizard-things who share some personal history with the tall, dark leading man.
The production’s website boasts that the narrative is “an original new adventure”, and that is true; there is little of significance that ties Kong 2017 to past versions of the classic adventure story. The ‘Beauty and The Beast’ heart of Kong mythology, embodied by Fay Wray in ’33, Jessica Lange in ’76 and Naomi Watts in ’05, is hinted at but never fully developed. Turning Oscar’s cache into cash, Larson only has two key scenes with Kong. She does all she can with her feisty photog, which mostly means reinforcing the feisty and straining to find chemistry in the couple of meaningful scenes she has with her other leading man. Hiddleston conveys Conrad’s alpha male qualities via a series of square-jawed, chest-out moments, as if he is posing for his action figure mould, which is actually all that is required in the context of what is going on around him.
Film and audience alike are grateful for the arrival of John C Reilly as the WWII pilot Hank Marlow, who has survived on the island since his plane was downed there in 1943. The actor provides great comic relief just as the film needs it, but also highlights (via an admittedly exciting prologue) one of the many illogical developments in the script written by the trio of Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly; what strategic military value would an air battle have over an island so remote as to remain undiscovered for another 30-odd years?
Less artful but more fun than the producer’s last monster reboot, 2014’s Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island neither demands nor encourages intellectual engagement. What it strives to be is a big, loud, bloody action-adventure, the kind of mid-March blockbuster that signifies the awards season is over and the heady days of summer movie going are nigh. One of Jordan Vogt-Robert’s directing strengths is that he has the chutzpah to forego otherwise crucial film staples as character dimensionality and subtext, but confidently delivering chest-thumping mass entertainment.