Monday 13 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island (USA 2017: Dir Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

Perhaps learning some lessons from Gareth Edwards' meandering, ruminative reboot of Godzilla back in 2014, Jordan Vogt-Roberts seems almost afraid to apply the brakes to his Indiana Jones/Apocalypse Now re-imagining of the Kong legend. It's in no way a deep film despite all the US 20th century historical and military allusions, but it's a very entertaining ride.

After a prologue, introducing the now mountainous Kong to the audience almost immediately - and to give you an idea of size, if the original Kong from 1933 scaled the Empire State Building, this one is more likely to leapfrog over it - we're quickly given the setup. It's 1973 and newly slimmed down John Goodman is Bill Randa, a government agent with a sideline in bonkers conspiracy theories, a bit like a more grizzled Fox Mulder. Randa persuades the Government to let him travel to Skull Island, ostensibly to study the geophysical layout, recruiting a crack team to accompany him, including a British Special Captain, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and helicopter ace Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson). Yes the stars are indeed out for this one. Along for the ride is a leftie photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) who, perhaps to mock the year in which it's set, is introduced with the old "I-thought-you-were-a-man-because of your-name" line, which you know means she's going to get all feisty in the final reel.

The team helicopter through the the treacherous micro-climate surrounding Skull Island, with Randa revealing his real mission; to flush Kong out of hiding by detonating some terrain disturbing explosives. This is more successful than hoped, giving us our first full look at the beast as he reprises his 1933 Empire State Building routine and mashes up most of the incoming choppers.

The survivors of the attack (including of course all of the aforementioned stars) re-assemble in two separate groups and begin a trek north through the jungle. Their only hope of escape is to rendezvous with the supply team who will be stationed to pick the party up in three days time. Along the way the survivors encounter various Skull Island fauna, Kong (of course), and also the spirited figure of Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly in the film's only semi comic performance), a missing presumed dead pilot who crashed on the island back in 1944.

Kong: Skull Island is refreshingly not that interested in taking itself too seriously (the fate of Edwards' Godzilla and many similar recent YA targeted films of that ilk) despite the shedloads of money spent on it and the star cast. Interestingly there are so many stars that no one person really gets the opportunity to grandstand, with the exception of Reilly's turn as Marlow. His character name is just one of a number of overt references to Conrad's novella 'Heart of Darkness' (as well as Hiddleston's character's surname, Marlow is the central narrator of Conrad's story) and the film inspired by the text, Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 epic Apocalypse Now, which litter the movie, at least in its early stages; one almost expects images of the choppers flying to the island, for example, to be accompanied by Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries' on the soundtrack.

Coupled with the historic setting of the film (the end of the Vietnam war being a backdrop, again linking it to Coppola's film) these more serious elements could have bogged the movie down, but the whole thing is handled so deftly that they, along with the lost tribe of island natives who pop up, and the menagerie of beasts on display, are just different elements in a film which thrives on, and is successful precisely because of its grab bag of thematic treats.

Kong: Skull Island is a feast for the eyes. The island locations (Hawaii and Vietnam, apparently - so is our beast a Viet Kong? Sorry couldn't resist) are sumptuous, CGI and real locations seamlessly matched. Kong of course looks fantastic, although we've been spoilt by similarly expert simian CGI artistry recently, courtesy of the 'Planet of the Apes' reboot movies. One isn't invited to feel too sorry for him (although a moment when he has Brie Larson in his gigantic paw - a nod both to the original film and John Guillermin's 1976 remake) is a rare moment of reflection in an otherwise pretty gung ho film. The rest of Kong's island mates are a rip roaring bunch of critters too, and some old school shock moments add an extra layer of fun to scenes where the humans stalked by 'just-exactly-what-IS-that?' beasts.

Here's a two hour classy B movie movie that knows exactly what its doing, never flags, and thus doesn't give you the chance to step out of the picture and cynically question why you're watching it. However after sitting through the end titles waiting for that post credits scene it did occur to me that if the director had taken the Toho route and just had a guy in a suit playing Kong, they could have saved themselves an awful lot of salary costs.

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