Kong is back, but this Coppola-pilfering reimagining can’t distract from the soullessness of its characters, human and otherwise.
It’s hard to believe that it’s taken 37 years for someone to essentially remake Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now with Colonel Kurtz reimagined as a giant gorilla. But, at long last, the world has been gifted with such a film: Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island, an aggressively-stylised reboot of the King Kong story, presenting mankind’s discovery of the monster as a post-Vietnam mission of Pacific conquest. While bursting with colourful imagery, thanks to the work of Larry Fong (Zack Snyder’s cinematographer of choice), Skull Island is ultimately a deeply vapid piece of commercial cinema, featuring neither genuine humanity nor sufficient anthropomorphism of its eponymous ape.
Aiming to recreate the (moderate) success of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, the film opens with a history-summarising credits sequence, before John Goodman shows up in Washington DC, proclaiming “Washington will never be this crazy again”. Ha ha. He’s here to convince a US Senator (a cameoing Richard Jenkins) to fund a trip to the mysterious Skull Island, which sounds… completely safe? The script is lively enough to enable some enjoyable Goodman/Jenkins banter, but once the action shifts to East Asia, the film lurches into considerable dullness.
Awfully miscast as a soulless military escort, Tom Hiddleston gives the worst performance of his career, while Brie Larson’s take on an ethically-conscious war photographer is equally unmemorable. Both characters could have been cut from the film without anyone noticing.
Hence, it’s left to the experienced character actors to elevate proceedings. Samuel L. Jackson appears, possibly reprising his role from The Legend of Tarzan; possibly not, and treats us to a super-intense speech about Icarus. He also says half of the word “Motherf*cker”, just in case you were worried he wouldn’t get the chance. Shea Whigham and John Ortiz, with a handful of scenes each, build more complex characters than either of the young leads.
As a crazed castaway on the island, John C. Reilly steals the film: his talents should never be underestimated; he’s one of the finest actors of his generation. Meanwhile, Chinese star Jing Tian is awarded a pathetically-meritless role, speaking approximately three sentences: how long before the China audiences realise that Hollywood is scamming them with this sort of stunt-casting?
Vogt-Roberts fills much of the running time with the contents of his Coppola-fanboy wet dreams: washout sunsets, green mist, a classic rock playlist. He forgets that Apocalypse Now‘s aesthetic only works in the context of that film’s timeliness and realism; Kong is a film about a giant monkey, and (in contrast to Peter Jackson’s comparably-grounded 2005 effort, a profoundly superior film) 0ne that features Tom Hiddleston donning a gas mask and waving around a samurai sword. Some stories are not suited to the gritty reinterpretations Legendary Pictures pride themselves on: King Kong SHOULD be silly.
As for the ape himself, this Kong is impressively-textured, but has none of the soul of Andy Serkis’ version, nor the Caesar that Serkis has portrayed with such vitality in the Planet of the Apes films. Skull Island itself is comparable: this is slicker and shinier than Planet of the Apes, but its superior-rendering can’t compensate for the complete lack of personality on display.
An end-credits scene teasing a Godzilla sequel, and an inevitable clash of the monsters, is a reminder of the desperation behind this effort. Peter Jackson remade Kong because he loved the 1933 original. Skull Island was made because Warner Brothers love money.