“All Hail the King”
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly
1933’s King Kong was a black and white movie about a movie crew looking for a lost island, finding a giant ape which is in no way a grotesque caricature of a black man. The ape, Kong, falls in love with the starlet – on some level or other – and the crew catch him, then bring him back to New York, where he escapes and is shot from the top of the Empire State Building by biplanes. It was remade in a contemporary setting in 1976, and again in its original era in 2005 by Peter Jackson. In 1962 Kong was added to the Toho studios kaiju universe in Godzilla vs. King Kong.
The Latest Remake
During WWII, American and Japanese pilots crash land on an island where their attempts to kill one another are interrupted by the appearance of a giant gorilla. In 1974 the island is picked up on satellite imagery. Bill Randa (Goodman), biologist San Lin (Jing) and geologist Houston Brooks (Hawkins) of Monarch tag along with a Landsat survey team to look for monsters. They recruit a helicopter platoon on the way back from Vietnam, lead by Colonel Packard (Jackson) and professional tracker and ex-SAS badass Conrad (Hiddleston), while anti-war photographer Mason Wheeler (Larson) gets herself attached to the survey.
This may seem like a lot of characters, but wait; there’s more. Captain Chapman (Kebbell), a major heading home to his family; Landsat official, Nieves (Ortiz); and members of the platoon including Mills (Mitchell), Cole (Whigham), Slivko (Mann) and Reles (Eugene Cordero).
Arriving on the island, Monarch launches seismic survey charges, drawing an immediate and brutal response from an enormous gorilla (Notary). As the survivors regroup, most are looking for a way to reach their pick up, but Packard is determined to bring down the gorilla, seizing on him as a proxy for the Vietnam War, which he felt was abandoned to no end after costing the lives of many of his men.
Wheeler, Conrad, Lin and Brooks encounter an indigenous population with an advanced culture, and the US pilot Marlow (Reilly) who has lived among them for thirty years, along with his Japanese counterpart until the latter’s death. He explains that the gorilla, Kong, is the last of a race of such animals that protect the islanders from the skull crawlers, subterranean monsters that killed his friend and terrorised the islanders before the arrival of their protectors.
Packard pursues his vendetta, while Conrad and Wheeler try to stop him. Finally, the survivors make a run for the exfil site ahead of a vicious, running battle between Kong and the largest of the skull crawlers, a colossal monster that killed the rest of his family.
What’s wrong with it?
Maybe the best thing you can say for Kong: Skull Island as a Kong movie (rather than as a westernised kaiju film) is that it has all of the usual problems of a Kong movie: Slightly dodgy natives, really horrible wildlife (in this case a giant spider,) and an excess of testosterone.
The plot is slight and the film is full of extremely serious, humourless performances. It really does take itself very seriously for a movie about a giant ape.
Kong looks less like a gorilla and more like a man in a suit, despite being a purely CGI creation.
What’s right with it?
In fairness, the look of Kong is quite deliberate; he’s intended to look more like the slightly off-brand Kong of Toho’s Godzilla movies than Peter Jackson’s colossal gorilla. It’s no accident that this Kong – described as not fully grown – is four times the size of Jackson’s. And on the definite upside, it’s neither the goofy Kong of the 1970s version, nor the racially dubious creation of the 1933 original.
The islanders are depicted as a South Pacific tribe with a resource-poor, but technically advanced culture with sophisticated art and writing, and awesome woodcrafting skills, and Marlow notes that he isn’t sure that they die at all if the skull crawlers don’t get them. A far cry from the shipwrecked Uruk-hai of Jackson’s offering, or the horrible native stereotypes of the original.
While the white folks still get the lion’s share of the lines, fully half of the eventual survivors are non-white.
The brilliantly meta post-credits scene affirms thatthe film occupies the same Monarchverse, not only as Godzilla, but also Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidora.
The costume, sets and even the film grain are wonderfully 1974.
There is an awesome, 1974 soundtrack which adds to the air of a war movie. Most strongly it resembles Apocalypse Now, to match its character names from Heart of Darkness (which was directly referenced as a parallel story in the Peter Jackson version.)
How bad is it really?
Kong: Skull Island is a solid tentpole movie, if a little bit po-faced. I’m not saying it needed to be laugh a minute, but Reilly was a breath of fresh air and a little more humour might have made the characters more relatable. Conrad and Wheeler in particular suffer in comparison to the soldier characters, whose camaraderie – there is a touching recurring motif where they express their thoughts as if they were writing part of Chapman’s letter to his son – provides a simple shorthand into their personalities.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Godzilla was often accused of keeping the goods off display. Not so Kong, which puts its star front and centre after about three minutes, and brings the modern characters onto the island with a brutally intense ape assault.
What’s up with…?
- San Lin’s biology credentials? She barely does a lick of biology the whole film, but totes a rifle like a pro.
- The Iwi’s perfect wall camoflage?
Production values – Exceptional. Once you accept Kong’s fully bipedal stance as a feature, not a bug, Skull Island is a magnificently realised wilderness. 2
Dialogue and performances – The performances are uniformly excellent, but the script is kind of workmanlike. In part, this is because the humans aren’t the point, and in that way the film is definitely superior to, say, the Michael Bay Transformers film series, which gets overblown human drama in the way of the stompy robot action, but with so many characters, more of them needed to be engaging. 8
Plot and execution – The plot is simple, mostly going from place to place and being attacked by action set pieces, but well-paced, and ties into the larger Monarchverse in interesting ways. 5
Randomness – Kong is tight, with very little wierdness. There is a giant spider that isn’t anything more than another set piece, but other than that it’s mostly part of a larger whole. 4
Waste of potential – The film builds on the warm reception of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and is an effective expansion of that movie’s world. It’s kind of a shame not to see Kong in New York, but on that front it was presumably hamstrung by Gojira having to be a surprise in 2014. 4