Flashes of visual panache can’t save an uninspired monster mash

David G. Hughes on Jordan-Vogt Roberts’s ‘Kong: Skull Island’ (2017)

The character of King Kong — noble ape of Brobdingnagian proportion — is synonymous with cinema itself. Kong has no respectable literary heritage to speak of, there is no stage-play, he was born out of a tawdry desire to show and impress; a crude and unsophisticated spectacle if ever cinema had one. The image of the beast ascending the Empire State Building in the original 1933 film is not only one of Hollywood’s favourite iconic images, it is simple genius. Taken from an exotic ancient homeland against his will (an intentional slavery allegory?), standing atop 1930s industrial New York confused and in love, merely reminiscing upon the film can bring one to sweeping romantic sentiment. Peter Jackson’s affection for the character was mined to wondrous effect in his re-make; Christmas Eve 2005 was a formative experience for this critic, then a young boy, who sat down and was duly sailed away into a distant adventure truly epic and majestic.

Unfortunately, Kong: Skull Island lacks the romance, the sweep, the spirit and the poeticism of these prior incarnations. Now property of Legendary Pictures’ nascent ‘MonsterVerse’ — a shared cinematic world occupied by classic movie monsters – the character’s defining feature has become that he’s BIG and he hits stuff good. Perhaps this is an apt metaphor for cinema as it stands today.

In order that the ape be in fighting form to do battle with his future adversaries, including Godzilla amongst others, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has made Kong a 100ft bipedal man-ape, so gargantuan that he blocks out the sun. This is but one departure from what we may expect from the Kong mythos – there is no Anne Darrow, no sacrifice scene – and as vital as it is to offer something fresh, much of this feels glib and done only with future cross-over films in mind. Much has been made of the films 1970s historical setting, which, rather than baring thematic resonance (incessantly compounding the point that your film is a Vietnam war allegory doesn’t give it automatic intellectual credence) is merely an aesthetic experiment: an excuse for a jukebox soundtrack filled with Bowie and Jefferson Airplane and to have Kong face-off against Nixon’s military-industrial machine, napalm and all. Truth is, despite its Apocalypse Now (1979) pretensions, Kong: Skull Island is almost completely devoid of curiosity or dramatic originality. Vogt-Roberts seems to be making his creative choices based only in his adolescent affirmation of what looks “cool!” By the time Kong punches helicopters out of the sky as we would squat a fly, no action scene quite matches this introductory “unconventional encounter,” as one character humorously describes it.

Like Godzilla (2014) beforehand, the film is littered with an A-list cast to make up for an inevitable human deficiency within films about mute monsters. The problem is a one-dimensional script strips the human characters of any discernible attribute – they are hollow shells, cast either for name appeal, physical appeal or both. Tom Hiddleston plays Captain Conrad (a superficial reference to Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness no doubt), an ex-SAS soldier employed to act as badass for the expedition into unknown territory. Hiddleston, the old Etonian, Royal Academy alumni and ex-boyfriend of Taylor Swift, fails hopelessly to persuade as a rugged Bear Grylls type, even if his newly-amplified biceps attempt to convince us otherwise and do most of the acting for him. His introductory scene, a bearded bar-fight, falls flat in its attempt to establish his “don’t fuck with me” credentials.

Samuel L. Jackson feels more at home as unhinged helicopter Colonel Packard, resentful of the outcome of the Vietnam war and driven by a Captain Ahab obsession to destroy Kong. Jackson’s “bitch, pleeeease” theatrics and refusal to take almost anything seriously seems more tonally attuned to the film, which is keen to showcase monster-on-monster action and give John C. Reilly room to tell jokes and steal the film. Less said about Brie Larson‘s role as an “anti-war photographer” the more appropriate, for there is little to say of this severely underwritten character who exists merely to soften Kong’s heart with her lush golden locks. Producer for the original King Kong, Merien C. Cooper, once said, “Gorilla’s plus sexy woman in peril equals enormous profits.” It seems we haven’t moved on much in 84 years.

But the film isn’t called Captain Conrad: Skull Island, as the titular star of the film manages to impress us enough to see us through the runtime. Kong is framed as a mythical being, the cinematography serving to piously devout itself to making the ape look majestic. The pictorial result is somewhat lurid and ostentatious, clearly done in digital intermediate suites, but for visual pleasure, Kong: Skull Island delivers exceptional flashes of visual brilliance.

This is a Kong movie in the tradition of King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) and King Kong Escapes (1967) — the lower echelon, non-event ‘B’ movies (although not devoid of their charm). The expensive budget of this film may imply otherwise, but this is cheap entertainment, where plot and characterisation are formulaic. This feels less a passion project and more like fast-food (a fast pay-check for some of the actors), just another uninspiring monster mash on our screens. This shouldn’t be any old monster, this is Kong! Kong should be King! In this case, he’s barely even Prince regent.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.