Imagine the out-takes from Apocalypse Now, badly edited into the out-takes from Jurassic Park. Now mix in half a dozen top-end actors, but tell each of them they’re acting in a different film. Tell your CGI people just to do what feels good. And sprinkle in a tad of low-level racism. Don’t worry too much about a coherent story, and certainly don’t bother doing the slightest smidgeon of research.
This, surely, must have been the pitch for Kong: Skull Island. It’s a bizarre, confused and sloppy mess of a film for most of its two hours, but there are the briefest hints of what could be a good film buried deep, deep in the monstrous pile of poo that is most of the film.
Kong: Skull Island — probably the most inelegantly, and misleadingly, titled films of the year — opens with two Second World War pilots, one American and one Japanese, crash-landing on a desert island. As they’re fighting, presumably to the death, they come face to face with a monstrously huge gorilla. Then the opening titles roll, and we’re given a quick rundown of American political, military and technological history up to 1973, and the end of the Vietnam war. John Goodman is Bill Randa, head of Monarch, an agency that might — it’s not entirely clear — be government-run, and which explores previously-uncharted territory. An American satellite has just located the previously only legendary Skull Island, and the war in Vietnam rather conveniently having just ended last week, there are still plenty of American troops still in country, and so a platoon, or brigade, or century — look, if director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is sloppy enough to put a major’s insignia on a captain, then I’m buggered if I’m going to the trouble of finding out the right word for a randomly-selected bunch of helicopter pilots and grenade-throwers — is sent to Skull Island to explore.
And when they get there, of course, the enormous gorilla is waiting for them, and plucks the helicopters out of the sky. The soldiers, along with the civilian tracker and photojournalist who are along for the ride, as well as Goodman and his team of scientists, have to get across the island to the exfil — oh, they’ve been watching lots of Homeland — point to be rescued, and along the way they run into John C Reilly as Marlow, the American pilot who’d been shot down 28 years earlier, and was now the chief of — no, seriously, I’m not making this up — the Iwi, local people who worship Kong as, honestly, king of the island. They worship him because he protects them from monsters that look a lot like dinosaur monster frozen chickens.
So, yes, it’s utter bollocks. It’s not even terribly entertaining and fun bollocks. The dialogue is ponderously, preposterously overbearing in places — Goodman, who spends much of the film looking like he’s quite uncomfortably egg-bound, describes Skull Island as “a place where myth and science meet,” while Cole, played by, it appears, Bill English, declares that “No man comes back from war. Not really.” Bree Larson, who really should know better, clearly lost her will to live half-way through filming her scenes as Mason the photographer; by the time she delivers lines like “I’ve taken enough pictures of mass graves to recognise one,” she simply sounds, and looks, bored out of her mind. Samuel L Jackson grizzles and snarls and scowls his way through the film as Packard, the lieutenant-colonel in charge of the platoon, and he’s utterly wasted. If you’re going to cast weapons-grade acting talent like Jackson, you need to give him plenty to do; scowly close-ups are not enough, and the cod-philosophising about Icarus that Jackson blathers through the storms that encircle Skull Island just makes you want to go home and dig out your old videotape of Pulp Fiction. Meanwhile, Tom Hiddleston, picked up in a bar in Saigon by Goodman’s Randa after being rather tasty in a pool-cue fight and hence recruited as a tracker, pouts and smoulders his way reasonably impressively through his first handful of scenes; once he’s satisfied that he’s completed his audition for the next Bond film, he lets his haircut and his biceps act for him.
So that’s the acting and the dialogue. The direction is, occasionally, briefly, tantalising, really quite good. There are some quite startlingly sharp edits, and during the helicopter scenes there’s enough balletic grace to the cinematography that you forget to wonder how there can be a dozen choppers in the air when there were only half a dozen on the ship. But for the most part, it’s a sequence of clichés from Vietnam-war films, from the helicopters flying over Skull Island with huge speakers playing Paranoid, to the soldiers wading through a waist-deep river, to soldiers with cigarette packets in the bands of their helmets, to the don’t-even-bother attempts at witty banter between the troops. Plenty of late 60s and early 70s rock classics make up the soundtrack, of course, with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Run Through The Jungle mandatory in any Vietnam War film, even though Fortunate Son would be significantly more apposite. Then there’s the noble-savage trope of the Iwi (that’ll play well in New Zealand…), who don’t get a single spoken line between them, and barely even have a purpose in the film. Also without a purpose, other than to represent the Chinese investment in the film, is Tian Jing, last seen in another film that features a wall to keep monsters out. In Kong, she has maybe three or four spoken lines, and could quite easily have been dropped entirely from the film. The film also makes sure it includes a couple of deliberate nods to the original King Kong of 1933, with helicopters this time, rather than biplanes, being knocked out of the sky, and Larson getting the Fay Wray moment, shortly after she’s finally shown us that, under all that blood-matted fur and behind the canine teeth that are uttely unnecessary for a gorilla, there’s a heart of gold, by placing a tender hand on his snout as strings swell and stir the way they used to in the 1930s weepies my mother would watch on a Saturday afternoon while my dad was out at the football.
Kong: Skull Island, then, is nonsense. It’s not even really about Kong. It tries to be a metaphor about war, and Vietnam in particular, but just leaves all manner of questions unresolved. If insular dwarfism is a thing, why is Skull Island full of monster creatures, as well as normal-sized birds? Why does a helicopter’s empennage spark when it’s being lifted off a mega-buffalo? Why is there a breeding population of dinosaur frozen chickens, and possibly, but not unequivocally, huge gorillas, but not mega-buffalo? And, most importantly, how the hell does a film like this get signed off?