Kong: Skull Island – FX 1, Humans 0

You can’t keep a good giant ape down. This is the eighth Kong film, although only the fourth that’s on my radar. They are the original of 1933, the 1976 version with the famous Jessica Lange bared breast scene (a film which made the cover of Time magazine), and Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, made here, with Auckland’s Civic Theatre famously used as the venue for Kong’s showcasing to the civilised world.

Those three films stuck to similar themes, in particular the relationship between Kong and the main female character, and the human desire to exploit the natural world. So how would the makers of Kong:Skull Island decide to deal with that legacy? Well the answer is they don’t dwell on those aspects of the storyline that much. In fact, hardly at all.

Yes, Brie Larson’s character, Mason Weaver, has a very brief interaction with the giant ape, and that is sufficient to persuade Kong to act in her defence subsequently. But compared to the almost full blown relationships of the previous films, this is fleeting. And that’s important because it means we don’t really get to know the character of Kong, or feel much of an emotional attachment to him. He is huge, by far the biggest Kong yet, and he does act in defence of his realm, but that’s about as far as it goes. He does wade into a massive monster slug-fest with another creature, a superbly constructed and exciting piece of special effects choreography. Having said that, I couldn’t help thinking of Peter Jackson’s staging of a similar scene in 2005, where Kong took on two T-Rexes. This version matched Jackson’s, maybe, but it didn’t out-do it.

So how about the second prominent theme of the Kong stories – how humans want to exploit him and make money out of him. Well this film takes a different tack entirely. The humans who enter Kong’s world here have varying motives, but taking Kong back to human civilisation is not one of them. Is it the need to prove the existence of ancient monsters, a desire to exploit possibly extremely valuable mineral resources, or perhaps a need to destroy a perceived threat? All are entertained here.

And the setting of Kong:Skull Island is a departure, with its Vietnam era military schtick and obvious Apocalypse Now references (as accurately described by Steve in his review). Add to that the opening sequence, with its newsreel footage, and the size of Kong and other creatures, and you end up with quite a Godzilla feel, especially as delivered in the 2014 version.

Then there are the performances, and what a spread of approaches we see. Brie Larson takes her role of anti-war photographer seriously, and although she’s not given a lot to say, she carries it off as befitting an Oscar winning actress. Tom Hiddleston, also not given much to say, tends to settle into a grim square jawed, buffed up hero look, and it has to be said he looks the part. But with little back story to work with, we feel we don’t really get to know him. He may have hoped this was the sort of role to add extra heft to him being considered as the next James Bond, but I’m not sure. Probably a neutral effect at best.

Samuel L. Jackson chews the scenery as the military commander out to slay the beast, driven by a need to avoid a Vietnam type ending to a battle. But John C. Reilly stole the show. His character was the only one given some space to be something resembling a real person with actual experiences behind him. He added a lot of colour and humour and it would have been a dull old outing without him. I’m not surprised to see a story online that his character is being considered for a spin off movie.

Overall the story is a bit of a mish-mash, and the explanation of where these giant creatures on Skull Island come from was, for me, verging on the laughable. But hey, you’d think many attending this film come to see some all out giant ape fighting action, with special effects to dine out on. And if this is you, you’ll probably like what you get. There’s some clever directing and very clever editing which helps the story zing along when it needs to, and adds tension.

It did help watching this film on a big screen, but when it comes to Kong, I think I’ll stick to Peter Jackson’s or earlier versions.

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