There are marked differences between franchise or summer blockbusters that surprise you (Inception, Mad Max: Fury Road, last week’s Logan) and those that don’t. These aren’t always easy to spot, mind you.
Sometimes it’s the cast — often a healthy mix of Oscar nominees/winners and celebrities who make tabloid headlines — that gives it away. Other times you spot obvious pop cultural references, either in visuals, dialogue or background music, designed to evoke an ‘aha!’ reaction.
Or sometimes, there are just moments of (presumed) unintentional hilarity, like when a character stands in front of what is obviously a mass graveyard (evidence includes massive skeletons strewn across a vast, barren space) and, without a trace of irony, says, “I’ve spent enough time taking pictures of mass graves to know what one looks like.”
Kong: Skull Island, a reboot of the first major movie franchise in cinema, has all these qualities. Its cast includes everyone from Oscar winner Brie Larson (who, as photographer Mason Weaver, is unfortunately tasked with clunky lines like the one just mentioned), recent tabloid darling Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L Jackson, and John C Reilly. It packs in pop cultural references to the point of overflow.
Jackson’s Lt Col Preston Packard, a Captain Ahab-like blowhard, gets to yell out “Hold on to your butts!”, making it amply clear to the audience that this film closely follows the monster movie algorithm written by Jurassic Park 24 years ago.
The film is set in the ‘70s, a requiem for the Vietnam war, which gives director Jordan Vogt-Roberts the license to gratuitously pepper the soundtrack with Creedence Clearwater Revival (‘Run Through The Jungle’ — what else?) and Black Sabbath. Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart Of Darkness is duly referenced; a suave British tracker—played by Hiddleston or, more accurately, an animated corpse wearing a Tom Hiddleston face mask made of silica gel—is named Conrad, while a Dr Livingstone-like fighter pilot, marooned on the mysterious Skull Island since World War II and played by Reilly, is named Marlow. There are approximately 8,564 references to Apocalypse Now.
Okay, so Kong: Skull Island isn’t subtle, but that’s not what you expect from a franchise reboot anyway. Fine. We won’t question why it exists — it exists obviously because studios want to make money — so we’ll talk about what it does within the scope of the summer blockbuster.
A group of scientists working for an agency like Monarch, led by Bill Randa (an ageless John Goodman), have discovered an island in the south Pacific that was inaccessible all these years thanks to the presence of a “perpetual storm system” around it.
Somehow, without revealing the specifics of the mission (i.e. ‘We think huge, ancient monsters live there’), not only does Randa get it approved, but he also manages to get a sizeable US Army escort. Their helicopters help them fly through a swirling mass of dark clouds reminiscent of the dust storm in Mad Max: Fury Road.
What follows, of course, is not pretty. Kong appears, taller than ten skyscrapers, swatting helicopters away. To him, they’re like dragonflies, a visual analogy made by a rather clever shot early on; a less clever moment juxtaposes shots of Kong glaring at the invaders on his territory with a similar shot of Jackson glaring back at him.
Is this racist or is it racist to think that this may have been racist? Hmm, anyway, while the humans get battered and separated into two groups, Kong, who is king on the island, mopes around, so irritated by his injuries that he devours a giant octopus seemingly out of spite.
The screenplay, by Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein, is chock-full of clunky dialogue and clichés. At one point, they even introduce a race of strange, silent humans called the Iwi. Marlow has been living amongst them for 28 years but appears to have embraced none of their customs. How American.
It goes without saying the visual effects are jaw-dropping. Yet, somehow, the staging isn’t as satisfying as in Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005); the shots are always too tight, as though the director wanted every polygon of computer-generated imagery to be visible to the naked eye, and barring the last battle between Kong and the island’s real monster (which is truly epic), there is little that surprises us.
Even so, Kong himself (motion-captured and played by Terry Notary) is the undeniable star of the show — it is difficult to feel anything for the cardboard human characters played by largely disinterested actors who are clearly there just to collect fat paychecks. Reilly, who brings some much-needed eccentricity to the film, is the only notable exception. Otherwise, Kong: Skull Island rarely steps out of theme park ride territory and barely justifies its existence.
(The author is a film critic and culture journalist who resides in Mumbai. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at a leading website and has written for a number of publications. In his spare time, he makes music. When free from all of the above, he travels.)