Mr Moth returns to Skull Island, and this time he’s taking an army
I’ve done my fair share of thinking about King Kong. Maybe I’ve done yours, too. I’ve done a lot. So when I saw the first teaser for Kong Skull Island I was worried. Sequels to Kings Kong have, historically, been Very Bad Indeed. Son of Kong, rushed into production to capitalise on the success of the first film, has moments of interest in its first act that are soon overwhelmed by the thudding comedy and banal execution of the Kong sequences. Interestingly, the bulk of the film plays out on Skull Island itself, never moving back to New York (as is traditional). King Kong Lives!, lazily spunked out a full decade after the excellent 1976 remake, is appallingly amateurish and boring. So here we are 12 years after Peter Jackson once again remade the original, faced with what would appear to be a belated sequel.
Which it is not.
This is a story, first of all, about soldiers. It is about war and about the end of war. Set in 1973 (with a fantastic soundtrack to match), it begins literally on the day the US gave up on the Vietnam war. John Goodman’s driven monster-hunter fast-talks his way into a military escort to the titular island of Skull and is assigned Samuel L Jackson’s squad of regular Joes and winsome Monkey Fodder. Along for the ride are Tom Hiddleston, looking RIDICULOUSLY BEEFY and making no effort to look like he’s in 1973 as – lol – an ex-SAS officer and Brie Larson as a war photographer. Sorry, anti war photographer. But it still involves taking the same damn pictures so whatever, really. Also there are some scientists. There just are, ok. If they’re important, I’ll mention them later.
So there is the set-up. Military escort for a scientific fact-finding mission to an uncharted island that is shaped like a skull. During the on-ship briefing I longed for Jeff Bridges to turn up and attempt to scare the shit out of them with tales of missing ships and hushed up disappearances, slowly building up the tension as the characters start to wonder if maybe there’s more to this than just scenery and oil. But there is no hint of the monsters that lurk… except that the film gave that away in the very first scene. Yup, Kong made his first appearance even before the opening titles, which feels like a huge misstep. Of course we all know he’s coming; we saw the poster, we read the ticket. That’s not the point. Hold him back until the second act. His appearance should be an event, a moment that pivots the film into new territory. And while this film gets a lot right, and it looks superb, it really botches the first proper sighting of Kong himself.
There are several shots during the first true reveal of our boy Kong that would be superb as an entrance for him. Fuzzy, scrappy footage through the lens of a Super-8 camera. His giant frame emerging from smoke. But instead he is shown in an almost casual manner, as if he had already been there during the incredible, breathless helicopter fight that introduces him. It maybe won’t bother most people, because fucking hell a giant monkey is smashing helicopters using other helicopters, but it bothered me. I wanted him to have as iconic an introduction as his first appearance, because I believe in the myth.
I’m delighted to say that Kong Skull Island has picked up the idea of Kong as a mythological figure and run with that. There are elements of the story that appear, but are not central to the film and have been used in interesting ways that often only hint at the original. The giant wall and the natives. The island behind an impenetrable fog bank. Kong in chains. Kong, misunderstood, attacked and brought low by devious men. Kong’s strongest bond being with the young woman in the group.
Near the end I started to worry that Brie Larson’s Mason would be picked up and carried off by Kong in the traditional manner, but instead what we got was a moment of recognition and mutual respect between woman and ape. Yes it was absolutely in-keeping with the known character of Kong to be somewhat in the thrall of a beautiful young woman, but this led him not to weakness but to strength in understanding – not all of these interlopers were to be feared and hated. When the final battle with his monstrous nemesis came (either one), he found he had support enough to defeat them.
Man is the real monster, as you’d expect. And no man in Kong Skull Island is more monstrous than Samuel L Jackson. He gives an almost literally monumental performance; he is framed like a giant and shot as a monster over and over. As with the rest of the cast, he plays this film admirably straight; the moments of melodrama are teased out of a tangle of complex relationships. For all that Jackson is deranged by the events of the movie, he rarely pushes over into ham. There is even a moment of lightness, right in the middle of the film, where his relief at seeing some of his men alive is played with such warmth and happiness it shades the rest of his anger into something believably righteous. He cares about the people under his command, and anyone or anything that messes with them is going down.
In contrast, the monsters Kong must face off against – “Skullcrawlers” – are a bit off-the-shelf, a bit 21st Century Generic. They look a bit like if the Cloverfield monster fucked the Demagorgon from Stranger Things, which now I write it down is a film I’d definitely watch. John C Reilly’s marooned WWII pilot even lampshades the fact that the name is crap and it’s a struggle to make people scared of them, in one of the few moments of straightforward comedy in the film. King Kong himself, I should note here, looks incredible. Huge, powerful and solid, there’s never been a more convincing Kong onscreen.
All the monster-on-monster fights are energetically staged, with the humans running around either being picked off in gorily explosive ways or intervening to subtly shift the balance of power. A fair few people survive, probably more than you’d expect, and there are character moments for everyone. Despite his role clearly being broader than everyone else’s, Reilly brings a palpable sense of pathos to his mildly unhinged fighter pilot and his final payoff is genuinely moving. He even illuminates something of Kong’s motivation, when he mutters “Death before dishonour”; it could be the giant gorilla’s credo. For all that he is a wild beast here, Kong is also a creature of honour, imbued with the savage nobility his name implies.
So it is not a sequel, nor is it a remake. And, unlike Jackson’s preceding film, it has something to say about the world. The 2005 Kong was more a smirking joke about the film industry than anything else, about nothing much in particular. The original has a fair bit to say about the film industry, of course, specifically the swashbuckling days of early cinema and the need for a new medium to make its name. But more deeply than that it chewed nervously on the last gasp of colonialism, its days numbered since WWI and out of step with the modernity of the States. The unknown world was being blotted out with knowledge and perhaps we needed to feel there were some mysteries left. The 76 remake was about oil, and the rapacious arrogance of the West.
This movie is about America fighting a war after it has finished. How aggression and wounded pride push combat out of the war zone and into uncharted territory. As soon as the choppers breach the storm and find themselves in an untouched land of beauty and wonder they crank up the stereo and blast the place with both high explosives and Black Sabbath. U-S-A! U-S-A! They’re back in the game, the humiliation of ‘Nam behind them as they destroy vast swathes of jungle with impunity. Until, that is, they are utterly smashed by an enemy they could not predict, cannot contain and do not understand. America swaggers joyously to its own destruction, a tyrant at its head and fire at its feet.