Kong: Skull Island takes the daddy of all monster movies and reimagines it as a Vietnam war drama. Set in 1973, references to Apocalypse Now are thrown around so liberally it makes you wonder if director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ (whose only previous feature film is the coming-of-age indie film The Kings of Summer) wanted to make a King Kong movie at all. He lovingly recreates the scene from Apocalypse Now in which helicopters are silhouetted against a bloated equatorial sun; Kong looms behind napalm fire; a crazy old man lives among a silent jungle tribe; there’s even a character called Captain Conrad.
It sound terrible, but there’s a skewed genius to this unlikely mash-up, a simple joy in seeing familiar imagery – King Kong laying eyes on his human love, for instance – in a new, if rather silly, setting.
This version of Kong, the third major remake of the 1933 film following 1976 and 2005 versions, is part of Legendary Pictures’ nascent monster “universe” introduced in 2014’s Godzilla reboot. This time, four decades before those events, satellite images have emerged of a mysterious, skull-shaped island, spurring John Goodman’s monster scholar Bill Randa to pull together a crack team of mercenaries and nerds to pillage its secrets before the commies get wind of it.
What they find is an oversized menagerie of spiders and water-buffalo and dinosaurs, all ruled by a furious gorilla the size of a skyscraper. Short of dropping Kong into Moscow, he’s probably not going to win the Cold War.
What follows is essentially a cautionary tale about attempting to dominate nature through brute force, much as Apocalypse Now warned of trying to assert an ideology through bombs and bullets. The characters are all archetypes: the plucky photographer, the steely bushman, the jittery soldier, the unhinged commander. Samuel L Jackson is brilliantly hammy as an old dog of war who can’t bear the thought of returning home, setting his sights on the ultimate enemy: a 100ft gorilla. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson, meanwhile, are mostly eye candy, but fulfil that role with panache.
Tonally Vogt-Roberts borrows from the Jurassic Park franchise, with the serious message offset by deadpan quips (“mark my words, there will never be a more screwed up time in Washington”) and visual gags (a man tumbling into the maw of a giant creature, cutting to someone biting down on a bacon sandwich).
Counter-intuitively (or, come to think of it, perhaps inevitably), the least interesting parts are when Kong stops batting down helicopters and starts scrapping with his other mortal enemies, a bunch of giant lizards who killed his mum and dad. While the CGI is generally excellent, there’s nothing new to these loud, splashy battles, which soon blur into one forgettable tangle of teeth and limbs and fur.
That’s no deal-breaker, though – this is a smart, stylish blockbuster that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It may wear it’s influence on its sleeve, but when that influence is Apocalypse Now, it’s churlish to complain.
First published in City A.M.