What a world we live in that someone can make a film called Kong: Skull Island and no-one bats an eyelid. No-one asks what on earth a Kong is, or why they should go see a film where both sides of the semi-colon are equally baffling. Observe that one could swap the words around and the title would make as much sense to the uninitiated. Skull: Kong Island! Or even Island: Kong Skull! If producers want imaginative film titles, then how come we never get titles with puns? How great would it be to see a King Kong film entitled It Takes Kong to Know Kong or Kong with the Wind?
Sadly this film is too important to be called Kong with the Wind. Indeed, it has lots of famous actors in it, although none of them quite seem to know what they’re doing. Tom Hiddleston, it turns out, suffers from the Brad Pitt/Chris Pratt disease of only being able to act charming and insouciant. The second he has to pretend to be gruff and heroic, his words all become hoarse and stilted like he’s reading a foreign language. Brie Larson plays an archetypal damsel, Samuel L Jackson plays an archetypal Samuel L Jackson, and some Chinese girl who can’t act wanders around as if she’s in a school play, presumably because the film is part-funded by a Chinese production company. The only real performances of note are John C. Reilly, who’s the only character with any depth, and Kong, who’s a giant gorilla.
For all its ‘shock’ deaths, pretty much everyone lives or dies as you expect. The film does manage to surprise with the timing of its 12A-rated brutality, and has a love of oddly comedic but fairly horrifying jump scares, which keeps the audience gripped and somewhat unsettled. Overall it’s an interesting and deliberate mish-mash of tones and genres: a dash of Apocalypse Now-style war movie, a hint of Indiana Jones and The Rollicking Action Adventure, a hearty slab of The Mist-type creature horror. All of which adds up to an effective if downright barmy piece of light entertainment.
There’s a fun soundtrack that supports the film’s tonal misdirection. Meanwhile the cinematography is at times so unnecessarily stunning and over-the-top in its magnificence that it actually breaks your suspension of disbelief. It’s like going to an exhibition of primary school finger paintings and finding that some kid has perfectly drawn the actual Mona Lisa. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose debut feature was the wonderful The Kings of Summer, is just showing off; the sheer ostentatiousness of some of his shots is pure art.
If nothing else, it’s such a breath of fresh air to be able to see the action. I love Gareth Edwards, but his recent Godzilla was the worst offender in a recent trend of films shrouding all their scenes in almost total darkness. With Kong: Skull Island, the colours are strong and contrasted, while the set pieces take place mostly during the day under a clear sky. Yes, the action is ludicrous, but it’s highly cinematic – how strange that it’s now a joy just to be able to see what’s happening.
Kong: Skull Island is very knowingly silly; it’s just a shame that it’s unknowingly silly at the same time. It’s also not as funny as it thinks it is. The dialogue is so corny that it probably receives US government subsidies and the story is mostly complete guff. For some reason, the plot flies ten whole helicopters onto the island at once, and then has to get rid of them all immediately so that our heroes can’t just fly away again. It achieves this by having them all circle Kong persistently, waiting for their turn to be knocked out of the sky. After the fifth or sixth helicopter goes down, it will take all your willpower not to shout at the screen that maybe the pilots should fly away from the giant gorilla instead of just hovering vaguely in its vicinity. After the tenth helicopter goes down, you may just not care anymore.
There’s not really any sense of time or location. At first, our heroes think it’s impossible to cross the island to safety in under 72 hours. Then after they’ve wasted 24 of them, they think it’s probably possible in 48. 24 hours later, they still haven’t actually gone anywhere, and then suddenly, when dawn arrives on the final day, they appear to have arrived. Meanwhile, Kong, who is approximately fucking massive, keeps surprising everyone by wandering into scenes from nowhere, despite the fact that he’s demonstrably much taller than everything else around him.
There’s no point to any of it, but at least the film’s not just setting itself up for a sequel – although it is setting itself up for a sequel. It’s pacy, self-contained and zips by with a Kong-sized spring in its steps in just under two hours. Its characters are thinly drawn and the emotional resonance of the final scene only serves to highlight how little emotion has been wrung from the rest of the madness. It’s unlikely you’ll care that much about any of it, but somehow it’s still quite a lot of fun. Which really, from a film whose title contains the word Kong, the word Skull and a semi-colon, is just about all you could have reasonably expected.