Movie review: should you see … Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island. Warner Bros. Entertainment

Kong: Skull Island. Warner Bros. Entertainment

 

What’s it about?

As the war winds down in Vietnam, a US government crackpot secures funding for an expedition to an uncharted island in the Pacific. He’s accompanied by a squad of troops fresh from fighting Communists, the leader of which is looking to start a battle he might actually win.

No sooner have they arrived on the titular island than the team’s choppers are swatted from the sky by Kong, upset at all the noise they’re making. But there are worse things than giant apes on Skull Island (the script, for one thing). Can our heroes make it out alive?

A fresh reboot for the King Kong franchise, Kong: Skull Island arrives courtesy of the team behind the recent Godzilla revival (for which this film acts as a prequel of sorts).

 

Who’s in it?

A better cast than the film deserves, frankly. Tom Hiddleston is a disgraced British commando, hired to track down Kong. Brie Larsen is a war photojournalist whose motives for joining the expedition aren’t explained too well. Samuel L Jackson is the disgruntled squad leader, whose thirsty for glory puts everyone (Kong included) in mortal peril.

All three bring a fair amount of grunt to their roles, transforming half-baked cliches and wobbly plot points into something approaching character development. Tom and Brie’s characters aren’t ever really given a reason to like each other, but the actors have enough sparkle to stop us noticing.

Oh, there’s also a giant monkey.

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Why should I see it?

The first half hour is amazing. A glorious jumble of Apocalypse Now, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and The X-Files, it sets up a thrilling, self-consciously funny adventure that never quite materialises. The closest we get to the pulpish source material is the appearance of John C Reilly as a long-stranded World War II pilot, who has spent the last thirty years in the care of an oddly silent tribe.

It’s delightfully bold that the film avoids the usually extended tease before the big monkey is revealed, but you can’t help feeling that all the fireworks go off a little too soon. While there’s more fun to be had, nothing else quite lives up to the spectacle of Kong downing half a dozen helicopters while Black Sabbath blares.

Kong: Skull Island. Photo: Supplied/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Kong: Skull Island. Photo: Supplied/Warner Bros. Entertainment

 

On the other hand…

It’s a film of diminishing returns. Neither the cast nor the island is really interesting enough to earn the two-hour runtime. Jurassic Park, which has a similar set up of humans trapped in a prehistoric land, at least had the benefit of recognition.

There was a real thrill in seeing familiar dinos towering over the unlucky crew. Here the monsters are ill-defined and poorly realised. The central threat – dubbed “Skull Crawlers” – are particularly disappointing, a generic hodgepodge of other CG critters who lack a real menace.

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It’s tempting to wonder if there’s a Godzilla shaped hole at the heart of the film. As the head baddy makes his bubbling entrance from beneath an island lake, I wondered if Japan’s favourite behemoth was about to appear. Instead, the filmmakers appear to have held off on that showdown for the sequel. Fair enough.

The other issue is the lack of that exciting incongruity that defined earlier King Kong (and Godzilla) films. The iconic sequences are not the ape in his natural habitat, but out of it – stalking New York streets and swinging off the Empire State Building. Aside from the aforementioned helicopter scenes, there’s nothing so strange here. Giant CG monsters slapping each other about on a giant CG island is never going to be so engaging.

 

In five words or less.

See, but don’t go ape.

 

THREE STARS ★★★

 

 

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