Last seen tearing out of Auckland’s Civic Theatre, Kong shines above the A-listers 

Kong may be king of all he surveys, but in this mashup of Apocalypse Now and The Land That Time Forgot, his human counterparts are left a little wanting.

But that’s not to detract from a generally enjoyable spectacle of the mega-monster’s return in this fantasy film so reminiscent of the past.

As the new franchises start to emerge, a monsterverse is being set up and it’s this latest which reintroduces the beastie last seen ploughing down Auckland’s streets under Sir Peter Jackson’s watch.

Starting off over the South Pacific in the dying days of the Second World War and then zipping forward to 1973, the story’s thrust centres around an expedition to a mysterious Pacific Atoll known as Skull Island. Headed up by John Goodman’s government agent Bill Randa, and made up of a ragtag bunch including a former RAFer turned mercenary (Hiddleston, complete with piercing blue eyes), a photo-journalist (Brie Larson), a bunch of scientists (including The Walking Dead and 24: Legacy star Corey Hawkins) and a bunch of just-out-of-Vietnam grunts, including Samuel L Jackson’s jaded-after-years-of-war-and-lacking-a-purpose Colonel Packard, the gang set off.

However, upon arrival at the Island, they’re attacked by Kong, the protector of the world. Smashed to pieces, the group finds themselves separated in a jungle environment and with different creatures all around threatening them, the race is on to get to the extraction point alive.

But Kong is not the only threat on the island.

Kong: Skull Island is, in effect, a generically pulpy trash monster-bash of a movie and, in fact, the film’s A-listers do no more than find themselves lined up as prey.

Its B-movie ethos is redolent of the old Saturday morning matinee screenings, where stars would slum it to be seen next to the creatures by the mass audiences who’d lap the pulpy trappings up. And much like those films, where the creatures and the effects were the stars despite Doug McClure’s acting chops, that’s the same here.

Once again, a rote collection of humans, with scant character thrown in amongst an ethnically diverse bunch (for which Skull Island gets a thumbs-up) are proffered up to be fodder for the creatures, and we’re supposed to care because of a modicum of interaction.

Tom Hiddleston leads his cast through uncharted territory. Photo: Roadshow Entertainment

The movie slows when they have to escape the island, with tantalising bits thrown in simply for set-up. The worst is Jing Tian’s scientist who says very little and is clearly there to tick some kind of box for the Chinese box office. Even Hiddleston’s clearly-modelled-on-Nathan-Drake mercenary reveals that his father went missing over Hamburg in a desperate ploy to set up a dangling thread for future films. Larson fares equally badly, and while she doesn’t exactly go full Fay Wray, her character’s clearly inadequate.

Samuel L Jackson’s Colonel, a soldier without a war but looking for an enemy, is an alternate take on Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz that’s as daffy as the preponderance of director Vogt-Roberts’ over-reliance on slow-mo helicopter shots and a 70s soundtrack that could be a Vietnam movie’s greatest hits.

As the film goes on, it’s clear the director’s more interested in visuals, and thus positions the characters in stock shots that feel ripped from a storyboard or an art book.

More successful is the arc afforded to John C Reilly’s hirsute lost-in-time pilot, whose quirks in the trailer belie a deeply resonant emotional story that’s worth the price of admission alone. There’s a large case to state that, without a doubt, Reilly is actually the lead of this film.

The film is at its dumb and derivative best when its titular monster is on screen, battling either the human invaders (though admittedly, it’s no competition watching them being squashed like flies) or fighting to protect the other creatures from the beasts that lie below. Kong’s CGI is an impressively solid piece of work, with the ILM team preferring to concentrate on the scale of the beast and a few facials, rather than the full range of emotions. And some sequences of Kong against the backgrounds really do shine.

It’s here the sound and fury of the film builds on its B-movie aspirations and it’s clear this is Legendary Pictures’ push for a franchise, with a Kong-Godzilla picture in the works.

If future films are to be successful, they need to do more work on the human elements of the film – or just abandon that and fully embrace the monsters-fighting-each-other premise.

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L Jackson, Brie Larson, John C Reilly
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Classification: M
Running time: 118 minutes

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