King Kong just keeps coming back in one form or another. First in 1976, then in a mammoth 2005 period remake and now as part of the Godzilla cinematic universe. Did anyone want a Godzilla cinematic universe and by extension another set of movies that only exist to set up the next? And isn’t the existence of such endless franchises just further evidence that American cinema’s getting a bit desperate as it loses its status in the fight against the golden age of television? I wish you wouldn’t ask such questions.
The big point of differentiation between Kong: Skull Island and its many predecessors is that Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film riffs on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – Ape-ocalypse Now, if you like. To underline the point Tom Hiddleston’s tracker is given the author’s name. What’s missing alas, in this early ‘70s-set voyage into primal madness, buoyed by gung-ho Vietnam vets and period licks, is something like characterisation.
A movie like this has its scheme laid out long before anyone lays eyes on it; it’s practically a daisy chain of clichés. Man charts expedition to unknown island, enlists experts and muscle, makes great claims about the riches that await, arrives, is cut down by brutal reality. Vogt-Roberts, acutely aware that this is just all set up for GG money shots of giant apes and monsters, has no ambition other than to hit these beats in the most rudimentary way possible. The script doesn’t expend energy creating meaningful connections between characters or impressing personality on a familiar story; it’s broad brushstrokes, the bare minimum, and yet we’re asked to care about the burgeoning relationship between Tom Hiddleston’s tracker-for-hire and Brie Larson’s more assertive Fay Wray-a-like, a war photographer. We don’t and subsequently the picture has no heart.
Samuel L. Jackson’s vengeful general adds a little pep and a lot of glare, but the story of Kong: Skull Island is characters we don’t care about being picked off by familiar visual effects. In keeping with this lack of human interest, the movie, for all its real locations, has an inorganic, synthetic quality. The gloss added by pixel power, robs the movie’s aesthetic of grit.
Compounding this, Vogt-Roberts commits the cardinal sin associated with all such movies, namely an inability to generate tension. The sense that the story, unencumbered by character building, is just one scene after another in the first act, makes the transition to Skull Island something of an uninvolving non-event. Peter Jackson, in his arse busting 2005 remake, at least had the ambition to spend a good hour with his characters before he unleashed his computer animators. Aliens, another film about monsters in waiting, gave us 45 minutes with them before the sky fell in. That’s the investment and attention to details that’s missing here and it costs the movie dearly.