No? Well how about ‘Apoca-chimps Now’? Listen I could do this all day long, but before I start Googling different types of primates just to find an obscure type of lemur that rhymes with ‘Now’ – let’s get right to it. For anyone who saw the beautiful Kong: Skull Island IMAX poster below and dared hope that it might have vague similarities to Francis Ford Coppola’s brutal Vietnam war classic – you’re in luck! Kong: Skull Island is indeed strikingly similar to Apocalypse Now. It’s just a more accessible, blockbuster version of Coppola’s film. In fact you might as well call it ‘Apopcorn-alypse Now’.
*Pauses for applause*
Kong: Skull Island is far from an exact remake of Apocalypse Now – that would be absurd – but there are enough similar themes and plot points to push it into ‘very knowing homage’ territory. The setting (1973, the year US military involvement in Vietnam ended), the rather too self-aware rock soundtrack and the fact that this is a mission into dangerous territory (largely on a makeshift patrol boat) certainly trigger enough cinematic déjà vu. But in larger terms – and this is where I have to be careful as I’m not remotely qualified to comment on the complexities of the Vietnam war – Kong: Skull Island also seems to be insultingly simplified version of the war itself.
Here’s the very basic plot of Kong: Skull Island so you can see for yourself: on a distant island, a violent civil war is happening between two long-term enemies who dwell in vastly different regions. The American military comes along, sticks its nose in and causes massive devastation in a war it can’t possibly win. You don’t have to be Pauline Kael to know where this is going.
Then there’s John C. Reilly. I am now fully committed in my belief that John C. Reilly is the greatest living actor in the Western world. Here he plays Hank Marlow – the very heart and soul of Kong: Skull Island and the person you give the most shit about (save the building-sized hairy one). He’s also basically a cuddlier, cocaine-free version of Dennis Hopper’s deeply irritating Kurtz disciple.
In the prologue set during World War II, a young Marlow crashes a fighter plane into the titular island along with adversarial Japanese pilot, Gunpei. They continue their dogfight on foot, ending up in the jungle where they run into Mr. Colossal Ape Pants himself. Later in the movie – where we jump forward to 1973 – an expedition team meets the bearded island-dwelling Marlow, whose been there for 30 years, living among its indigenous inhabitants. Marlow and the tribe have come to respect the one they call ‘king’, a giant, brooding beast. For crying out loud, they may as well have renamed him Brando.
However this king does more than mumble incoherently in the shadows, the gigantic ape protects them from other, even more terrifying monsters that plague the island. So yes, this iteration of Kong is more heroic than previous movies where he’s portrayed either as a misunderstood antihero or rampaging beast. But not that you’d expect it from the ferociously violent first encounter.
Kong: Skull Island quickly introduces a huge array of characters after its time-hopping credit sequence; far too many for it to satisfyingly handle. There’s Samuel L Jackson’s Lieutenant Colonel Packard, John Goodman’s senior government official and ‘big monster truther’ Bill Randa, Tom Hiddleston’s hunter-tracker Conrad (another ‘on the nose’ reference), Brie Larson’s war photojournalist Mason Weaver and an assortment of expendable cannon fodder that forms the Sky Devils helicopter squadron. And its in the first hellish encounter between the squadron and the pissed off primate that we see the beast at his most vicious. A seemingly endless fleet of choppers are swatted, smashed and splattered in various imaginative ways by Kong. It’s an immersive, bruising experience and the highlight of the film.
Then there’s Kong himself. Christ he’s a handsome devil. Beautifully rendered from his hair to his leathery paws, from his deeply expressive eyes, to those proud 10 foot tall buttocks – he’s an incredible achievement and the film suffers whenever the big guy isn’t around. Which brings us to the main problem with the film. There are far too many characters; three-quarters of whom are too thinly drawn and utterly expendable.
Kong: Skull Island does a competent job in setting up John Goodman’s government official who works for the secret Monarch organisation (who you may remember from the 2014 Godzilla reboot) as well as Samuel L Jackson’s Lieutenant Packard. A man who realises that the US military has “abandoned” the Vietnam war and therefore feels there’s ‘unfinished business’ – something he projects disastrously upon King Kong. But there are so many other decent actors short-changed by perfunctory dialogue, rushed characterisation and a script that just seems to give up on them all once the action begins.
Hiddleston’s Conrad is so blandly heroic it’s almost a parody, Jing Tian seems to be fundamental to the mission but is barely given three lines of dialogue, I believe we’re meant to care about Toby Kebbell’s plight while he’s isolated from the rest of the group, but with so many other moving parts he’s just a distraction. I could go on… Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, Corey Hawkins, Marc Evan Jackson, John Ortiz – all brilliant actors, and all drowned out by the sheer volume of other brilliant actors.
But hey, that’s not why you’re here. You’re here for the carnage. You’re here for the big ape. You’re here for the big weird monsters. You’re here for the big ape punching other big weird monsters and creating said carnage. And for that, Kong: Skull Island is a mighty wild ride. However unlike the Coppola film it’s desperately trying to emulate, you won’t care who you took the ride with. 3.5/5