In recent years, there has been a trend for an up and coming indie director to get the gig for a big budget production on only their sophomore (full length) feature film - I don't recall this happening much in previous years gone by, although I may be wrong, and if so it may be just more apparent in recent times. The results have had varying degrees of success. Off the back of the highly rated Safety Not Guaranteed, Colin Treverrow was handed the keys to Jurassic World, and he took really good care of the property considering the calibre of the previous occupants of the director's chair. Marc Webb made the brilliant anti rom-dram-com 500 Days of Summer, but his Amazing Spider-Man movies possibly suffered coming so soon after Sam Raimi's trilogy. They were also hampered by erratic scripting and well documented studio (Sony) interference.
Onto Kong: Skull Island, and I remember getting quite excited when Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) was initially linked with doing it (or a variation of the premise). That sadly never came to fruition, and instead Jordan Vogt-Roberts - his debut feature being, again, the very well regarded coming of age indie Kings of Summer - was given the reigns, and this film now ties in with Gareth Edward's Godzilla, and is intended as a launch pad for further big creature features in an expanded "monster-verse." First things first - let's address the gorilla...I mean elephant in the room - I am a huge admirer of Peter Jackson's King Kong movie. Coming off the back of the LOTR films, it was a truly epic production, and remains one of my last properly exhilarating experiences inside a cinema auditorium. Can Kong: Skull Island match or surpass it?
Kong: Skull Island begins with a pre-credits sequence, set during World War II, that immediately puts Kong in the spotlight - placing great emphasis on the sheer majesty of the gargantuan simian. After the titles, Its 1973 and President Nixon has ordered the withdrawal of US military Forces from Vietnam. America is divided over its involvement in the war and in a state of turmoil. A vastly slimmer John Goodman and Corey Hawkins (the lead from 24: Legacy, Heath from Walking Dead) play a couple of scientists who appeal to Richard Jenkins' beleaguered Senator to bankroll a mission to locate a previously uncharted island. Their apparent objective is to discover the island for the chance to do something positive such as make significant scientific breakthroughs (in the aftermath of the USA's ultimately failed participation in Vietnam), but Goodman has bigger fish to fry. Much bigger. For the journey, a team is cobbled together including Sam Jackson's bitter and disillusioned Lieutenant Colonel Packard (who I guess features elements of Apocalypse Now's Willard, Kilgore and Kurtz), Tom Hiddleston's decommissioned SAS tracker, and Brie Larson's photo journalist. It's a decent ensemble but they ultimately play second fiddle to the giant ape - superbly rendered by ILM as you'd expect. Rounding off the cast are a bunch of familiar but lesser known faces - including Eazy E from Straight Outta Compton and Ape expert Toby Kebbell - who are not much more than cannon fodder for the creatures. Hiddleston does prove he has the presence for leading man material, and does no harm to his chances of taking over 007's tuxedo from Daniel Craig.
After the main characters are established, we're transported into the thick of it with the first major Kong set piece (that once again the trailers/TV spots were determined to spoil). The scene is pretty spectacular as Kong shows the US Army helicopters who is the King of the island. Sadly, then it all falls rather flat, and kind of gradually meanders towards its conclusion. In between, there are some obligatory encounters with other M.U.T.Os (massive, unidentified, terrestrial organisms) which prove somewhat variable in quality. For the sake of not spoiling the moment, there is one blood curdling, enthralling attack sequence (whilst the survivors are trawling through the jungle) not long after Kong versus choppers sequence, but that's really as good as it gets. The scene fares favourably with the "insect pit" assault from Peter Jackson's version. The rest of it, whilst undeniably visually arresting, has a strong sense of deja vu - albeit rather less satisfying than the monster skirmishes in other creature movies that have preceded Kong in the recent past. One of the better things about Kong: Skull Island is the belated introduction of John C. Reilly's stranded, eccentric soldier - his comic relief a much needed welcome distraction to the general drabness that permeates the rest of the film.
Whilst Treverrow's Jurassic World was a little uneven in places, it delivered as an overall package, and there is enough variety in the many set pieces to maintain interest over the course of the movie. With a decent pedigree of a promising young director, cast and writing talent - the trio of Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly - I was expecting a little bit more than what I got from Skull Island. Although It does what it says on the tin, once the tin is opened, the contents within leave much to be desired. Having said that, there are some redeeming qualities that even up the negative factors. Firstly, the soundtrack is pretty decent, making good use of songs for particular sequences such as Black Sabbath's classic rock composition Paranoid. Secondly, Larry Fong is probably my favourite latter day cinematographer, and Skull Island contains his flair for flamboyant visual flourishes and beautiful evocative imagery - such as the jungle in flames reflected in a soldier's Aviator sunglasses - that Fong always brings to the films he works on (see Sucker Punch and Batman Vs Superman). One thing to add is that, whilst not unwelcome in a film of this kind, I was nonetheless slightly taken aback by the level of violence and brutality on display - it certainly pushes the envelope on a 12a production and might be a bit extreme for younger viewers.
I really like how Apocalypse Now is used as an overt template for Skull Island, which immediately sets it apart from the other Kong films. There are many subtle and not so subtle references to Coppola's magnum opus such as the brilliant poster artwork and Sam Jackson's aforementioned Colonel Packard - who suffers a meltdown in the jungle, and sees Kong as a metaphor for the Vietnam war. Also, Hiddleston's guide on the expedition on a journey into the unknown goes by the name of J. Conrad (Joseph Conrad is the writer of Heart of Darkness, upon which Apocalypse Now is based). Skull Island just stops short of using Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and somebody over-enthusiastically declaring an appreciation for napalm fumes at the break of dawn.
Ultimately, Kong: Skull Island is essentially pure popcorn fodder that I'd put just slightly beneath the likes of the recent Godzilla and Jurassic World, and perhaps on a par with the Clash/Wrath of the Titans movies (for lack of a better example). So how does Skull Island compare with Peter Jackson's interpretation of the material? The two films are obviously different beasts (so to speak). The former is intentionally a different spin on the character, and intended as a gateway into a new franchise of good monsters versus not so pleasant M.U.T.Os (started off with Gareth Edward's Godzilla). Jackson's take is an obvious labour of love, and intended as a big budget, updated version of the classic thirties movie that kicked it all off. I did enjoy Skull Island to an extent, and there are some really cool ideas in Vogt-Roberts' movie as already discussed. For me, it doesn't have the epic, heartfelt quality or pure chest beating exhilaration that the LOTR helmer brought to the party. It's by no means perfect - over exuberant in length, and the CGI dinosaur stampede is (and will always remain) terrible - but I appreciate how Jackson takes time with the story before unleashing the action in the second part of the movie. And there is nothing in Skull Island that can surpass the orgasmic, cinematic euphoria of Kong tearing a vicious T-Rex (or two) a new one.