Hollywood tries to squeeze blood out of the stone that is “Kong: Skull Island”

Jordan Vogt-Roberts, “Kong: Skull Island” (2017)

An example of how post-2000 Hollywood is squeezing as much juice as it can from all its past films (plus all their sequels) in every known genre and genre mix is this cartoony flick based on the original “King Kong” movie made in 1933. “Kong: Skull Island” takes the giant ape into blockbuster territory with a dash of “Apocalypse Now” and other films about the Vietnam War with very little of those movies’ anti-war messages and warnings about how war corrupts the US war machine and dehumanises all those engaged in war in one way or another. Even then, not satisfied with pitting Kid Kong against crazed would-be war veteran messiahs and messed-up soldiers, Hollywood sees fit to throw some bizarre fantasy prehistoric reptile giants shorn of their feathers at the giant primate. No wonder those flying naked reptiles are so angry!

In 1973, a group of soldiers and researchers led by Bill Randa, head of a US government agency called Monarch, travels to newly discovered Skull Island, somewhere in the South Seas, to search for primeval wildlife and to map the island. On landing at the island’s shores, the soldiers and their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Samuel L Jackson) set off explosives, incurring the ire of the island’s ape guardian Kong. Kong throws his weight around and the expedition ends up scattering: the members fall into two groups, a civilian group led by British tracker Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photographer Weaver (Brie Larson), and the other, mainly military group led by Packard and Randa. Packard and Randa’s group sets off to search for the military helicopter piloted by Chapman to collect weapons to kill Kong. 

Wandering across the island, Conrad’s group encounters the local laconic natives who call themselves Iwi, and a World War II veteran fighter pilot, Marlow (John C Reilly) who has been stranded on the island since 1944 after going down in a dogfight with a Japanese pilot who also survived. Both pilots had long been enemies but eventually became friends. Marlow tells Conrad’s group about Kong and how his species protected the island from what Marlow calls the skullcrawlers (the bizarre prehistoric flying reptiles mentioned earlier), one of which killed the Japanese pilot some time ago. The Iwi have a myth that when the last of Kong’s kind dies – and Kong happens to be the last of his kind – a giant skullcrawler will awaken within one of the island’s volcanoes and emerge to terrorise the entire island. 

Conrad’s group helps Marlow finish building a boat made from salvaged parts of the planes flown by Marlow and the Japanese pilot, and then use the boat to travel down a river to connect with Packard’s group. Along the way, Conrad’s group encounters a flock of giant carnivorous raptor birds which takes off with one of the civilians and tears him apart in mid-air. The civilians finally meet up with Packard’s group and Packard insists on traversing the island on foot to find Chapman’s helicopter. Marlow warns everyone that they will be travelling through dangerous skullcrawler territory, but Packard is insistent. The expedition traipses through a virtual graveyard of dinosaur and giant gorilla bones, and – surprise, surprise! – a skullcrawler comes after the humans. The skullcrawler kills Randa and several others before Weaver triggers a gas explosion that kills the monster. Even so, Packard still insists on finding the helicopter and gathering the weapons to kill Kong as revenge for killing his men earlier – even though Marlow warns him that killing Kong would unleash greater terrors onto the island. 

A showdown between Kong and Packard, and one between a nearly dying Kong and a revived giant skullcrawler, preferably at the same time if not one after the other – what’s not to love here? In its haste to pile on the tension and anticipation of a huge climax, the film-makers sacrifice such needed cinematic elements as character development and necessary sci-fi elements such as a realistic ecosystem and an equally appropriate indigenous human culture for Skull Island. How Kong and his clan survive on the island, let alone grow to gigantic size, is never addressed even though Randa’s expedition includes a biologist. The Iwi are a taciturn and suspicious lot – appropriate, I suppose, for a people exasperated with the idiotic behaviour of the gringos who insist on blowing up everything they see. The indigenous people are clearly surplus to requirements and seem to feature only to provide an additional exotic and primitive element to Skull Island. Most of the acting cast are wasted in the roles allotted to them, and only Jackson really gets the chance to play a crazed army commander whose motto is to bomb everything and ask questions later. The influences from Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness” and Francis Ford Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now” are very superficial. Probably the only redeeming aspects of the film are the karst-like landscapes of the island, with mountains rising suddenly out of the sea or the river, and Kong himself, portrayed CGI style of course but with a peaceful if stoic nature. 

It would be too much for us to ask for a proper plot from which a message decrying war and ecological destruction that advance corporate greed could be discerned, through proper character development and dialogue that reveals characters’ motives and reasons for behaving the way they do. A film that cynically packs in whatever motifs and genre elements deemed popular with Hollywood mainstream audiences, for the purpose of raking in profits for movie studios and the corporations that own them, will not do any more than the bare minimum to get maximum bums on seats. The result is that “Kong: Skull Island” falls flat for all the tens of millions if not hundreds of millions spent on its production.