If, like me, you felt the only thing missing from ‘Apocalypse Now’ was a big-ass monkey, well, my friend, we are in luck. The ape has arrived. But ‘Kong: Skull Island’, which is now in theatres, is not just a scene by scene retelling of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic. It is a veritable smorgasbord of cinematic references.
This is only Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s second film, after the enjoyable but slight ‘The Kings of Summer’. But he manages the transition to the big leagues better than Gareth Edwards did with ‘Godzilla’ (though Gareth made good with ‘Rogue One’). Given an almost unlimited budget, Jordan takes us on a journey through his cinematic upbringing.
As an aperitif, he starts us off with a dash of ‘Hell in the Pacific’ (meets Kong), before transporting us to Watergate-era Washington. Yes, things have never been so crazy there, which sounds like a reference to the present day. Like Kong, Hillary Clinton may be a monster, but without her we are all prey to far worse ones.
Finally, we are in the jungles of Vietnam (and the Vietnam-like Skull Island), and full-on ‘Apocalypse’ fury. Like in that film, the most stunning setpiece is a helicopter battle early on, and no, King Kong don’t surf either. Before too long, we’re sailing down a river into (or rather out of) the heart of darkness. Inevitably, characters carry reference names like Marlow and Conrad. Kong, then, is the crazed Captain Kurtz who does what he has to in an impossible war. There are even short-lived water buffalo.
But we also get a semi-plausible Kong backstory, which draws on both ‘Pacific Rim’ and Jules Verne. These tend to be unnecessary, but here it is relatively well-handled. Less so are the characters. Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston are eye-candy but devoid of personality. Even Kong, who is known to have a Trump-like interest in young blondes, seems unimpressed. We get no Kong on ice here. Perhaps a big hairy guy grabbing a girl and making off with her is no longer palatable in the present age.
The only human character who seems, well, human, is John C. Reilly, who makes a Dennis Hopper-like entrance to liven things up. Sam Jackson is his usual bad self as a deranged Vietnam vet. I am sure some fan theory will suggest that all the monsters on the island exist purely in his mind.
It is in the period setting that the genius of ‘Skull Island’ lies. And the filmmakers never tire of reminding us that this was the best period in popular music history (Bowie and Iggy). There is even a “Run Through the Jungle” thrown in for old times’ sake.
We haven’t really seen a proper Vietnam film since ‘Casualties of War’ in 1989, before American war trauma was transported to the Middle East. But Vietnam is making a comeback in action-adventures such as ‘Watchmen’, ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’, ‘Rogue One’ and now here. It makes for one hell of a backdrop. Now with added monkey.