Simian danger stalks land of the giants
“Mark my words, there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington!” So says eccentric scientist Bill Randa (a splendid John Goodman) as he jumps out of a cab on Capitol Hill. That may make some people chortle today, but it wasn’t as funny back in the early 1970s, the setting for Kong: Skull Island. The Vietnam War was shutting down and Watergate was opening up. A bobble-headed Richard Nixon doll grins on the dashboard of a military helicopter.
This film is a reboot of the King Kong cinematic franchise, which is closing in on a century. It pays particular attention to the landmark 1933 original, with Fay Wray as Ann Darrow, the young woman the great ape likes. The story was remade in 1976 in a contemporary setting with Jessica Lange in her debut, and by Peter Jackson in 2005, with Naomi Watts as the girl in the palm of Kong’s hand.
Unlike the earlier movies, this one unfolds in Kong’s home, Skull Island, where he is far from being the only unusual beast. He does not end up in New York to climb the Empire State Building or the World Trade Centre. The film was shot in Vietnam, Hawaii and Queensland, where the cast reportedly arrived terrified by the prospect of being attacked by Australian snakes and spiders.
The fauna on Skull Island is far more dangerous. We arrive there thanks to Randa convincing an influential senator to back an exploration mission. Randa says it will uncover resources the US needs, but his real interest is in monsters. The island is “a place where myth and science meet”.
It is also permanently surrounded by a ferocious storm, so Randa and his team need a military escort. This is soul-lifting news for hard nut Lt-Col Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is disappointed the Vietnam War is over and the US sort of lost. He agrees to corral his troops, most of whom were looking forward to going home, and lead a helicopter squadron through the tempest and on to terra firma.
Also on the mission, at Randa’s request, is former British special forces officer James Conrad ( Tom Hiddleston). The scientists first see him shooting pool in a bar. There’s an argument, he snaps his pool cue and beats up his antagonist. “Now, there’s a man worth talking to,’’ Randa observes. And because it’s no Kong movie without the likes of Wray, Lange or Watts, the mission is documented by photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).
The long scene where the helicopters face the storm is terrific. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the choppers make it through — we wouldn’t have a film otherwise. But waiting on the other side is Kong, and he isn’t happy. How many soldiers and scientists make it to ground is something viewers can find out. Their actions, especially Packard’s, show the war isn’t over yet, at least not in their minds.
It’s the inclusion of historical references, and literary ones, that make this film engaging, despite its faults, which include a pedestrian script. It is the second feature from American director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. His debut, coming-of-age comedy-drama The Kings of Summer, was wellreceived at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
The name of Hiddleston’s mercenary is a nod to Joseph Conrad and his novel Heart of Darkness. Put different people in a strange place and see what happens. The director has said the book, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War-set film incarnation of it, Apocalypse Now, were inspirations. Jackson at times does look like he’s channelling Apocalypse Now’s Robert Duvall, though he has noted another fictional Kong: Skull predecessor, comparing Packard with Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Whoever he is, his stare-down with Kong is hilarious, even if it’s not supposed to be.
Ahab pursued a colossal creature for revenge, endangering his life and everyone else’s. Packard is in the same boat, though he is armed not with a harpoon but with napalm. His aim is to regroup his men, gather the scientists and the photojournalist and make it to a predetermined rescue point on the island. He has three days. Oh, and he also wants to blow Kong to bits. Here we might also think about the ongoing trauma of war, as well as topical matters such as our treatment of the environment.
For me, all these connections make the film interesting. There is humour too, though not always where the filmmakers intend it to be. Some of the planned jokes fall flat. The funniest moments come from a veteran soldier named Hank Marlow (another name from Heart of Darkness, the narrator). He’s played by the superb John C. Reilly, who is the highlight of the film. It would be unfair to say more about this soldier’s background; it’s something for viewers to find out.
As has been the case all along, Kong has a soft side. This comes in handy on the island when other gigantic animals start to make trouble: spiders, snakes (see, they don’t only live in Australia), squid and, worst of all, ravenous lizard-like marauders. The fights, between monsters and monsters and between monsters and humans, are thrilling (and humorous at times, such as what Kong does with a tentacle). The size differential is well conveyed, particularly in quiet moments such as Kong washing his wounds in a river. My 11-year-old liked all of this a lot, and I think he is in the main target audience.
Kong is good in a fight because he’s so big. He’ll need this in the coming films in this franchise, which will feature Godzilla. Yet his main advantage is exactly the same one that makes the tiny apes who have invaded his home such a threat: the opposable thumb. This similarity and difference comes together at a lovely moment where Kong sees the mercenary and the photojournalist together. He looks at them hard, a bit jealous, but his jaw softens and you know he’s thinking something like, “Sure, I’m huge, but then you are Tom Hiddleston.’’ Jessica Chastain is not in the simian saga, but in the political thriller Miss Sloane she looks just like the Ann Darrow I painted in my 1964 Aurora model kit of King Kong. I so wish I still had that. She’s beautiful: slim, pale-skinned, redhaired. She also holds up this movie, directed by Englishman John Madden ( Shakespeare in Love), with a commanding performance as a dominant yet vulnerable woman. We’re in Washington again, where Elizabeth Sloane is a formidable special-interest lobbyist.
We first see her face-on to camera, sophisticated, calm and assured. Lobbying, she says, is about being one step ahead of the opposition and knowing how to use your trump card — he’s there again! — just after your opponent uses hers. She’s preparing for a Senate committee hearing (a stern John Lithgow is the chairman) into a deal she orchestrated in Indonesia. “They want you behind bars,” her lawyer warns.
But this is the future. We go back a few months and the film proper begins: Sloane is approached by the gun lobby to head a campaign to kill a proposed law mandating universal background checks. She not only says no but leaves her firm, taking four colleagues, and joins the campaign opposing the law. The National Rifle Association sees guns as female empowerment; the other side sees guns as lethal to women. Chastain presents Sloane as a woman who is hard to fathom. Is there a gun tragedy in her past? In the present she runs a ruthless campaign, lives on uppers and downers and hooks up with a gigolo named Forde (an excellent Jake Lacy). She’s strong but also full of frailties.
Miss Sloane raises important issues but loses focus, which is unfortunate for a film about lobbyists. It’s also over-written in an Aaron Sorkin kind of way (as it happens, two of Sorkin’s The Newsroom stars, Sam Waterston and Alison Pill, are in the cast). But it’s worth watching for Chastain, who adds this role to her impressive recent turns as women not to be messed with, including the Osama bin Laden hunter in Zero Dark Thirty.
Tian Jing, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston and Thomas Mann in
above; Jessica Chastain and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Miss Sloane