Film · Review

Kong: Skull Island – A better Sahara

Did you ever watch Sahara? I don’t think many people did, it’s not that good. I think it’s one of the contenders for the title of the biggest Hollywood flop. It’s the bizarre, sloppy, racist attempt to turn Matthew McConaughey into the action star he never was. Part of the joy of the thing is its utter shamelessness, it throws all concepts of sense, propriety and taste out of the window in its mad quest to be the new Indiana Jones, seemingly oblivious to its own incompetence. I know the top spot here generally goes to the trailer for the film I’m reviewing but Imma throw in the trailer for Sahara here. If this garbage doesn’t make you want to watch the joint you probably got no soul.

Kong: Skull Island is like a less bad Sahara. Which means unfortunately that it’s a less madcap Sahara, but they can be siblings in shame. I imagine at one point there was discussion about what the film should be called. Notably what it ain’t is KING Kong, because the whole joint has nothing to do with thing, aside from being a giant ape, Kong is unrecognizable here. He could literally be anything else and the film would be exactly the same, probably wasn’t even a Kong script when production started until the point where they realised they could create brand awareness by just spamming that find and replace.

Which ain’t nothing to hold against the movie, we all gotta make a living somehow, but y’all can feel it creeping up, about to spook you in your seats. the start with two government agents, scientists; they hire an elusive ranger and some good boy soldiers; a photographer tags along… It’s about the point that John C Reilly shows up and there’s a wacky good-times travel montage that the full effect of the deception becomes clear. You’re watching another Indiana Jones movie, ragtag, precocious jumble of young upstarts just try’na make it in this crazy world. It sounds insufferable but it honestly ain’t as bad as it could be.

It’s mostly saved by its cast, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts understands that the characters on the page are barely thicker than air so he drags as much recognisable charisma as possible to the stage. You got John Goodman, then you get Tom Hiddleston, then you get Sam Jackson, then you get Brie Larson. You’ll wanna skip over Toby Kebbell who must be one of the unluckiest present day B-listers (look at his credits, like a good six or seven could have starmaking roles if they were actually good films.) Pass by Jing Tian too, she given literally nothing in this joint and none of that charisma we saw in The Great Wall comes through. But then, like I said, John C Reilly appears and we get lively again

On this note, is it cool to say here that the film dramatically underserves its female characters? Given Tian’s invisibility, it’s so disappointing to see Larson’s Mason become basically an extension of Hiddleston’s Conrad, it feels like at some point in their compulsory hetero relationship (which, like, so lazy, given how it’s clearly barely present in the screenplay) she just becomes this adjunct for him. She does nothing of her own accord, it’s not good.

Also not good is the film relationship to indigeneity. I mean, come on now, we’re talking about King Kong, if any series has a long history of problematic representation of indigenous peoples it’s this one. Sure, maybe it’s better than the 1933 version but I’d like to think that the world has improved more than this. The film just comes and trots out all these tired visual and filmic tropes of ‘The Mysterious Natives’ what with the body paint, things in their hair, primitive ways, untrustworthy demeanour, oneness with nature, and a steadfast stoicism that reduces then to physical props in the journey of our western heroes. Yeah, it ain’t great, and the thing is we’re not dealing with some supposed representation of a real people here, the filmmakers could have gone with anything, but instead they choose the most boring.

I suppose because it looked good, and you don’t gotta be too interesting if you can look real pretty. God I don’t wanna underplay the beauty that Larry Fong throws up onto the screen, you get the sense that he was given free rein to play here and, unconstrained from Snyder’s aesthetic and the rigors of reality, he’s throwing everything at the wall. You almost don’t notice how inert much of the action is, if it’s not just this static entrenchment, it’s a complete muddle that loses all sense of physical geography.

Hell, a major plot point is that the characters must travel to the north east of the island, they have three days. We are defined a clear goal and timeframe and two separate parties to follow, and the film klutzes its way into a complete blind alley, we don’t know where these folks are going, we don’t know how long they have left. It’s so murky, and the complete lack of interpersonal drama throughout the film is just anathema.

I’m just not sure why I felt it survived. Maybe it’s just slick garbage. Maybe, like Sahara, there’s enough commitment to its ridiculous tone, to its devotion to carrying out the moment. Like there’s a bit where they’re flying helicopters through a storm, Sam Jackson’s Packard breaks into some sorta quasi-religious rant about survival. It’s stupid, it comes out of nowhere and I don’t think it ever comes back up for the character; it’s there because the film needs that moment. Usually I hate that, but Kong: Skull Island is stupid, and it puts all this effort into pulling off that stupidity as good as it can.

Sahara is a racist piece of shit and I kinda love it. Kong: Skull Island does better, it’s just a shame that means I like it less. Here’s its trailer now.

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