Kong: Skull Island

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly


When Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla came out, it was criticised for its slow-reveal approach with the titular monster, who only appeared on-screen for about eight minutes. While Jaws is one example of how well this approach can work when done right, Godzilla shows how tedious it can be with the absence of compelling characters or an engaging story. Kong, the second instalment of the proposed MonsterVerse franchise, takes the opposite approach. We meet the gigantic ape as soon as the characters reach Skull Island and then he remains prominent throughout as he battles monsters and whatnot. This approach will undoubtedly work for many viewers as it allows them to see plenty of exactly the thing they paid to see: epic monster-on-monster action. It didn’t work for me though. This was because the misgivings with character and story were still there. It terms of pure action alone, this movie is weird, exciting and fun. As a whole it is a messy, misguided, and often tiresome film.

It is 1973 and the war in Vietnam is virtually over for the Americans. At this time Bill Randa (John Goodman), a government agent, hires the former soldier James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to lead an expedition to Skull Island. Escorting them is a U.S. army squadron led by the ruthless Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Also accompanying them is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist and vocal peace activist. Upon arrival the troops start dropping heavy explosives to map out the island until they are interrupted by the arrival of Kong, an enormous ape, who attacks the party and scatters them all around the island. The survivors must navigate and survive the threats and creatures that inhabit the island in order to find each other and escape. Packard however has other plans for the monster that wiped out his troops.

The design and animation in this film is first-class. The monsters look like they could’ve been designed by Guillermo del Toro or Hayao Miyazaki. Kong himself is larger than life and he looks and feels as real as any of the human characters. The ground trembles with his every step, the blows he delivers to his foes leave a shattering impact and the sounds he makes teem with life. This authenticity however is only true on a visual level because, unlike the previous incarnations in the 1933 classic or in Jackson’s remake, this Kong has no personality. He isn’t keen or intelligent, he isn’t protective or vengeful, and he isn’t hard-hearted or compassionate; he’s just an exceptionally animated CGI monster there to wreak havoc or to rush in as the saviour depending on what the plot wants him to do. Even if Kong were an interesting character in his own right, he has to fight for his screen time against the half-dozen or so human characters the film saw fit to focus on. Hiddleston somehow has less of a character than Kong, Jackson is one-dimensionally crazy, and Larson’s character only exists because blonde damsels are mandatory in King Kong movies.

What really got on my nerves though was that Kong was not satisfied with being a simple King Kong movie. Even with the lack of character, I would’ve been just fine with two hours of mindless, visually stunning action (I’m only human). The truly baffling thing about this film is the statement it’s trying to make (whatever that statement may be). The movie is unreservedly intent on creating some sort of parable to the war in Vietnam, pitting its gung-ho soldiers and their advanced weaponry against a savage foe who bests them with guerrilla tactics, and clutters the movie with homages to Apocalypse Now and Platoon just in case there was any ambiguity on that front. The point however is lost on me. All I got from the movie’s ‘meaningful’ statements about the war, its superficial characterisations and its extravagant imagery complete with napalm explosions was that the film really wanted to make a Vietnam metaphor.

The total clash in tones makes Kong: Skull Island feel like several different films blended together into an indefinable mixture. There’s the monster movie that we all wanted to see but it has been mismatched with some kind of political allegory that is so blatant and unsubtle and yet so random and unfocused that I’m not sure whether ‘allegory’ is even the appropriate word. The movie somehow takes itself too seriously and yet not seriously enough. It is certainly a weird and crazy enough film that the mess will work for some viewers. At its best the action is thrilling, awe-inspiring, and epic. I however found myself so distracted by the confused, cluttered story and the soulless characters that I was never able to lose myself in the spectacle. Godzilla may have lacked character but at least it was tonally consistent enough that I never felt like the story ever derailed or lost track of itself. This movie was anarchy from beginning to end. Visually stunning anarchy, but anarchy nonetheless.

★★

High-Rise

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writer: Amy Jump


While watching High-Rise I was very much reminded of Lord of the Flies. Like Golding’s celebrated novel, High-Rise depicts the collapse of civilisation and the ascendancy of disorder, savagery and anarchy. However, while Lord of the Flies was in essence a portrait of the darkness and evil that exists in all men’s hearts, High-Rise is a social commentary that raises themes of class, technology and power. The apartment complex where all these characters live is one where flat assignments and relationships between neighbours are determined by social status. The inequitable distribution of such necessaries as water and electricity speaks of the economic situation of the 70s, the decade Ballard wrote the novel, which remains very much relevant today. The residents of this building are isolated from the rest of the world and suffer from severe detachment and alienation. It is a film that speaks of a bad situation getting continually worse with no hope of restoration in sight.

Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a young doctor, moves into the 25th floor of a lavish tower block where he finds himself both seduced and bewildered by the way of life. Governing this building is its architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) who rules from above in his penthouse apartment, unreachable to those who are not invited or summoned. Amongst Laing’s neighbours are Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), a loyal advocate for Royal, and Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a documentary filmmaker determined to expose the injustices exercised within the building. Through them Laing discovers the belligerent tension between the occupants of the upper and lower flats and bears witness to the complex loyalties and acts of provocation that result. As the situation grows more volatile it is only a matter of time until chaos erupts and the state of affairs is destroyed through violence and bloodshed.

High-Rise is set in a dystopic future of the 2000 A.D. kind that the writers and filmmakers of the 1970s might have imagined. Nearly the entirety of its story is set in the imposing tower with its dark interiors, oppressive architecture and intricate layout. Wheatley makes marvellous use of his setting and conveys an acute sense of being trapped and confined. The tower block was specially designed to be self-sustaining, complete with its own gym, swimming pool and shopping market, and so there is seldom a reason to step outside into the empty landscape. At one point two characters step into the parking lot only to discover that they’ve long since forgotten where they’ve left their cars. Through the use of montage Wheatley is also able to convey a sense of disorientation as the situation in the tower grows more explosive. We know that this chaotic breakdown takes place over the course of three months but our sense of time becomes distorted as the days meld into one another. Wheatley’s depiction of the horror that unfolds as chaos and disorder become rampant is unrelenting in its brutality and stunning in execution, particularly one sequence involving a kaleidoscope.

Hiddleston delivers a top-notch performance as an outsider slowly conforming himself to the way of life in the tower block. On the surface he is calm and immaculate but there is a hint of melancholy and madness that is gradually brought out by the increasingly unstable environment he has inhabited. Initially he seeks to achieve some form of balance between the two opposing classes, forming friendships with those below and arranging trysts with those above and is very much the observer to the catastrophe that is inevitably to follow. The rest of the ensemble is a collection of peculiar characters following a conformist way of life that is doomed to collapse. Evans shines as the deplorable, misogynistic Wilder whose quest to challenge the higher ups and expose their tyranny somehow makes him as close to a moral voice as a twisted world such as this can produce. Sienna Miller and Elisabeth Moss both provide highlights as single mothers of different social classes who become exasperated by this way of life and its subsequent downfall.

My main problem with High-Rise is that by the time the third act started I was ready for it to be over. So exhausting was the film’s constant violence, wild characters and disturbing subject matter that I, along with other members of the audience, was utterly drained as the film approached its climax. Perhaps this was intentional on the film’s part, to weary me with its relentless nature in order to drive its point home. This film has a clear point to make about society and is unmistakable in its approach. The film ends on a similar note to John Carpenter’s The Thing where, just when you think it’s all over, it leaves you with a hint that the worst is yet to come. Even though I felt that the film did lose momentum towards the end and thought that the narrative struggled at certain points, High-Rise is overall a well-crafted film with challenging themes that packs a real wallop.

★★★★

Crimson Peak

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunman, Jim Beaver

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins


When the film’s protagonist shows the manuscript of a novel she has written to a would-be publisher, he expresses his confusion over what he labels as a ghost story. She replies that it is not a ghost story but a story with a ghost in it. Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to the depiction of supernatural beings in his films but to label them, along with other films of this type, as ‘ghost stories’ does not do them justice. The ghosts of these stories often come in figurative forms as well as literal and are not simply there to provide scares. Ghosts often appear in a certain place because of an emotional attachment they have and, while scary, are not manifestations of evil. Instead they can appear as manifestations of fear, loss, grief, pain and other themes we associate with death. True evil instead lies in the hearts of men, the ones who create these ghosts. The ghosts are not the focus of these stories but are instead there to reinforce and enhance the emotional journey or conflict taking place. This is the type of story that Crimson Peak is trying to tell.

The story is that of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) who as a young girl was visited by her mother’s ghost and was warned to “beware of Crimson Peak”. Now a young woman, Edith is an aspiring author very much in the vein of Mary Shelley. She is also at the age when she must start thinking of marriage and catches the eye of the alluring English baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Edith’s father Carter (Jim Beaver) senses something awry about Thomas and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and so tries to prevent any sort of a union between him and his daughter. When Carter dies under mysterious circumstances a grieving Edith weds Thomas and goes to live with him and his sister in the rotting, decaying estate of Allerdale Hall. Edith however learns that this estate is haunted by ghosts both literal and metaphorical and starts to suspect that this forbidding place might be connected to the warning she received all those years ago.

One thing that Guillermo del Toro has stressed while promoting this film is that it is not a gothic horror, but a gothic romance. The film certainly has elements of horror such as the haunting atmosphere, the sinister characters and elements of the supernatural. However the focus of the film is not on them but on the romance between Edith and Thomas and on the terrible secret that he and his sister share. In any case I cannot think of any director working today who is better at depicting gothic settings and themes than del Toro. The production and style of this film harkens back to such classics as The Innocents, Black Sunday and the works of Roger Corman. The antiquated sets, costumes and visuals are all wonderfully dark and mystifying. The film makes gorgeous use of colour with an ominous emphasis on red, reminiscent of the Hammer Horror films. The atmosphere del Toro creates, complete with the looming shadows, eerie environment and melancholy music, is thoroughly absorbing and is a refined homage to the fine line-up of gothic cinema that has preceded this film. I really wish I could say that the story and characters were worthy of them.

The central romance of this film just didn’t do it for me. I thought it felt quite melodramatic and flat and that neither character had much going for them despite the great talent behind them. Mia Wasikowska is a formidable actress and has done great work in the past but she keeps making the mistake of starring in films that require her to look impassive and disinterested at all the action around her. Her lack of personality made her journey less compelling and her motives less identifiable. Tom Hiddleston has shown that he knows how to do creepy and charming well and while that does come across with this character it just never felt to like there was any life beneath it all. I never felt any of the passion or fire between these two that is clearly supposed to be there. Jessica Chastain delivers a campy, over-the-top performance but at least she looks like she’s having fun doing it. Once you have a clear idea of who each person is the story itself becomes fairly predictable and steals much away from the film’s mysteriousness.

This is a film that I admired more than I enjoyed. I admire del Toro as a director whose inventive imagination, meticulous attention to detail and uncanny command of mood and tone has been employed to spellbinding effect in such films as Pan’s Labyrinth. The atmosphere he evokes in Crimson Peak is haunting and beautiful, just like gothic cinema should be. The characters however seem lifeless in comparison and the story less engaging. What results is a film that is moody and atmospheric on the outside but dispassionate and hollow within. Audiences might enjoy this film for the visual spectacle but the romance and the mystery left me feeling overall underwhelmed.

★★★