KONG: SKULL ISLAND – Henry Jackman
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
As the granddaddy of all monster movies, King Kong has an enormous legacy and is a major touchstone in cinematic history. Ever since Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack first brought the giant ape to the silver screen in 1933 his presence has loomed large over the genre, with multiple remakes and adaptations over the subsequent 70-plus years. The latest film to join the pantheon is Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, which is set in the 1970s just as the Vietnam War is coming to an end. U.S. government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) acquires funding to lead an expedition to the mythical Skull Island on the pretence of conducting a geological survey, but who is actually searching for evidence of long-forgotten mythological giant monsters. Accompanying him on the trip are a platoon of US army soldiers led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), British SAS veteran and expert tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), among others. However, once they arrive on the island, the adventurers quickly encounter much more than they bargained for in the shape of a 100-foot tall bipedal ape known as Kong; before long they are fighting for their lives, not only from the protective Kong, but from the numerous other creatures who live on – and below – the mysterious island.
Despite a few flaws in logic, Kong: Skull Island is nevertheless a superbly entertaining action adventure flick, a Saturday morning popcorn-muncher, with thrills, spills, and spectacle galore. The cinematography, by Larry Fong, is especially noteworthy, as he allows the film to develop in an unexpectedly beautiful way. Equally impressive are the special effects, which render Kong himself in his most realistic incarnation yet. As groundbreaking as they were at the time, we’re a million miles away from the stop-motion clay models developed by Willis O’Brien back in the 1930s; the Kong-Octopus fight and the conclusive battle between Kong and the Skullcrawer in this film are some of the most impressive CGI effects sequences I have ever seen.
Musically, too, cinema owes much to King Kong. Max Steiner’s score for the original 1933 film was groundbreaking in ways we can scarcely comprehend today; his was one of the first scores to make use of Wagnerian operatic leitmotifs, one of the first scores to use a large symphony orchestra, and one of the first to treat music as dramatic underscore rather than diegetic source music. In essence, Steiner invented from scratch much of the musical syntax we take for granted in scoring today, and he did it all for a film about a giant monkey. Several composers have written music for Kong over the years, including Akira Ifukube in 1962, John Barry in 1976, John Scott in 1986, and James Newton Howard in 2005. The latest composer to tackle Kong is Englishman Henry Jackman, who has now firmly established himself as a Hollywood A-Lister off the back of such scores as X-Men First Class, Wreck-It Ralph, Captain Phillips, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Big Hero 6, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and Captain America: Civil War.
Historically, Jackman has been a bit of a hit-and-miss composer for me. When he’s on, and writing great themes for a full orchestra, he’s tremendously entertaining, but far too many of his recent scores have embraced droney sound design for my liking, as is the Hollywood zeitgeist these days. Fortunately, Kong: Skull Island is very much one of the former. It’s a big, old-fashioned orchestral adventure score, teeming with jungle drums and a wordless choir. There are some moments where the music is electronically enhanced, but for the vast majority of its running time the score dwells in a wonderful place where strings surge and fall with the expectation of discovery, where the brass explodes in moments of full-octane action and simian mayhem, and where the rhythmic core drives everything forward with determination and purpose.
Much of the score is built around a recurring six-note motif and a repeated rhythmic pattern, both of which act as ‘main themes’ for the film as a whole. Both themes are developed strongly during the first few cues; in “Project Monarch” the theme is embedded into a bed of swirling string figures and a powerful horn melody, both of which give the score a sense of urgent anticipation. “Assembling the Team” further develops the primary rhythmic pattern by augmenting it with marimba, “Into the Storm” plays high strings against low brass to enhance the sense of danger, and “The Island” allows the main Monarch theme to emerge with a heraldic swell for orchestra and guitar as the brave explorers lay their eyes on Skull Island for the first time.
Later, in “Grey Fox,” the main Monarch theme is reprised on warm strings with gently militaristic, almost Coplandesque contrapuntal horns, while at the conclusion of “Marlow’s Farewell” the Monarch theme slowly builds and imparts sense of importance and majesty. In the film, this is one of Jackman’s few ‘sweeping scenery shots,’ accompanying the wonderful vista of Marlow’s cobbled-together boat making its way down one of Skull Island’s rivers, its banks shrouded with verdant green, and with the sun setting behind the distant mountains.
Elsewhere, there’s a prominent motif for chugging, dirty-sounding electric guitars that follows the United States Army grunts around. It is heard prominently in the aforementioned cues “Assembling the Team” and “Into the Storm,” although it gets abandoned somewhat during the score’s second half. This is further accompanied by a motif specific to Samuel L. Jackson’s character, which is heard in “Packard’s Blues,” towards the end of “Spider Attack,” in “Lost,” and in “Man vs. Beast.” This motif combines a wailing, whining distorted electric guitar texture with an electronic instrument called a ‘cosmic beam,’ which together create a psychedelic effect that Jackman says is an intentional reference to the sound of 1970s counter-culture. It also gives a sort of twisted quality to Packard’s character, enhancing the Captain Ahab-like obsession and single-mindedness he displays as the movie develops.
The action music kicks into gear for the first time in “Kong the Destroyer,” a mass of turbulent churning strings and throbbing percussion which is, unfortunately, marred slightly by Jackman’s use of the now terribly clichéd use of the so-called ‘horn of doom’, that one-note brass blast that has littered far too many scores over the last decade. It is in this cue that Jackman introduces his recurring thematic idea for Kong himself, a motif which embeds itself in several subsequent cues. In “The Temple,” for example, the Kong motif is afforded several revelatory statements on strings, in a cue which is otherwise dominated by haunting woodwinds, eerie vocals, and tribal percussion, giving a musical identity to the mysterious human inhabitants of Skull Island.
Only occasionally does Jackman resort to the uninteresting electronic buzzing and rumbling that made scores like Captain Phillips, The Winter Soldier, and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back so interminable. The motif is intended to be a guttural, intimidating idea representing the threat of the Skullcrusher monsters, so I understand what Jackman was doing, but the music itself is just deeply unpleasant. Cues like “Monsters Exist,” most of “Spider Attack,” and “The Boneyard” can be skipped entirely, unless you have a deep appreciation of droning ambience and eardrum-crushing industrial synth textures.
However, it is in the final half dozen or so cues that Kong: Skull Island really comes to life, and impresses the most. Beginning with “Ambushed,” the entire finale is a breathless action extravaganza, blending together all the main themes, including the Monarch theme, the guitar ideas for the soldiers, and Kong’s theme, and surrounding them with vast complicated percussion patterns, driving strings, brass clusters of power and depth, and occasional choral outbursts. “The Heart of Kong” is a beautiful, sympathetic statement of Kong’s theme for emotional strings that seeks to capture the intelligence and latent humanity of the king of the jungle. “Man vs. Beast” begins with a funereal timpani tattoo and brooding, angry guitar chords, but finishes with thunderous percussion rhythms, anguished choral outbursts, and bleating brass writing that sounds more like Elliot Goldenthal than anything else.
Similar ideas continue in “Creature from the Deep,” with a more pronounced choral element and hearty statements of Kong’s theme, before everything culminates in “The Battle of Skull Island”. Although some of the action music here is very clearly influenced by the style of Jackman’s Captain America scores, it somehow seems much more fulfilling in this context. The cue contains several excellent thematic statements, notably the consecutive performances of the Monarch theme beginning at 0:17, with their unusual fluttering bassoon textures, which are especially noteworthy. There are also several moments of flair in the orchestration, including some scintillating string runs at 2:45, while the tribal rhythmic patterns that underpin it all are constantly shifting, keeping the music interesting. The final, powerful statement of Kong’s theme in “King Kong” is sure to make his majesty happy, while the bonus cue “Monster Mash” teases the idea that we could be seeing Kong – as well as some other giant monsters – on screen together in the very near future.
While I still think that last year’s Birth of a Nation is Henry Jackman’s most mature and nuanced dramatic score to date, Kong: Skull Island is probably his most enjoyable. Anyone who knows me knows that I can get caught up in big, thematic action-adventure scores quickly, and I have to admit that I found large parts of this score to be enormously entertaining on a purely visceral level. Some people will complain about the lack of truly memorable thematic content, some will complain about the slight ‘genericness’ of the action music, and some will complain that the score’s middle section drags little, and to be fair many of those complaints have merit. Furthermore, when you compare Jackman’s work here to the previous Kong scores by Steiner, Barry, Howard, and others, it pales in comparison; this is to be expected. However, taken on its own terms, and judging it against Henry Jackman’s own filmography, Kong: Skull Island is a blast, a fun way to pass an hour or so in the company of one of Hollywood’s greatest creations.
Buy the Kong: Skull Island soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- South Pacific (0:35)
- The Beach (1:27)
- Project Monarch (2:02)
- Packard’s Blues (1:14)
- Assembling the Team (1:48)
- Into the Storm (2:44)
- The Island (1:16)
- Kong the Destroyer (3:43)
- Monsters Exist (2:27)
- Spider Attack (1:39)
- Dominant Species (2:00)
- The Temple (5:47)
- Grey Fox (2:33)
- Kong the Protector (1:49)
- Marlow’s Farewell (2:37)
- Lost (1:27)
- The Boneyard (1:52)
- Ambushed (2:21)
- The Heart of Kong (2:11)
- Man vs. Beast (2:31)
- Creature from the Deep (2:44)
- The Battle of Skull Island (5:46)
- King Kong (2:42)
- Monster Mash [Bonus] (1:27)
Running Time: 56 minutes 56 seconds
Watertower Music (2017)
Music composed by Henry Jackman. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by Stephen Coleman, Andrew Kinney and Gernot Wolfgang. Additional music by Halli Cauthery, Alex Belcher and Stephen Hilton. Cosmic Beam performed by Francesco Lupica. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage and Alan Meyerson. Edited by Clint Bennett and Jack Dolman. Album produced by Henry Jackman .