"I understood that reference": Passengers, Kong: Skull Island, and the pitfalls of paying homage to cinema's past

On the surface, recent Hollywood offerings Passengers and Kong: Skull Island appear to have little in common other than being mainstream blockbusters; the former being a sci-fi vehicle for current hot properties Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, whilst the latter offers the latest reboot for the titular giant ape. But they share a curious trait, one which you might not expect to see in such standard Hollywood fare: both contain a number of prominent allusions to past cinema, ranging from the unmistakeably iconic to uncompromisingly cult.

Passengers' most obvious reference point is The Shining - the bar on the starship Avalon may as well have been taken straight out of the Overlook Hotel, complete with Michael Sheen's android barman Arthur replicating Joe Turkel's Lloyd in appearance if never in creepiness. Perhaps less surprising for a film set in space are references to both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running; but there are also definite links to a less immediately obvious bedfellow in Cast Away at points throughout Morten Tyldum's film.

Whilst Kong: Skull Island by definition draws on past Kong films - John Guillermin's 1976 remake feels like the strongest influence - it arguably more often evokes Apocalypse Now both visually and narratively, a connection reflected just as strongly in the film's promotional materials. Other Vietnam war movies of the '70s and '80s are inherently referenced, partly thanks to the fact that Kong: Skull Island is set in the period immediately following America's involvement in the conflict. But Jordan Vogt-Roberts also includes some more obscure and surprising references: Mark Kermode was particularly delighted to find that a reference to notorious Italian horror flick Cannibal Holocaust was entirely intentional, and the director himself has confirmed that Kong chowing down on a giant octopus is a deliberate nod to Park Chan-wook's Oldboy.

With their film geek credentials established, however, both Tyldum and Vogt-Roberts do precisely nothing with them. After an intriguing opening half, Passengers opts for 'Fishburne ex machina' at the end of its second act, followed by a race against time to avert disaster as derivative as it's possible to create. Kong: Skull Island meanwhile proceeds to both figuratively and literally waste a talented cast in favour of railroading the establishment of the MonsterVerse, the latest attempt at a cinematic universe which will eventually lead to Kong squaring off against the newly rebooted version of Godzilla.

The homages are therefore rendered empty, their apparent foreshadowing of some intertextuality with cinema gone by ultimately amounting to nothing. The iconography on display essentially becomes a meaningless checklist for those who appreciate it, reducing their viewing experience to something akin to Steve Rogers in the first Avengers film enthusiastically acknowledging his understanding Nick Fury's allusion to The Wizard Of Oz. Sure, you recognise the references, but what's the point if they're just there for you to let others know you spotted them?

In fact, including such bold references to iconic cinema with no thematic or narrative payoff actually damages these films more than if they hadn't included at all. If Tyldum hadn't taken so many visual cues directly from The Shining, it might not feel like such a disappointment when Passengers eventually pitches its tent so firmly in such woefully generic action sci-fi territory. If Vogt-Roberts (and the marketing team) hadn't pushed Apocalypse Now so blatantly in front of us, the blow of finding out that the film is ultimately yet another rushed franchise starter made with several sequels already in mind may have been a little easier to take.

Perhaps most disappointing, in Kong: Skull Island's case at least, is the thought of the film that we could have had. Are the brief flashes of such cult offerings as Oldboy and Cannibal Holocaust remnants of a far more interesting film that Vogt-Roberts really wanted to make? Unless the director chooses to confirm or deny this, we'll probably never know. Sometimes, however, it seems fair to say that the ignorance of not being able to say "I understood that reference" might indeed be bliss.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a contributing editor at Film Intel. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. When he's not writing about films here, Ben is usually writing about films - mostly Shakespeare adaptations - for his PhD. He's also on and Twitter.

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