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Kong: Skull Island (2017)

DIRECTOR: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

CAST: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, John Ortiz, Toby Kebbell, Corey Hawkins, Tian Jing

REVIEW:

As Marvel has done with the Avengers and assorted related characters, Legendary Pictures is now in the process of establishing an interconnected “cinematic universe” which began with 2014’s Godzilla reboot and continues here with Kong: Skull Island, leading up to 2020’s King Kong vs. Godzilla and possibly a resurrection of the Monster Island from the classic Godzilla series of the 1960s.  To that end, Skull Island is a fun monster movie romp that serves up healthy helpings of what audiences expect when they sit down in the theater for this sort of thing.  It’s not a great movie, or even a great monster movie, but those simply looking for a fun romp through the jungle shouldn’t be disappointed.

It’s 1973, and a team of scientists and soldiers head to the isolated, unexplored Skull Island, ostensibly to conduct geological surveys using seismic charges.  But mission leader Bill Randa (John Goodman) has a secret agenda; he believes monsters exist, and he’s hoping to flush one out.  The group is a diverse lot including Randa and his protege Houston (Corey Hawkins), anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), tracker and ex British special forces operative turned mercenary-for-hire James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and the military commander, hard-ass Vietnam veteran Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson).  They stumble across more than they’re looking for when they have a run-in with a mountain-sized ape called Kong who isn’t happy about them dropping bombs on his island and swats their helicopters out of the sky.  Now stranded and scattered across the island, the group struggles to reunite and make it to an extraction point before the rescue party calls off the search while avoiding Kong and his even more dangerous enemies, giant underground lizards called Skullcrawlers.  Along the way, they meet up with Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a WWII fighter pilot who’s been stranded on Skull Island for thirty years.

King Kong purists may be displeased to know Skull Island is a reimagining and an alternate version where the iconic 1930s New York City incident never happened and this is civilization’s first encounter with the King.  Kong’s size has also been bumped up even further than usual (presumably to make him a more credible adversary for Godzilla in their upcoming bout), and instead of dinosaurs, we have the creepy slithering Skullcrawlers (there’s also a giant spider and some hostile pteradactyls, among others).  The natives and their wall are still present and accounted for, although the natives don’t try to sacrifice anyone to Kong and the wall is to keep out the Skullcrawlers (since it wouldn’t be much of an obstacle for this super-sized Kong).  As usual, Kong turns out to have a gentler side and proves more of a god-king protector and guardian than a menace, although his “bonding” with the humans is fleeting and lacks the depth of the classic story (there’s no “beauty and the beast” aspect between Kong and Brie Larson, apart from one brief interaction).  In fact, apart from the Skullcrawlers, the closest we have to a “villain” is Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Packard, who loses some of his men to Kong in their first encounter and turns into Captain Ahab.

Skull Island has some presumably intentional similarities to 2014’s Godzilla (the opening credits are styled the same way, and the presence of the Monarch corporation provides some thin connective tissue), but in some ways is a more satisfying monster movie.  Unlike Gareth Edwards, Jordan Vogt-Roberts doesn’t keep us waiting for the main attraction or minimize his screentime.  We get our first glimpse of Kong in the WWII-era prologue, and it’s about twenty minutes into the movie before we get a complete look.  Like Gareth Edwards, this is Vogt-Roberts’ first break into a big budget CGI-heavy summer flick, and like Edwards he acquits himself adeptly integrating looming monsters and the human actors scurrying around underfoot.  Kong is frequently shown in full body shots in broad daylight, unobscured by heavy rain or nighttime.  And while some shots of him are overly CGI-esque, others are awe-inspiring (one of the first shots of his hulking silhouette against the sun looming over the approaching helicopters), and the level of detail in closeup shots is as impressive as the apes in the rebooted Planet of the Apes series (there’s also a great shot of he and Samuel L. Jackson having a staredown).  Those who found Godzilla‘s lack of Godzilla frustrating are likely to be more appeased by Kong’s exposure here.  The characters, while a little more colorful than the dull non-entities in Godzilla, are still thinly-developed and two-dimensional, but audiences don’t come to a movie like this for the characters.  Vogt-Roberts understands what the fans want, and serves up a lot of fast-paced running around, some comic relief, and regularly-interspersed monster attacks and of course a nice big climactic monster-on-monster battle (a bit of a Jurassic Park 3 vibe).  The 1970s setting lets the movie throw in a busy soundtrack of pop hits and some homages to Apocalypse Now (Marlow bears some resemblance to a kinder, gentler Colonel Kurtz, and Tom Hiddleston’s name Conrad is a probably not coincidental nod to Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, on which Apocalypse Now was based).  There’s even a touch of anti-war political commentary (the anti-war Mason versus the “we didn’t lose, we gave up” Vietnam commander Packard, and a line about creating your own enemies).

It’s a bit of a thankless job to be the cast of this kind of monster movie, since everyone knows Godzilla or King Kong is really the main attraction and “star”, but the eclectic cast does the best they can with their two-dimensional characters.  Tom Hiddleston, best-known as Thor’s n’er-do-well brother Loki, gets to go into action hero mode here and have a little low-key sexual tension with Brie Larson (which isn’t shoehorned into anything more) while John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson inhabit archetypes of the obsessed monster hunter who lures everyone into danger while being less-than-forthcoming about what they’re really here for, and the hard-ass military man.  Jackson gets plenty of opportunities to hone his best steely-eyed glare, but he plays mostly straight, leaving the eccentric scenery-chewing to John C. Reilly as the Rip Van Winkle-esque Marlow, who provides both a little comic relief and ends up feeling like the most whole character in the movie.  Kong himself is “played” via motion capture by Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell, the latter of whom also has a role as a soldier (this is the second time Kebbell has given a motion capture performance as a CGI ape, the first being the villainous Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes).

Skull Island is a fun, straightforward, uncomplicated monster romp that knows what it’s trying to do and does it sufficiently, but is there a big enough audience for King Kong?  Only time will tell.  For some fans, the after credits scene directly alluding to such classic Godzilla monsters as Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah (setting up a Monster Island movie?), will likely cause more excitement than the movie itself, but Skull Island is an enjoyable appetizer for bigger monster mayhem on the horizon.

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