Kong: Skull Island (2017) – Movie Review
Kong: Skull Island
Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts,
Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein & Derek Connolly
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Toby Kebbell & John C. Reilly
Music: Henry Jackman
Release Date: March 9th 2017
Going back throughout the entire history of cinema, it can be argued that King Kong is the longest-running character in the medium of film that is STILL having adaptations and reboots centred around him. You have characters based off of books like Frankenstein’s Monster or ones based off of myths and legends like the Wolf Man, but Kong was created as a film character first-and-foremost by Merian C. Cooper in 1933’s ‘King Kong‘. Multiple reboots, team-ups, remakes and cartoons later, King Kong lives again in a new “Monsters Universe” from Warner Bros. where he will fight 2014’s iteration of Godzilla in 2020.
While 2014’s ‘Godzilla‘, directed by relative newcomer Gareth Edwards, was a financial success, it was pretty divisive due to its lacklustre characters and plodding pace up until the last 20 minutes. So ‘Kong: Skull Island‘ has got a lot of making-up to do for some audience members, which puts quite a bit of pressure on the shoulders of director Jordan Vogt-Roberts whose only prior feature credit (‘The Kings of Summer‘) couldn’t be further removed from a kaiju-monster film. We’re also dealing with a Kong adaptation where he won’t be climbing a representation of man’s hubris in the 3rd act. So can ‘Kong: Skull Island‘ keep this “MonsterVerse” going or should Kong just keep dying in New York?
It’s 1973 and the Vietnam War is starting to wind down with U.S. troops withdrawing from the East. Due to advances in technology, the US Army discover a previously uncharted island and send a military squadron to investigate it before other territories get the chance. Leading the group is government official William Randa (Goodman) and joining him is former British Service Captain James Conrad (Hiddleston), photo-journalist Mason Weaver (Larson), U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson) and his squad. However, when they arrive on the island and start dropping bombs, they awaken the island’s protector; King Kong.
‘Kong: Skull Island‘ is notably different from other versions of the property, mainly in its time period of the 1970s but also its cultural context. ‘King Kong‘ in 1933 was in response to man’s growing sense of mortality after Great Depression to remind audiences of how small they could be and that their hubris can have far-reaching consequences as well as an allegory for colonialism. Kong’s implementation into the Vietnam War is a fitting metaphor as America arrives in an area it doesn’t fully understand due to shady dealings the soldiers don’t know about and almost immediately start being compromised. In a way, Kong’s setting in his numerous adaptations isn’t the most prominent theme. It’s Kong himself.
Is it heavy-handed? Yes, of course it is. It’s King Kong.
We also have a big shift in the series in regards to the type of movie this is. While yes ‘Kong: Skull Island‘ is a giant-monster/kaiju movie, it’s also in the vein of 1960/70s adventure B-Movies like ‘The Land That Time Forgot‘ and ‘At The Earth’s Core‘. While the original ‘King Kong‘ and its subsequent adaptations could be considered a “creature-feature”, the creatures were more-or-less grounded in reality with giant dinosaurs and insects. However with ‘Kong: Skull Island‘ the creatures are more out-there, such as a camouflaged log-insect, a spider with bamboo-legs (who gives one solider a particularly horrifying death) and also the main threat; Skullcrawlers, massive reptiles who King Kong is tasked with keeping at bay.
But back to one of the soldier deaths, ‘Kong: Skull Island‘ somehow slipped through the BBFC’s ratings with a 12A because there’s a lot of gruesome elements here. We very clearly see one soldier get his limps ripped off by giant birds, one soldier attempts a heroic self-sacrifice but it comically backfires (one of the best bits of subversion in the film) and the fights here feel more violent and grounded then we’ve seen in previous adaptations as well as the last ‘Godzilla‘ movie. I’m kinda surprised the BBFC didn’t rate this 15, but that’s beside the point. Unlike ‘Godzilla‘ which was portentous and under-developed in most elements outside of the technical side, ‘Kong: Skull Island‘ is a much more enjoyable flick because it actually understands what it’s trying to be.
It’s a really fun ride and we see Kong in all of his full glory about 20 minutes in which is very different from ‘Godzilla‘s ‘Jaws‘-style approach. However, it didn’t work in that movie because the elements surrounding Godzilla were not remotely interesting, whereas in ‘Jaws‘ they were able to get away with not showing the shark because the characters and themes were engaging despite there being no imminent death. ‘Kong: Skull Island‘ fully embraces its B-movie roots and once Kong appears the film mainly consists of action until the credits roll (barring a few exposition-filled segments with John C. Reilly). Due to the creative creature designs, the fight choreography, the world-building of the island as well as the mythology of Kong in this “MonsterVerse”, the film mostly gets away with having little in the way of plot.
I say “mostly” because it’s with the characters where the film really shows its missteps. It seems that Jordan Vogt-Roberts took the same approach to casting this movie as Michael Bay did with his “Transformers” franchise; cast big-name, talented actors and just let them carry everything, because the characterisation here is either textbook-generic or nonexistant. If you’re not a name worthy of being put on a poster, you’re obviously a redshirt and the film does a bad job justifying why Brie Larson’s photojournalist is even here in the first place.
The U.S. Military are here on a secret, war-motivated expedition. Why are they bringing a peace-activist photojournalist?
Tom Hiddleston shows he’s a capable action-hero and he gets some cool hero-moments later on in the film, but his character is needlessly generic. John Goodman gets by as a personality through sheer force-of-will, though his role feels quite minimal. We have Samuel L. Jackson, though he’s basically playing himself and John C. Reilly…and I don’t have an asterisk to put next to him as he’s legitimately great. Reilly plays a World War 2 fighter pilot who crashed on the island decades ago and has been surviving with the natives. Reilly has a natural charm and his fish-out-of-water interactions with the more contemporary cast members are legitimately charming. His arc takes satisfying turns and he’s the only character worth getting invested in and that also includes the long-term.
One hurdle with making a cinematic universe is when films take place decades apart, yet the film wants to take steps to set up elements well in advance. ‘Kong: Skull Island‘ takes place in the 70s, but we know that he’s not going to appear again on film until the 2010s at the earliest (otherwise how come he was never mentioned in ‘Godzilla‘?). So the main cast members of the movie we’ll likely never ever see again, aside from Kong. It belittles their involvement in the franchise and that’s an issue this universe will have to overcome if it’s to make its key selling point giant monsters beyond human-comprehension or influence.
It’s even hard to root for Kong because there’s no emotional anchor for the character like Ann Darrow was in previous versions. But here he’s a badass protector with an incredibly tough exterior that shows very little in terms of emotion. Obviously this Kong is very different from previous ones and it’s not fair to directly compare, but the film doesn’t even attempt to define his character in this new context. On Skull Island there’s a graveyard of previous giant apes who defended the island (implied to be Kong’s parents) but how does Kong regard that area? I’m not asking for a scene where he places giant flowers on top of a gravestone, but if we’ve got a new setting and a new purpose for Kong’s existence it needs re-contextualising and ‘Kong: Skull Island‘ makes no attempt to do so. It makes Kong feel like a McGuffin in his own movie.
But, if the film was made with the goal of being a fun time at the movies it more-or-less succeeds even if it’s not remotely involving. The action is thrilling, the final showdown between Kong and the Skullcrawlers is visceral and Kong’s use of his environment and nearby objects portrays how he’s managed to outsmart these creatures for so long on the island. The initial encounter with Kong in the helicopters is visually inventive and really well done as well as a short scene where Kong fights a giant Octopus. Basically, on a spectacle level this film succeeds.
Much was made during production of how ‘Kong: Skull Island‘ was shot in North Vietnam and how it was the first movie to ever shoot there and how it’d make the film feel extremely authentic. However, while many jungle and forest scenes are visually well handled, some of them feel like green-screen overload and kill any semblance of the location-filming. Though the film’s ecleptic use of colour keeps the film visually interesting, be-it a yellow mist on certain parts of the island, green poison-gas or the burnt-orange ‘Apocalypse Now‘ sunrise as the helicopters meet Kong. The CGI is great with the Skullcrawlers being portrayed as very formidable and Kong is very expressive. Musically, Henry Jackman does a good job but it feels standard Kong-Kaiju with lots of drums, horns, lots of bass and strings for the more emotional moments. It gets the job done.
As a B-movie action-adventure ‘Kong: Skull Island‘ is a fun time at the movies and a great action ride. Kong is well-portrayed visually, the action is exciting and while the film’s character-development and emotional-investment is almost non-existent, it at least feels more honest and true to itself than 2014’s ‘Godzilla‘. The actors do what they can with severely limited roles, sans John C. Reilly who actually comes across really well here, and even Kong feels like somewhat of a plot-device, but it’s a fun big-screen experience that offers a more action-heavy alternative to the Kong legacy.
I give ‘Kong: Skull Island‘ 3 and a half stars out of 5.
Oh yeah, and stay through the credits…but don’t watch the credits. Licensing and creator credits spoil the post-credit scene’s content before the scene has even started. It’s actually pretty funny.
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Posted: 20th Jan 18