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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

The strange thing about Kong: Skull Island is that it does not take a lot of inspiration from the earlier King Kong films, not even Peter Jackson's remake from 2005.  Instead, this movie seems more inspired by Jurassic World and other recent "big monster" movies, where a small group of characters are placed in a situation where they must survive and battle many different kinds of giant monsters, such as lizards, octopus, and birds that kind of resemble pterodactyls.  It also takes a "shared cinematic universe" approach, tying itself in with 2014's Godzilla film from the same studio.  It all adds up to a thrill ride movie that is mostly effective, with a few bumps in the road along the way.

This is a movie that knows what we're here for, so we get to see Kong early and often.  The opening scene gives us a brief glimpse of his massive hands, and then about a half hour later, we see him in all his glory.  As is to be expected, he's an impressive sight and well animated.  I particularly liked the way he uses objects and items around him whenever he's engaged in battle, instead of just pounding away at his opponents with his fists.  However, it is somewhat disappointing that he mostly just fights whenever he is on camera.  The thing that always stuck out to me about King Kong is how some of the past films have tried to give him somewhat of a personality, or sometimes even a character arc.  We don't get very many personal moments with Kong here, other than a brief scene where he somewhat bonds with one of the humans trapped on Skull Island.  Naturally, it's the female lead, played here by Brie Larson.  Kong has always had a thing for the ladies.

Speaking of the human characters, most of them exist to be gobbled up by the various giant monster inhabitants of the Island, so I will focus on the major ones.  There's a World War II fighter pilot who's been trapped on the Island for 28 years, and has survived by befriending the local natives (John C. Reilly), a British officer who specializes in tracking, and doesn't realize what he's come to track until he arrives on Skull Island (Tom Hiddleston), a war photographer who is mostly along for the ride for a majority of the movie (Larson), a shady man who has funded the whole expedition in order to prove his belief that monsters live beneath the Earth (John Goodman), and a Special Forces Colonel who becomes obsessed with killing Kong as the film progresses (Samuel L. Jackson).  Of these characters, Hiddleston, Jackson and Reilly get the most screen time, but it is Reilly who walks away with the film.  He not only gets the best lines in the film, but he is clearly having the most fun with his character, and that fun carries through to the audience.

The film takes place in 1973, after the U.S. has withdrawn from Vietnam.  This allows the three credited screenwriters to not only get in some heavy-handed political jabs, but to also throw in pretty much every popular song from the era that you hear on the soundtrack in just about every movie that's ever been set during the Vietnam War.  Goodman's character brings his team of soldiers and scientists to the island under the pretense that they are doing a geological study of an unexplored island, when really they are there to track down Kong.  What they find is that the island is filled with a variety of other giant creatures, as well.  We see quite a few, and hear about some that never show up, as well. (There's talk of giant ants up in the trees at one point, but they never materialize.) This should be fun, and it usually is.  But the movie can't help but throw in the occasional environmental message, about how the world doesn't really belong to us. 

I really am of two minds when it comes to Kong: Skull Island.  On one hand, it's an effective special effects movie, and it does have some genuinely thrilling sequences.  On the other hand, some of the dialogue is rather clunky, and outside of Reilly's character, no one gets to show much of a personality, or contribute much to the plot.  Everyone here basically exists to shoot at monsters, and usually be crushed or eaten by them.  We even get one not-too-subtle moment where a man falls to his death, landing in Kong's mouth, and right before the big ape closes his teeth on him, we immediately cut to a close up of another character biting into a sandwich.  Am I asking for subtlety in a King Kong movie?  Not really.  But as I said before, I've always enjoyed it when the filmmakers in the past tried to make Kong into somewhat more than just a screaming monster, and gave him a few quiet and even intimate moments now and then.  A few more scenes like that would have worked well here.

If all you are looking for are action scenes and well done special effects, this movie will definitely suffice.  For what it is, it's expertly made.  Just don't go in expecting more, and you should feel you got your money's worth.  In all honestly, I had a lot of fun while I was watching it, and didn't think back on how hollow the whole experience really was until I was in the quiet of the outdoors once I stepped out of the theater.  This is the kind of movie you enjoy in the moment, and kind of realize its flaws once it's over.  So, I guess I am recommending this as an experience.  You'll likely enjoy it while it's unfolding up on the screen.  At the very least, the movie doesn't feel bloated and overly long, and moves along at a good pace.  Remember, the last Kong movie we got was three hours long.  This one's only about two, and doesn't feel dragged out.

Kong: Skull Island fulfills that primal need to see giant monsters knock helicopters out of the sky, and grapple with each other like MMA fighters.  I would have liked a bit more human emotion to go along with it, but I can't really complain much.  The filmmakers were trying to make a straight action Kong film, and have succeeded well enough at that.

3 comments

3 Comments:

  • Personally, I found it a bit disappointing. I love King Kong, even really enjoyed the over-long 2005 remake. But there were several areas of this film that fell flat for me.

    For one, there are no dinosaurs on Skull Island (just a Triceratops skull for the trailer), and I don't care for the design of the Skull Crawlers. I assume they're trying to set Kong up to have a natural hatred of giant lizards, in order to have him fight Godzilla in the followup film in 2020. But why not just have him fight a T-Rex like usual?

    They're clearly setting Skull Island up as the 'Monster Island' from the old Godzilla films, but they don't really even set up any of the classic monsters.

    The octopus/kraken is a reference to the octopus Kong fought in "King Kong vs Godzilla" (1963), and the spider the soldier's encounter might be Kumonga from "Son of Godzilla", but given that he was taken out by M-16s, probably not.

    Given the whole prehistoric-creatures vibe of most of the island's monsters, Anguirus would've easily fit in as he's supposed to be an Ankylosaurus. He'd have made a more interesting design than the Skull Crawlers, in any case.

    I didn't care for the political jabs either, they seemed very anachronistic, more like something modern people say about Vietnam. Took me out of the film. Luckily they're mostly kept to the first act.

    The characters are all very flat; there's a Chinese woman who does exactly nothing and is only there to pander to the Chinese film market. Even Sam Jackson seemed underdeveloped; his character goes Capt. Ahab on a dime from the first sight of Kong and never develops further. Only Reilly's marooned pilot character has any real development.

    Honestly, I'd have much preferred to see John C. Reilly's character and his Japanese enemy/friend play out a remake of "Hell in the Pacific" on Skull Island in the mid-40's. Fewer characters that way, and more of a chance to really develop them. Plus that would've had a more survival/adventure tone, that I feel fits the whole King Kong/Lost island genre better than the Viet Kong war film we got.

    Maybe some Allied and Japanese ships could arrive later in the film, to finally give us that "The War That Time Forgot"/ "Zeppelin vs. Pterodactyls" film we never got.

    John C. Reilly is as good a stand-in for Doug McClure as anyone.

    - Whiskey Jack

    By Blogger WhiskeyJack, at 12:30 PM  

  • Great comment, Jack! If only for your "Viet Kong" line.

    I do agree with a lot of your thoughts. I'm not quite a "King Kong Geek", so I wasn't bothered by the appearance of certain monsters. But, I can understand how fans could see this as a shortcoming.

    And I agree, the character development in this, outside of John C. Reilly, is pretty much nonexistent. As you mentioned, Jackson turns on a turn of a dime. And I don't think Brie Larson was really given any personality, outside of the fact she was the only one who truly bonded with the big ape in some way.

    I'm still standing by my marginal recommendation, but the more I think back on the film, the more shallow I seem to find it.

    By Blogger Ryan, at 2:49 PM  

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