A film review by Craig J. Koban March 17, 2017

KONG: SKULL ISLAND jj

2017, PG-13, 118 mins.

 

Tom Hiddleston as James Conrad  /  Samuel L. Jackson as Preston Packard  /  Brie Larson as Mason Weaver  /  Corey Hawkins as Houston Brooks  /  John Goodman as Bill Randa  /  John Ortiz as Victor Nieves  /  Shea Whigham as Cole  /  Jason Mitchell as Mills  /  Tian Jiang as San  /  Toby Kebbell as Jack Chapman / Kong  /  Marc Evan Jackson as Landsat Steve

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts  /  Written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly

SCREENED IN
3D

There have been so many cinematic iterations of KING KONG over the last, well, 80-plus years that it's quite easy to lose track of them all.  

Of course, there was the landmark and pioneering 1933 original (still the best of the bunch), which was subsequently followed by the semi-campy, semi-serious 1976 remake, which in turn was followed up by the visually awe inspiring, but self indulgently long and bloated Peter Jackson helmed iteration from 2005.  Maybe I've reached a point of exhaustion when it comes to KING KONG cinema.  Have filmmakers not said all they needed to about this iconic monster over the years?

The somewhat awkwardly titled KONG: SKULL ISLAND hopes to break the mould of its titular character, which is, to its credit, initially refreshing in the sense that it all but abandons the tragic beauty and the beast thematic undercurrent that has been a staple of the previous aforementioned KONG films.  Under the directorial eye of Jordan Vogt-Roberts (THE KINGS OF SUMMER) and a three-man writing team that includes Dan Gilroy (who previously wrote and directed the masterful NIGHTCRAWLER), KONG: SKULL ISLAND is not so much a remake as it is a reboot of the KONG movie mythos.  That, and it serves as a spiritual prequel to 2014's GODZILLA in hopes of inevitably having a versus-movie featuring the two behemoths go toe to toe.  In many respects, KONG: SKULL ISLAND may indeed be the very first prebootquel in cinematic history. 

 

 

Unlike Gareth Edwards' slow burn and measured approach in GODZILLA (which sparingly showed the creature, a move that polarized many), KONG: SKULL ISLAND wastes very little, if any, time in thrusting Kong at us in his full glory right from the get-go.  After a wonderful prologue set in the mid-1940's featuring two downed WWII pilots - one American and one Japanese - crash landing on an island that just happens to be Kong's home, we flash forward to 1973 at the end of the Vietnam War, during which time U.S. government agent Bill Randa (a surprisingly slimmed down John Goodman) wishes to make an expedition to an uncharted island known as "Skull Island" to see what mysteries lurk there.  He hires former British Special Forces Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to serve as party guide.  Randa also gains the services of the "Sky Devils", a former Vietnam War helicopter squadron led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) to help serve as protection for everyone.  Also joining the group is photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who has vast experience covering the atrocities of the Vietnam War and smells something afoul with the Skull Island expedition. 

Predictably, when Randa's party does arrive at the island they're immediately confronted by the gargantuan Kong, who clearly doesn't take kindly to having his home turf invaded by outsiders.  After making mince meat of Packard's helicopter fleet in the same way a human would with flies, Randa and company get separated and the remaining survivors not only have to deal with the frightening prospect of defending themselves against a 300 foot tall ape, but they also have to contend with the island's other grotesque monsters.  They eventually come in contact with the island's indigenous population, which are led by, yes, the very same American pilot that crash landed on the island all those years ago in Hank Marlow (an infectiously hammy John C. Reilly), who matter of factly informs everyone that there's simply no getting off of Skull Island...easily.    

One pleasing aspect of KONG: SKULL ISLAND is that it's not slavishly remaking the 1933 original down to its very core and opts to inject some much needed new energy and life into the larger Kong movieverse.  Instead of rehashing old and well established narrative beats, KONG: SKULL ISLAND is more of a man-on-a-mission action thriller than it is an inter-species love story.  Setting the film in the 1970's is also welcoming, seeing as this provides Vogt-Roberts and his team to have ample fun with playing with the period decor and settings.  Unlike the somewhat purposely dour color palette of GODZILLA, this film is pleasingly vibrant thanks to cinematographer Larry Fong's sumptuous eye for detail.  The establishing shots of Skull Island themselves almost have a painterly and foreboding beauty to them.   

Kong himself (never once referred to as "King Kong," perhaps because of name rights issues), is a staggeringly impressive visual effects creation through and through that's been given a noticeable size upgrade from previous versions to, no doubt, be able to battle the equally massive Godzilla in a future crossover film.  As a visual effects extravaganza that highlights Kong - and the other beasties that torment the survivors - the film is technically masterful.  The epically staged action sequences themselves also have an impressively crisp clarity,  especially in the opening sections of the party's arrival on Skull Island.  Vogt-Roberts relishes in utilizing unique and novel ways of showing Kong tearing through Packard's helicopters (when his fists and feet can't be used, Kong even resorts to using whatever environmental implements are available around him for weapons).  There's also a sensationally realized moment involving Hiddleston's tracker - with katana in hand (don't ask) - trying to fend himself and others against the island's Skullcrawlers, reptilian creatures with a ravenous appetite for human flesh. 

All of this is stupendous fun, in a form of pure unapologetic B-movie escapism.  Yet, where KONG: SKULL ISLAND mightily falters is with its human element.  There are simply too many characters all vying for attention and screen time here, and as a result a majority of them are laughably underwritten.  This has the negative effect of reducing tension in the film, seeing as it's hard to care about any of these people being decimated by Kong or the Skullcrawlers.  Most of the characters are more broadly delineated types than flesh and blood people, which is crushingly disappointing considering the vastness of the Oscar winning and nominated talent on board.  Brie Larson recently won an Academy Award for her searing performance in ROOM, but here she's regrettably reduced to fetching eye candy without a character arc to speak of.  Tom Hiddleson as well is sadly misused; he certainly looks handsome and debonair in a Errol Flynn kind of way as his hunky tracker, but the part is afforded no depth or personality that makes use of the star's abilities.  Any attractive squared jawed male star could have adequately pulled off this underwritten part.  KONG: SKULL ISLAND represents a horrible misappropriation of its acting resources. 

The only two personas in the film that generate interest are John C. Reilly's shell shocked pilot and Samuel L. Jackson's vengeance fuelled army man.  Marlow generates some of the film's better laughs at the expense of clearly spending far too much time separated from western civilization for his own good, and Packard makes a decent villain largely because of Jackson's fire and brimstone portrayal of this man that will stop at nothing to end Kong once and for all.  As for Kong himself, he's perhaps the film's biggest casualty in the sense that he's never afforded any personality beyond being a brute force of nature.  The Kong of the previous three movie versions was delineated as a sad victim of human meddling and a misunderstood monster that was ferociously protective of his human love.  KONG: SKULL ISLAND rarely finds a way to make its main character feel oddly relatable and sympathetic.  He's an awe inspiring marvel of visual effects ingenuity, but not much else.  Kong here doesn't have much a soul.  . 

Maybe I'm over analyzing a monster movie about a giant ape.  No one goes to see a KONG film for sobering and complex insights into the human condition; they go to see monsters wreak havoc.  On those latter levels, KONG: SKULL ISLAND is an unqualified success.  Yet, it's hard to overlook the film's slew of A-listers phoning it in and slumming their way through clunky and expositional dialogue exchanges that are frankly embarrassing to witness.  That, and KONG: SKULL ISLAND suffers from a tonal imbalance that's difficult to gloss over: when it's not self-deprecatingly amusing it takes itself very seriously to the point where I felt like I dropped in on a whole other movie altogether.   KONG: SKULL ISLAND is exhilarating eye candy that serves its purposes of setting up future films in Legendary Entertainment's self anointed "Monsterverse" with Godzilla, but beyond that it's a bit too empty minded and doesn't triumphantly beat its chest with as much genre defying authority as it should have. 

  

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