Kong: Skull Island (2017)
All hail the King
The King is back. No, not the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, or Godzilla, King of the Monsters, but Kong, King Kong. Twelve years after Peter Jackson’s stellar King Kong (2005) remake and eighty-four years after the 1933 black-and-white original, the monster-sized ape with a heart and soul roars back onto the big screen. Helmed by filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts, The Kings of Summer (2013), Kong: Skull Island is a spanking new adventure that works as a fun throwback to those gleeful creature features of yesteryear. The successor to Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, this Kong re-imagining is the second installment in Legendary Pictures’ ‘MonsterVerse’ — a shared cinematic universe that’s forecast to merge longstanding monster mythologies, such as Mothra, Godzilla (of course), and King Ghidorah — Kong: Skull Island promising big, loud, stupendous action and delivering the bone crushing goods, the film an effects-laden extravaganza worthy of the 800-pound gorilla himself.
By looking at the movie’s promotional material you’d think that Kong: Skull Island were a type of war flick, its IMAX poster a clear homage to the iconic artwork of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). And this is partly true. Set in the early ’70s, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, Skull Island is loaded with Vietnam-era hits and a thunderous score that features a myriad of groovy psychedelic guitar riffs, filmmakers honoring the aforementioned Coppola classic, along with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the novella on which Apocalypse was loosely based. The visceral, balls-to-the-wall first-act action set piece, in which Kong effortlessly crushes through a heap of Huey helicopters, is worth the price of admission alone, this sequence paying reverence to the violent, atmospheric action of Apocalypse Now. And it’s stunningly choreographed, too, the action framed through multiple perspectives and shifting points of view, our eye’s attention often directed to certain elements within the frame — focusing on a Richard Nixon bobblehead on the dashboard of a falling chopper, for instance, renders a copter crash in a unique and droll manner. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, shall we?
To backtrack, Kong: Skull Island, following a brief prologue, opens in 1973 and trails a band of top-tier explorers, scientists and soldiers, rallied together by Bill Randa (John Goodman), a thick-skinned conspiracy theorist working for the shadowy secret government organization known as Monarch: their mission, to venture to an uncharted island in the South Pacific, a mysterious landmass known simply as Skull Island, the undisclosed, classified location — one that’s shrouded in lore and legend — notorious for the unmeasurable amount of ships and planes that have gone missing in its vicinity — think the Bermuda Triangle. However, with most of the team unaware of the rumors and anomalies surrounding the mythical paradise — bar Randa and perhaps his right-hand man, Ivy League geologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) — the troupe, after pushing through the turbulent magnetic storm concealing the isle, come face-to-face with a chest-beating goliath, Kong, the enormous gorilla viciously tearing through their weaponry and aircraft, leaving the crew stranded in the treacherous jungle terrain with little in the way of provisions or supplies. Now, with only a few days to trek to the extraction site (located on the opposite end of the island), an expedition of discovery becomes a quest for survival, the scattered teammates forced to cross this domain of monsters if they intend on getting out alive, and with all of their limbs intact.
Just to put it out there, anyone who basks in B-movie madness will totally go ape for Kong: Skull Island. If the state-of-the-art VFX don’t win you over, then perhaps the explosive napalm-fueled action might do the trick, or the monster on monster smack downs. Or maybe it’ll be the gruesome yet comical carnage that’ll really get your blood flowing, or the cool rock ‘n’ roll vibe that underscores the entire picture. Whatever the case, Kong: Skull Island is a helluva good time! Seriously, what’s not to like about a couple of pixelated behemoths pounding the living crap outta each other, the movie culminating in a ferocious beat down between Kong and the Skullcrawler Queen — the leader of a ravenous reptilian-like species with a skull-like face, this race of fantastical lizards driven underground by the mammoth ape himself.
Sheer blockbuster delight, Kong: Skull Island knows exactly what it is, the cast and crew embracing its silliness in spades! Penned by a trio of scribes — Dan Gilroy, The Bourne Legacy (2012), Max Borenstein, Godzilla (2014), and Derek Connolly, Jurassic World (2015) — who are working from a story written by John Gatins, Flight (2012), the screenplay, which fires away at a ballistic pace, constantly drops our ill-fated protagonists into a feast of stunningly realized live-or-die scenarios, each high in suspense yet giddy and entertaining, the movie having a real cathartic effect, even if it fails to unpack several of its philosophical themes and messages — the flick posing the age-old question, who is the real animal, man or ape? It’s cheesy in parts and goofy in others, but hey, this is King Kong we’re talkin’ about, not The King’s Speech (2010). And you know what? Skull Island never even cites New York City, let alone lands in it. And this is actually a good thing, the third-act Empire State Building scale clearly the weakest link in Peter Jackson’s otherwise excellent reboot, this new feature predominantly set on the primal Eden, home to the majestic Kong, and steering well clear of the ’33 Ann Darrow starring vehicle.
While I must admit, I totally dug Jackson’s prehistoric haven — the landscape and its inhabitants truly a sight to behold — director Vogt-Roberts has crafted a different kind of ‘beast’ here. For one, the gnarly creatures lurking about are weirder and far more terrifying — a noticeable divergence from Jackson’s dino dwellers — while the setting itself feels very much grounded and real. But that’s not to say that Vogt-Roberts’ imaginary world isn’t curious, inviting, and nightmarishly spectacular all at the same time, audiences treated to a number of inspired set pieces; a savage face-off between our heroes and a bloodthirsty Skullcrawler in a smoky boneyard wasteland stands as a visual apex, as is the climactic confrontation and the inferno-blazing opener, each sequence elevated by excellent sound design (a clever combination of on and off camera sounds), stylized lighting and shrewd composition, cinematographer Larry Fong, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), making excellent use of depth of field.
Rather than solely relying on today’s motion capture technology, the whizz-kids over at ILM — led by visual effect supervisors Stephen Rosenbaum, Forrest Gump (1994), and Jeff White, Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) — have chosen to create much of the film’s digital star via cutting-edge keyframe animation, the brutish yet gentle Kong towering over his human co-stars (in more ways than one), smashing and stomping on everything in his path. However, actor Toby Kebbell — who also portrays military man Major Jack Chapman — has lent his expressive facials to the primordial primate, while some minor mo-cap work has been used, too, with movement coach Terry Notary stepping in to tweak and refine some of Kong’s fluidity, the pair having previously collaborated on the monkeys in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014); subsequently, this incarnation of the humongous anthropoid is by far the most humanistic and emotive, his physical makeup very much in line with that of the anti-hero’s 1933 counterpart.
In terms of the ensemble cast, Tom Hiddleston leads the gang of travelers as SAS black ops officer turned mercenary James Conrad — who’s living ‘off the radar’ in Asia when he’s recruited as a tracker — the 36-year-old English actor failing to supply the cheeky charisma he so effortlessly oozed as Loki in Thor (2011) and The Avengers (2012), Hiddleston’s daredevil adventurer rather bland and one note. Elsewhere, the lovely Brie Larson, Room (2015), does the best she can with her underwritten role, Larson playing wartime (or anti-war) photojournalist Mason Weaver, infusing the character with spunk and spiritedness wherever possible — there’s also a fun little wink to the ‘girl and the ape romance’ from past Kong iterations.
Faring a little better, John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), emits an assertive presence as Bill Randa, the 64-year-old performer commanding the screen as the shady Monarch bureaucrat, whereas the super-cool Samuel L. Jackson, The Legend of Tarzan (2016), hams it up as Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard, a battle-hardened warrior seething with vengeful rage, Jackson (who’s really in his element) delivering a spray of intense monologues. With a kill-or-be-killed vendetta against Kong, Packard is out for blood, seeking retribution for the lives of his fallen comrades. You see, rather than admiring the monolithic Kong as a benevolent wonder (a guardian of his domain, so to speak), Packard sees the beast as a natural enemy, an untamed threat that demands to be destroyed. But really, it’s John C. Reilly, Chicago (2002), who gives the picture its pulsating crust. Playing Hank Marlow, a World War II fighter pilot having crash-landed on the island some twenty-eight years earlier, Reilly is an outright hoot, the marooned survivor (who’d been nesting with the natives) a stir-crazy mix of humor and pathos, the scene-stealing Marlow easing the tension with his cheery cynicism and out-of-touch remarks — you don’t know whether you should be laughing with him, or at him.
A technical tour de force, Kong: Skull Island succeeds as an unashamedly wild throwaway popcorn muncher, the film a larger-than-life monster mash epic that’s likely to hold audience attention for its two-hour duration. Heck, the teenage boy in me couldn’t help but smile at the sight of a rumbling Kong back on the big screen! Ah, those nostalgia feels! A solid step in the right direction for Legendary’s monster mayhem series, the flick is seasoned with subtle hints at a connected universe — the stock footage opening credit scene, for example, somewhat paralleling that from Godzilla — and a post-credit stinger that’s bound to excite, Kong: Skull Island seeding the roots for a grand monster showdown of Herculean proportions. Godzilla versus Kong! Bring it! — I’m totally down!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner