Synopsis – A team of scientists explore an uncharted island in the Pacific, venturing into the domain of the mighty Kong, and must fight to escape a primal Eden.
My Take – Although I do believe Peter Jackson‘s King Kong (2005) is one of the few great remakes that have been ever made, a part of me always wished they would just skip the final hour in the city and spend the rest of the film exploring Kong’s home known as Skull Island. Here, following the route of the 2014 reboot of Godzilla, Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures re-team to continue to expand the ‘Monster Verse’ with a retelling of the iconic epic sized gorilla in an all new adventure that gives the classic tale a much needed update and new setting, and unlike the 1976 remake or the 2005s Peter Jackson retelling of the original 1933 Black and White film, this Jordan Vogt-Roberts directed film eschews the old for the new and in doing so breathes a much needed new life and vitality into the franchise. Packed with epic action, monsters and adventure, this film doesn’t fail for the fans for Kong and Godzilla, as it inspires to be no more and no less than a monster-mash adventure of epic-sized proportions, pitting not just Man-against-Kong but Man-against- nature-itself, the latter represented by supersized species the likes of towering spiders, blue-blooded pterodactyls and giant saw- toothed lizards . Oh yes, this is a CGI showstopper in many, many more ways than one, with state-of-the-art CGI complemented with inventive creature design by Carlos Huante to create a fitting modern-day throwback to the B-film action-driven creature features of the past. The trailers promises the film to be the 1st no brainer blockbuster of the year and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) definitely delivers on that by presenting an ecosystem of giant creatures that stands apart visually from other monster films and by showing Kong less as a misunderstood monster but more as protective figure in this new mythology, however, the rest of the ‘human’ cast don’t follow the same trope.
Set in 1973 at the end of the Vietnam war, the story follows William ‘Bill’ Randa (John Goodman), a lead official in the almost broke secret government organization Monarch (the same organization who were responsible for the Mutos in Godzilla), who convinces Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins) that by using the newly launched satellite technology they have detected a previously unknown island and need to investigate it before the Soviets learn of it and beat them to whatever the island my hold. William recruits a team which includes an expert tracker, former British officer named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and award winning Photographer journalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), to join his team which includes his assistant Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), Victor Nieves (John Ortiz) and San Lin (Jing Tian), a young biologist working for Monarch, in mapping the island. William also asks for a military escort and the government enlists Lt. Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), and his team comprising of Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell), Glenn Mills (Jason Mitchell), Earl Cole (Shea Whigham), Reg Slivko (Thomas Mann) and others to accompany the mission. Packard is trying to find his place in the world as he and his helicopter combat team are dealing with the recent end of the Vietnam War and are looking forward to going home and resuming their lives, but a dour Packard jumps at the chance for another mission over the uncertainty of his future. Upon arriving on the mysterious island and starting their survey mission by using seismic charges, the team attracts the attention of Kong, a 100 foot tall gorilla who is worshiped as the king and god on Skull Island by its natives and is not at all pleased with the intrusion on his island. Kong makes short work of the copters and the team finds themselves scattered about the dangerous island. They soon learn that Kong is not the only danger on the island and must find a way to rejoin each other and make it to their extraction point alive. Naturally some of the characters have a hidden agenda and there are dangerous and action around every corner. Further complicating matters is the appearance of Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a downed WWII pilot who has been stranded on the island for 28 years and warns of dangers far greater than Kong that are ahead of the team. The film gets to the action quickly, but makes sure to give us a proper setup. I liked how the creatures’ existence was explained with the Hollow Earth theory. Despite being a visual effects novice, indie director Jordan Vogt- Roberts proves right at home in a big-budget motion picture. He creates an immersive pre-historic paradise to complement the exciting monster scenes, and mixes 70s war imageries from ‘Apocalypse Now‘ and ‘Platoon’ into the ‘Jurassic Park’ setting to keep his audience hooked. Because of his firm grasp on pace and rhythm, what is initially just 120 minutes long feels much less so – and if there is one unintended outcome of that, it is the fact that we end up wanting to see more of Kong. As much as it is Kong’s film, there are also stretches in between where he is nowhere to be seen, and the other nasty dino-like creatures on Skull Island take center stage to exert terror on the human intruders. What separates this new addition to the Kong mythos from all other films of its ilk is its distinctive visual aesthetic; an aesthetic I can only assume is a gargantuan love letter to Apocalypse Now. Vittorio Storaro‘s iconic cinematography from Coppola‘s classic has been reinvented in spades with state of the art CGI effects. Every two minutes or so we are treated to a breathtaking shot – mist and fog are thrillingly utilized, as well as a night scene which is eerily similar to a sequence in Apocalypse Now. While this is perhaps relying too much on a far better film, it was refreshing to know that at least from a visual standpoint there were genuine artistic influences that could be discerned, the sense that the filmmaker wanted to put a new spin on the monster formula. By removing the beauty and the beast story, Kong is explored more as a character with almost sentient qualities and we see what his existence is like on the island.
Kong’s best moments range from him taking out helicopters with his fists during his big reveal to when he is just sitting around and killing time with stunning visual effects that rival what was done in the 2005 remake. And the island itself is presented as a character with always having unique ways to reveal the other creatures that hide within Kong’s kingdom in suspenseful and surprising ways. The creatures are both beautiful and scary as they feel like they’re one with the landscapes. I could watch a whole nature documentary on this fictional world. The most terrifying out of all of them are the Skullcrawlers. If Kong is a god then the Skullcrawlers are the island’s demons. Feeling like a combination of the creatures from Jurassic Park, Aliens and Bong Joon Ho‘s The Host, they really make up this great threat to both the humans and the island. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts uses a fresh way to show the action and visuals in this big-budget film. While Gareth Edwards‘s visual style in Godzilla felt similar to Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan, Vogt-Roberts is closer to that of Zack Snyder, Edgar Wright and Guillermo Del Toro. The action and editing is very energetic and quick with warm vibrant, color tones. When he shoots action you feel like you are suddenly thrown into the middle of it with amazing slow-motion shots to help you process the destruction and detail you are seeing. The beautiful and exotic real-like locations gave the film an extra sense of depth and believability. The Vietnam locations make me believe they could actually hide 100-foot creatures. The monster fights are very brutal and feel very much like a CGI fest film where there are long shots that stay on the titanic creatures brawling with each other. However, a fact that cannot be ignored is what starts out as a well oiled, climactic first act with a big promise slowly meanders its way more and more through the second act mainly due to its underdeveloped human cast. Here, lazy characterization and archetypal “there purely to be killed” characters are abound, and several great actors – Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, John Goodman, Jason Mitchell, Toby Kebbell – are really shortchanged for genuine arcs and motivations. The lesser known cast draw the shortest end of the straw. Luckily the sheer talent and likability of these actors makes up for a great deal, and when copious eye candy and monster throw downs occur, it isn’t much of a bothersome. Only John C Reilly and Samuel L Jackson truly stand out, and it’s because their characters have genuine development and intrigue. Luckily, the film keeps you entertained the whole time as action-adventure films are supposed to do. You’ll enjoy the fight scenes and the whole “creature feature” approach this film takes. If you’re looking for moments taken right out of the previous Kong films, then you’ll mostly be satisfied. There are few scenes taken directly from the previous films, but there are certainly allusions and nods to classic moments. You won’t spend much time with the natives nor will you get to witness the famous Empire State Building scene, but you’ll likely enjoy the film nevertheless. Just because a film takes a re-imagined approach to a classic character that ultimately plays off as generic, doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything to enjoy. On the whole, ‘Kong: Skull Island’ is an entertaining monster film which despite its weak human characters manages to be genuinely engrossing due to its excellent visuals and intelligent original story.
Directed – Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 120 minutes