Kong: Skull Island (2017, 1 hr., 58 mins)
If you know me, you know this pixie loves her monsters. Big, small, ugly, or cute, I need a weekly dose of monsters and creepy crawlies to keep me going. The promise of that plus the iconic King Kong being revived for 2017 in Kong: Skull Island made me perk up in the hopes of some great monster action, and I definitely got my fill.
Set in the same universe as the 2014 version of Godzilla, government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) and seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) go to Washington in 1973 to beg for funding and a military escort to a remote island. It’s their hope to be the first to discover a whole new eco-system. The Viet Nam War has also ended, and their military detail is led by Lieutenant Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who, after the war, feels a sense of loss and displacement after the sacrifices he made for his country. Randa adds the surly and ruggedly handsome ex-soldier and tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and the weathered but plucky photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to be a part of their quest. They must all overcome personal agendas and fight for their lives as the island holds way more than they bargained for.
Kong: Skull Island is more fun than a barrel of monkeys (sorry!) because we get one gigantic primate and his prehistoric friends (and foes). It’s a clever blend of traditional war movie, adventure and fantasy quest at its best with some not-so-subtle nods to Apocalypse Now, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (see various character names for proof), and even Platoon. These nods would normally distract me, but aside from some clichéd music choices, the writers somehow got the right balance without regurgitating the same old war stories. They also made the right choice with splitting up characters into teams with different agendas. It made for great adventure a la Jules Verne, and gave us a snapshot of who they were and what they wanted out of the expedition with the right amount of exposition; in fact, I thought the story and pacing made the almost 2-hour film seem a lot shorter.
Some interesting choices were made for the cast. Most of the supporting talent I could take or leave, but it was nice to see Corey Hawkins from Straight Outta Compton and The Walking Dead don his nerd hat, Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham as the all-or-nothing Captain Cole and a woman of colour with Tian Jing as the biologist San Lin (Hey Hollywood, we need more, please!). I was thrilled to see John C. Riley in the trailers (he, aside from the monsters, was a huge draw for me) and he didn’t disappoint as the hilariously loopy fighter pilot Lieutenant Marlow who had been stranded on Skull Island since World War II. He was necessary for the plot, but at times I felt he was put into the story with a neon “comic relief” sign over his head. This is in part to the uneven treatment of tracker Conrad and photographer Weaver. They were so perfectly coiffed after each perilous moment, with glowing skin and shimmering lip gloss, that there wasn’t any room for their characters to be developed. The one actor that did surprise me was Jackson. In a rare moment he actually showed some range outside of his potty-mouthed villain shtick, showing us a conflicted, revenge obsessed man portrayed with a lot of passion.
And the monsters? Oh, the monsters!! Kong was a thing of beauty, with all the detail and emotion from a CGI character you could want. Terry Notary did the ape acting for Kong and is another simian movement expert alongside his colleague Andy Serkis. The horrifying “Skullcrawlers” made me jump for joy with their reptilian bodies and huge gaping mouths. Kong’s sensational fight scenes made me want to see more fantastic animals, but there was only so much time! Hats off to the long, long list of the incredible concept team and digital artists for a job well done. I also want to point out the “Iwi” people, the indigenous tribe of Skull Island that took Marlow in after he was stranded. The concept for them was really beautiful, although their silent society spoke volumes thematically. There are actually a lot of themes in this film, with Kong representing nature or the rage against war, and the indigenous people silenced against or perhaps because of the march of progress, but upon further reflection, this film just doesn’t have the legs for heady discussions.
Yes, I enjoyed Kong: Skull Island despite the handful of issues I had with it. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ first big budget movie offers an intro for the newly imagined Kong and his world, and I can only hope for meatier stories in the future. The film should definitely be seen on the biggest screen possible (I saw it in IMAX 3D thanks to the horror boyfriend), and stay for the end of credit scenes that made me squeal and clap. Godzilla and Kong met in 1962, and with this new “Monsterverse” where there’s a franchise afoot with all my favourite monsters, there’s a juicy re-match on its way!
Check out this cool website for Monarch, the research company in the Godzilla/Kong Monsterverse here.