Review: Kong: Skull Island

After a brief prologue set in 1944 with two crash-landed pilots on Skull Island, the bulk of the action takes place in the 1970s where John Goodman’s not terribly well-respected government employee (specialising in cryptozoology and conspiracy theories) organises a Government-funded expedition to Skull Island, a mysterious place out in the Pacific difficult to reach due to extremely hazardous weather conditions. For military back-up, he and his team (including Jing Tian and Corey Hawkins) given the services of Colonel Samuel L. Jackson and his men (including Shea Whigham and Toby Kebbell), just back from Vietnam. Also involved in the expedition are ex-SAS man and tracker Tom Hiddleston, and war photographer Brie Larson. When they arrive at the island, the great beast Kong is waiting for them and takes a swipe at their chopper. On the island and prey to all manner of dangerous giant creatures, including the gargantuan Kong himself, who very clearly rules Skull Island. John C. Reilly pops up as a frazzled WWII pilot stranded on the island for years. Richard Jenkins appears briefly as a Senator at the beginning. John Ortiz plays a nervy Landsat official out of his depth on Skull Island.

When I say that this 2017 monster movie from director  Jordan Vogt-Roberts (who strangely comes from mostly a comedy and shorts background) is the best “King Kong” movie since the 1933 original…just bear in mind it’s also the only other one worth watching. I don’t think the film gets off to the best start, it’s a bit of a strange note to begin on. I also think it’s a little bit regrettable that Vogt-Roberts chooses to show us even a glimpse of Kong or Skull Island before the credits, but I do understand the plot/character reason for it. Skull Island and the film itself, shot by Larry Fong (“Super 8”, “Sucker Punch”, “Now You See Me”), look absolutely wonderful. I particularly loved the gorgeous shot of Kong standing in front of a sunset in all his shadowy glory. Later we get an excellent bit where Kong slowly emerges through fog in close-up to face Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston. The music score by Henry Jackman (“Big Hero 6”, “Kingsman: The Secret Service”) is also excellent, so it’s definitely one of the best-looking and best-sounding films of 2017. The soundtrack is good too, featuring CCR and Bowie among others.

I appreciated the film’s pacing and sense of humour, both wise for what is monster movie territory, if you ask me the previous version from Peter Jackson was a bloated, humourless bore of epic proportions. Also an improvement over any previous “Kong” film are the FX, even if I find the FX in the 1933 film part of its charm. Terry Notary’s motion-capture turn as Kong here is really impressive from a movement and agility point of view. In this one Kong is huge, but mobile. He looks so much better than in the Peter Jackson version, where he looked like exactly what he was: a special effect, so that Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance was all for naught (I had a similar issue with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, but they corrected the problem for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” considerably). Notary and the CGI time make him a lot more expressive in this one, an excellent job. That’s funny given the FX guys apparently weren’t trying to make him look exactly realistic as a primate, but it looked pretty damn real to me. They even get the eyes and face right, something every previous version (and most CGI depictions of animals or humans) has failed to do. For all its close-ups, the Peter Jackson version of the creature didn’t seem as ‘alive’ as this one. The eyes have life to them here, a bit of personality if you will. I also noticed zero scale issues as well, something most, if not all depictions of Kong suffer from to some degree or another. As far as Kong as a character goes, it’s an interesting depiction of him as an almighty force to be feared, but also defending humans against other giant monsters in the film. Basically, Kong is the King of Skull Island and he’s an absolutely brutal ruler when need be. Some have complained that the story and character have been changed too much, but although it’s clear that the film is as influenced partly by the monster movies of Toho Studios (and for a very specific reason), by and large I don’t see these supposedly awful, detrimental changes. Sure, I prefer the 1933 original, but it’s because I think it’s just a better version of essentially the same thing, not because I noticed something wildly different in plot or character in this one. The 1933 film is simply the better and more fun film, but this is still good and fun in its own right. The occupations of some of the characters that have changed from the original, and the action is restricted largely to Skull Island. That way, what happened in the final stages of some of the previous versions in New York, essentially plays out on Skull Island here, with Samuel L. Jackson’s character basically playing a combo of the exploitative ‘civilian’ society (as opposed to the supposedly beastly Kong) and also the planes being swatted at by Kong. Hell, even when I did notice changes, they were understandable given we’re in the 2010’s not the 1930s.  The Kong/Fay Wray-esque relationship with Brie Larson’s character is still present here, albeit subtle and less…romantic than previous versions. That’s perfectly fine by me, I think it’s probably for the best when you consider how much has changed about depictions of women in cinema since 1933. A mere object of beauty and damsel in distress was looking ridiculous (and objectionable) by 1976, let alone now. Instead, there’s a focus on more of an empathy Larson has for the creature (as well as a Dianne Fossey-esque curiosity), who has been orphaned since it was young. Yes, you could argue that Kong at times somewhat resembles the defender-of-Japan era in the “Godzilla” franchise, but honestly, even then I’m not seeing that much difference, let alone for the worse (As I said earlier, there’s a legit reason why you’ll be reminded of kaiju films in this that ends up being revealed mid-and-post credits). Otherwise, it’s “Kong” pretty much as I like it (and I certainly like this much better than most versions), just not as good as the 1933 original, which is pretty much unbeatable. As for the other giant creatures, I’m not sure I totally bought the giant buffalo, but the giant spider sure is something, the giant stick insect is certainly memorable, and the giant octopus is a nice CGI job as well. The monster action is fun, including an early Kong vs. helicopter skirmish.

As for the cast, it’s a pretty interesting bunch of top-grade actors…and Toby Kebbell. Seriously, Kebbell has never done anything for me, and barely registers at all here. I also think it’s a shame that Jing Tian, Shea Whigham, and the well-cast John Ortiz are given such tiny roles. In fact, even stars Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston deserve more screen time and depth than they actually get, and they’re two of the more impressive turns in the cast (Hell, John Goodman seems to be just along for the ride once they get to Skull Island, which is  a shame). Hiddleston makes his play for 007 here as an ex-SAS man tracking the great beast. He might just work as Bond I think. Brie Larson is smart casting in that she’s a smart and talented actress, so she’s clearly not going to accept a dumb blonde role. That doesn’t mean she’s not gorgeous, and Fong’s camera clearly has very intimate feelings for her. It’s just that Larson has everything: Talent, charisma, looks, intelligence, and that all-important, indescribable ‘It Factor’. She has it. She has a lot of it. She’s not only a very good actress, she’s a bloody star, too. John Goodman isn’t the first person I’d think of for his role, but he’s immediately fun if underused, whilst a displaced John C. Reilly brings much of the film’s humour. And that sense of humour is not only appreciated, but very wise. The whole native tribe potential for racism is narrowly avoided due to Reilly’s comedic presence. You’ll see what I mean when you watch the film. Samuel L. Jackson proves to be a really fine choice for what is essentially the film’s (human) villain, a sour, single-minded military man who has been scarred by war and now finds himself consumed with the desire to kill Kong for killing his men. Perhaps in his warped mind it’s his way of winning the ‘war’. It’s the kind of role and performance that could’ve gone horribly wrong (I shudder to think what the original choice, J.K. Simmons would’ve done with it) but Jackson makes it work, and even helps you understand the guy to a certain degree…even if you also fully understand why he’s the one human the otherwise fairly neutral Kong has a grudge against.

Why wasn’t Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” this good? I had fun with this, easily the second-best “Kong” movie ever made (Worst? The 1976 version with Jessica Lange’s abysmal debut performance and a completely unconvincing Rick Baker walking upright in a cheap-looking monkey suit). This is a great-looking, fun adventure movie with great monster fights. It could’ve been even better if the human characters weren’t largely underwritten by screenwriters Max Borenstein (the aforementioned “Godzilla”), Derek Connolly (“Safety Not Guaranteed”, the dull and overrated “Jurassic World”), and Dan Gilroy (“Freejack”, writer-director of the terrific “Nightcrawler”). Meanwhile, post-credits clues have me absolutely giddy about things to come. I’m pumped, bring it on!

Rating: B-


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