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KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017) review

March 9, 2017

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written by: Dan Gilroy, Derek Connelly and Max Borenstein
produced by: Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent & Alex Garcia
directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
rated: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language)
runtime: 118 min.
U.S. release date: March 10, 2017

 

If you’re gonna have a good time at “Kong: Skull Island” it helps to have a soft spot for giant monsters wreaking havoc. Don’t get too attached to the humans. For those who have fond memories of watching Kong or Godzilla movies as a kid and old school jungle adventure movies, you’ll likely get into this. You won’t be alone, because it feels like that’s exactly how director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and his crew feel. I fit that profile as well, so I come to the latest iteration of the big ape with certain biases. So be it. I got exactly what I hoped for, considering the title (hint: it’s not named “King Kong”, after all) with some delightful surprises and only a few annoyances. Bottom line: it’s a blast to see this iconic creature back on the big-screen.

This “Kong” takes place in the 70’s, in a time just after the Vietnam war and just before Watergate occurred. William “Bill” Randa (John Goodman), who works for the government-funded Monarch organization (which showed up in 2014’s “Godzilla”, a blockbuster that shares Legendary Pictures, the same production company) feels it’s the right time to once again ask Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins) for a green light to explore an island he found in the South Pacific. A secret believer in monsters, Randa is convinced this location, hidden by a circle of raging storms, contains any number of “massive unidentified terrestrial organisms” that haven’t yet been seen by man. With help from his geologist assistant, Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), they persuade their way into getting a military escort for the expedition (by suggesting the U.S. find the island before the Commies do), but not before they’re joined by Monarch biologist, San Lin (Jing Tan) and hires former British SAS officer, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), to utilize his hunter/tracker skills for whatever they may find. It doesn’t matter how solid or believable their motivations are, because all we’re thinking about is which one of these characters are expendable and which ones will live to tell about their trip to hell and back.

 

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The group grows once they’re joined by U.S. Army Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel J. Jackson), who jumps at the chance to take his helicopter squadron, the Sky Devils, out on a mission again now that the war is over.  Anti-war photographer and peace activist, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), decides to tag along as well and is accepted by Packard and his crew because she was “in the shit” and soon enough a camaraderie develops aboard the Athena (helmed by Longmire himself, Robert Taylor, who unfortunately has maybe two lines), the ship that will sail them to certain doom. Everyone besides Landa and Brooks believe they’re on an expedition to explore an uncharted island, but all of that is about to change soon enough.

When the entire crew plow through the intense electrical storm clouds, it doesn’t take long for Packard and his squad to light up the island with seismic charges, making its 100-foot tall protector quite annoyed. In a blink, helicopters are swatted like mosquitos and much of the crew perish (death by giant ape foot – ouch!), leaving survivors scattered, struggling to make it to the rendezvous point to get off the island. An indignant Packard, however, has other plans and sets off on an Ahab-like obsession to take down the creature who killed his men, becoming more incensed when he learns that the determined Randa and his manufactured geological survey never really had island-mapping on his mind and knew all along that there’s a strong chance they’d run into something quite large on this Skull Island. They soon find out that Kong is the least of their worries on this land that time forgot.

 

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My favorite part of Peter Jackson’s excellent “King Kong” remake from 2005 (it’s been that long?) was his depiction of Skull Island and the large amount of time we spent there. It was a mysterious, creepy prehistoric rock that embodied a place of horrors instead of a place of wonder and discovery. Like in that movie, there are more threatening elements on “Skull Island” for humans than Kong and while Vogt-Roberts has a different take on the location – less horror and more shocking threats at every awestruck turn – it’s clearly worth spending almost two hours (from the safety of a movie theater seat, that is) in this fantastic place.

What makes this movie work is how it doesn’t necessarily follow the Kong formula we’re used to, where the “Eighth Wonder of the World” is discovered, smitten by beauty, captured and brought to “civilization” by the white man, only to be shot to death in front of a live audience. Instead of what we expect, we never leave the island. We never even see the human survivors leave the island here. There’s a reason for that. There’s enough suspense, action/adventure and scares, right there on Skull Island, which is why the screenwriters have these characters stay put. It makes sense to go back and honestly, since we never learn of a plausible plan by any character here to leave with a live trophy from the island, anything else would’ve been a straight-up retread.

 

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While this “Kong” movie does include certain understandable and welcome formulaic conventions, what it does with those conventions is a blast to watch. We see the proverbial recruitment and assembly of a team and then we see the wise decision to scatter them on the island after Kong throws them around like toy soldiers. This is how we’re able to get to know supporting characters that would have a short expiration date in any other movie of this genre. Sure, some of them are going to get carried away by pterosaurs, but not before we get a chance to hang with the likes of Landsat official, Victor Nieves (John Ortiz) and the rest of Packard’s crew, his right-hand man, Major Chapman (Toby Kebbell), seasoned Captain Cole (Shea Whigham), Mills (Jason Mitchell) and Slivko (Thomas Mann). Most of these actors have already proven they are talents to watch and bring a built-in charisma here and Vogt-Roberts is mindful to provide such screen time for them.

That is, except for Kebbell, who can’t seem to shake his English accent and land a convincing Southern one, but that’s okay since his motion-capture expertise (having worked on the last couple “Planet of the Apes” reboots) comes in handy, working alongside Terry Notary, another mo-cap veteran who portrays Kong here. Yes, we’ve come a long way since stop-motion puppetry and the body language and facial expressions of the big ape, reminds me that the Oscars should add another category. If they can select only three nominees each for Make-up/Hair Design, then I can’t see why a Best Motion-Capture category would be an issue, but I digress.

 

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Separating the group gives screenwriters  Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler“), Derek Connolly (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) and Max Borenstein (“Godzilla”) a chance to introduce us to the precarious terrain and big creatures we haven’t seen before on the big-screen. We witness frightening and jaw-dropping encounters with giant creatures, from threatening daddy long legs to galatial water buffalos, and then there’s the real threats of the island, these giant skull-faced lizards that inhabit the island’s interior and the bane of Kong’s existence. These aren’t the kind of creatures we’ve seen before and that approach continues as we meet the inevitable natives of the island.

It’s when we meet these natives that we also meet the heart and soul of the movie, which comes in the uncanny form of a scene-stealing John C. Reilly as WWII veteran, Hank Marlow, who’s been stranded on the island since 1944. Marlow (a nod to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”) living in harmony with the indigenous in a sprawling compound surrounded by a giant wall (one of many incredible set pieces, thanks to production designer, Stefan Dechant). Reilly shows up, looking like present-day David Letterman, playing a character that could’ve easily been written off as a goofball comedy relief, but he’s John C. Reilly and we instantly get on board with whatever he does. At what he does here is portray an endearing character, a Chicagoan who’s thrilled to see Americans, get back to his wife and son he’s never met and see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field again. When Hiddleston and Larson meet Marlow in character, you almost get the feeling that they’re taken aback by what Reilly’s doing here. His lines are quite funny, sure, but it’s the deliverance of these lines by the actor, both convincing and committed, that make Marlow quite a refreshing, unusual and welcome presence in a monster movie.  Who knows if Reilly’s work here will be remembered at the end of the year, but I know he’s definitely a major reason why I’d see this movie again.

 

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Vogt-Roberts, known for the 2013 coming-of-age drama “The Kings of Summer” is another indie director, like Colin Trevorrow (“Jurassic World”) and Rian Johnston (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), who’s taken a giant leap into directing movies that have a built-in audience. These are blockbuster movies that are guaranteed to do well at the box office, but what one hopes that directors who aren’t known for churning out big-budget flicks with interchangeable plots, will bring a different take to what we’re used to. That’s what’s happening here, with respect to certain genre expectations, but there’s also a noticeable spirited excitement present about the director’s first foray into the big leagues. Vogt-Roberts is assisted by rich, colorful cinematography provided by Larry Fong, a frequent collaborator with Zack Snyder, who’s headed back into the jungle for 2018’s “The Predator”.

“Kong: Skull Island” isn’t a perfect movie nor did I expect it to be. The 70’s classic rock selections heard have been have been overused in previous movies, especially Vietnam War movies, but I’ll admit it was fun hearing John Fogerty sing “Run Through the Jungle” knowing what’s in the jungles of Skull Island. The screenwriters also give Reilly’s Marlow a ton of exposition to dispense that’s unnecessary – I think we could’ve figured out on our own that the natives see Kong as a god and caretaker of their land. Regardless, moments like Kong dealing with a giant octopus makes up for all that and knowing there will be more movies to come set in this MonsterVerse (as seen in the end-credits scene) gets me excited.

 

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There’s no slow-build to this “Kong” movie, we get to the titular character immediately in an opening scene set in 1945, so complainers of the last “Godzilla” movie can rejoice. For the record, I appreciated the Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla”, but I understand the complaints. I usually lean towards a “less is more” approach, except with Kong. There’s something about him as a character that makes me want to just get right in there with him and see him interact with humans and creatures that annoy him or pique his curiosity. He may be an ape, but he becomes our hero in each movie (why else would there be a ton of “Kong” movies?) and his expressions and emotions are front and center. It’s hard not root for the big ape.

Without a doubt, we’ll see Kong roaring and beating his chest again, especially since a “Kong v Godzilla” movie is scheduled for 2020. These movies serve to reminded us that  entertaining escapism is always needed and movies that find us giddy with certain anticipation can remind us of the fun we had growing up watching movies with our family. I sure wish my father was still alive for this one, he would’ve gotten a kick out of it.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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