Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Film Review: Kong - Skull Island

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable 
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

I found this to be the most enjoyable King Kong movie I've seen.

Now, I must admit that I am not a devotee of the original film from the 1930's.  I understand its importance in cinematic history and how it could capture people's imagination.  But I do not have an emotional attachment to it the way many movie lovers do.  I was not a fan of the strangely cynical version from the 1970's.  I thought Peter Jackson's version was very well made but reverent to the point of inapproachable.

But Kong: Skull Island is just a fun monster-movie mayhem.

The movie begins with a quick prologue of two World War II pilots crashing on mysterious island and encounter Kong.  But the real story picks up right after the end of the Vietnam War with Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Corey Hawkins (Houston Brooks) as members of the research group Monarch.  They have been allowed to gather team to investigate the mysterious Skull Island.  They are able to get Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a war-hardened veteran and his squad to provide security.  They also hire survivalist James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to be their point man.  Finally, anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) manages to find her way on board the expedition in hopes of a good story.  The group rides their way into the mysterious land and almost immediately chaos ensues.

One of the reasons that I think that this version works better than the Jackson version is that this movie never tries to be more than it is: a fun and scary action adventure.  There are moments of pathos and humanity, but nothing that signals to you "HEY, THIS IS IMPORTANT AND POIGNANT" the way Jackson's did.

That isn't to say that the movie is silly.  To be sure there are plenty of head-scratching moments, but nothing that takes away from the main fun of it.  Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts uses the environments, the settings, and the characters very effectively.  There is a beauty to Skull Island as well as a danger.  His Kong is violent and majestic, towering over the original versions in sheer size.  He is able to capture what previous versions have with Kong in that he is terrifying and noble at the same time.  The other monsters are sufficiently scary if unoriginal-looking.  It is the island itself with its constant sense of danger and death lurking around every corner that creates the exciting atmosphere.

The cast does fairly well with the material.  Goodman always brings his gravitas.  Hiddleston and Larson bring an incredible amount of charisma to each of their characters which is almost as good a substitute for chemistry.  They may not ever completely click, but they are both fun to watch on screen.  Jackson adds a few layers to Packard, but unfortunately the script does not allow him to go deep enough.  The story places him on a very specific trajectory that at times makes him difficult to understand.  If they had allowed Jackson to infuse him with a little more sympathy, then he would have worked much better.  But a dividing point, I'm sure will be John C. Reilly's Hank Marlow, an American pilot surviving on Skull Island for decades.  You will either find him a welcome light-hearted comic relief or you will find him infuriating and out of place like Randy Quaid's pilot in Independence Day.  Other than that the characters are different but not memorable.  The script tries to give them banter to create a sense of camaraderie, but it feels forced.

Setting the movie in the early 1970's was a great choice.  It places the film outside of contexts that have been seen before with a nice sense of nostalgia and an throwback soundtrack.  Also since it feels like in the modern world everything on Earth has already been discovered, this makes the mystery of the island feel more believable.  It also makes for some nice allusions to Apocalypse Now so much so that maybe this should have been called Ape-pocalypse Now (sorry I couldn't resist).

The movie is violent, make no doubt.  So I wouldn't recommend it for young children.  But its violence also brings with it the scares that keep the thrills coming.

It is not a great film, but if monster movies are your thing and you are looking for a fun way to spend an evening, you could do worse than Kong: Skull Island.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

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