Sunday, March 12, 2017
Review: Kong: Skull Island
I do not own the above image. Copyright Warner Brothers Pictures.
It’s 1973. Nixon has just negotiated peace with the Vietnamese, starting the end of the Vietnam War. Meanwhile in Washington, Bill Randa (Goodman), head of secret government agency Monarch, has just received approval to explore an uninhabited island in the South Pacific. Randa compiles his team with ex-British Special Officer James Conrad (Hiddleston), war photographer Mason Weaver (Larson) and a platoon fresh from the War led by Lt. Col. Preston Parker (Jackson). Before long, the group invades Skull Island and comes face to face with its primary inhabitant, Kong.
Kong: Skull Island, at its best, has a goofy quality to it. The first action shot of a palm tree crashing into a helicopter gives the movie the pro wrestling fighting-style & tone that allows the proceedings & audience to let loose. The multiple fight sequences one-up each other as the 117 minute runtime moves along. The fights include such ridiculous shots as Kong shaking soldiers out of a helicopter, Tom Hiddleston with a gas mask & a samurai sword and a climatic battle with many moments that need to be seen to be believed.
The visual effects are quite impressive. Kong looks like a practical effect most of the time. The visuals are at their most impressive when Kong has a mini battle with a creature with an absurd number of tentacles. The only shot that isn’t convincing is the one time Kong is touched by a human being.
What keeps Kong: Skull Island from being more than a guilty pleasure is the characters created by screenwriters Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) , Max Borenstein (2014 Godzilla) and Derek Connolly (Safety Not Guaranteed & Jurassic World). Only two characters are worthy of being in a major motion picture. John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow, a WWII vet stuck on Skull Island for 28 years, is the most developed character & we don’t really meet him until halfway through the movie. He knows the island as well as Kong does. The best part of Marlow is he isn’t as crazy as the trailers make him out to be and is not relegated to the comic relief. Most importantly (and detrimentally), as each scene with him goes by with him, you begin to sympathize with Marlow more than every other character in the movie combined. The only other character of note is Lt. Col. Parker, the most extreme militarist possible once on the island. Parker slowly begins to lose his sanity as he realizes that this is his chance to “win” a war and Jackson smartly plays it as straight as possible, keeping the movie partially grounded.
Everyone else is either a near-caricature or an empty pillowcase. Bill Randa exists solely to get the engine started and is disposed of in the background about 70 minutes in without any fanfare. Randa hired an outside corporation, whose employees are introduced but are quickly forgotten until each one of them gets a bigger death than Randa himself. It’s as if there’s 15 minutes of material sitting on a hard drive in a Warner Brothers editing room of their concerns & hijinks. As I sit here typing this review, I still have no idea the purpose of Hiddleston’s James Conrad. Outside of his introductory scene & the fight I mentioned earlier, I can’t remember a single word or thing Conrad says or does. As for photographer Mason Weaver, she exists solely to have the occasional philosophical line (not speeches, single lines of monologue) or gesture and to have a camera bag hang over Brie Larson’s sternum to accentuate her breasts. The soldiers under Parker’s command range from the scared, young private to the quiet, stealthy guy to the two wise-cracking, interracial best friends. Not exactly the most inspiring bunch.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) does make an inspired choice or two. The second introduction to Kong is a beautiful shot of him against the sun as the helicopters fly in. It gets quite obvious real quick that Vogt-Roberts likes Apocalypse Now as much as Gareth Edwards liked Jaws from Godzilla. Each of action sequences is shot competently without the extreme close-ups that usually plague these effects-driven extravaganzas.
Kong: Skull Island is one of the few “Turn off your brain” movies that kinda works. There are enough big action scenes to thrill that crowd but lacks any subtle signs of depth and the characters just aren’t there. It’s big, loud, dumb and I had way too much fun for my own good.