REVIEW: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

You’ve read his Kong retrospective, now see if you agree with his review of the rebirth. Oscar makes his last trek to Skull Island for the return of the King. 

Marvel Studios may have unleashed something unstoppable when they practically invented the cinematic universe, with many studios jumping at the chance to capitalise on the box office gold. Enter Legendary and Warner Brothers’ “Monsterverse”, a big-budget interpretation of Toho’s Godzilla and Kaiju franchises. After the financial success of the last Godzilla, it seemed inevitable that the Eighth Wonder would receive a similar cinematic universe treatment. Jordan Vogt-Roberts delivers on an entertaining theme park ride of a movie, but it is one that falls short of expectations, trying to balance too much and ultimately focusing on the action and spectacle over its characters.

In 1973, former British Special Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is hired by government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) to lead a team to map out an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean known as Skull Island. Randa also recruits the Sky Devils helicopter squadron led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) to escort them, and the group is soon joined by pacifist photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who insists the government is hiding something suspicious within that area of the South Pacific.

Upon arriving at Skull Island, the helicopters drop explosives to determine if the ground is hollow. The helicopters are suddenly attacked by a 100 foot tall ape known as “Kong” and the team is separated into smaller groups. After trekking through the jungle, Conrad and Weaver’s group encounter the natives of the island and meet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), an American pilot who has been stranded on Skull Island since World War II. Marlow tells Conrad and Weaver about the rivalry between Kong and the Skull Crawlers, enormous and vicious reptiles that wiped out his species and will break free on the island if Kong is killed. Meanwhile, Packard intends to exact revenge on Kong for killing his men.

The acting is fairly standard for a modern monster movie, some doing their own thing whilst others barely register as characters. Hiddleston’s cold and distant demeanour makes him frustratingly bland as a protagonist; if he were played by literally anyone else, it wouldn’t have made a difference to the character of Conrad. Larson fares a bit better as Weaver, showing off some badass moments and appearing a bit more invested in the events around her. Goodman and Jackson are easily the standouts of the group, commanding every scene where either or both are on screen, even if it means them mostly doing their own thing as shady, morally-grey characters. Ironically, it’s Reilly who is the most compelling, hitting most of the comedic beats and being one of two characters to have an arc in the film. Toby Kebbell, Thomas Mann, Jason Mitchell, John Oritz, Jing Tian, and Corey Hawkins also feature in supporting roles as soldiers and scientists respectively; they aren’t phoning it in, but compared to the main cast, you don’t come away with any strong feelings towards them.

But at the end of the day, the centrepiece of any Kong film is Kong himself, and the film delivers soundly on that count. He’s an intimidating, distant and uncompromising creature, not unlike Godzilla, and despite his ferocity, he is ultimately just a territorial animal defending his turf. He walks a fine line of being an animal and having a heightened intelligence to him, proving to be as much of a god amongst mortals as his future reptilian rival. This puts him in contrast to the lizard-like Skull Crawlers that literally attack anything in sight. His upright design takes more inspiration from the 1933 Kong than real-life gorillas, which serves its purpose of making him out to be his own unique species.

The visual effects are excellent – every creature on Skull Island from the shaggy water buffalos to the giant bugs are very well-rendered and designed. The few shots where the monsters look a bit too soft or cartoonish are quickly swept away by more impressive images. The Skull Crawlers are also just as detailed and, despite their speed and ferocity, you still believe that they’re right there with the characters. Even Kong’s fur is impressive to behold, demonstrating how far CGI has come since the late 90s when it comes to animating hair realistically. The action is also top notch, conveying the size disparity between the now-enormous Kong and his human/monster enemies. The decision to film in real-life jungles and mountain ranges does the film a favour, keeping the action somewhat grounded and not causing it to strain under VFX overload.

Despite being plucked early from an indie film background, Vogt-Roberts shows great competence behind the camera, creating his own distinctive visual flair and being able to combine great suspense with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility. Even the editing tries to get in on the joke; when Kong’s about to eat a soldier, it cuts to a soldier eating a sandwich. The cinematography by Larry Fong is another impressive accomplishment, giving the jungles of Skull Island a murky green look which heightens the island’s otherworldly atmosphere, giving the terrain a tight, claustrophobic feel. Fong creates many gorgeous establishing shots, and several that reference Apocalypse Now with its saturated tropical colour palette. You get to see the great ape standing in night-time mist against cool, dark hues, or the camera slowly rising teasingly to reveal Kong against the warm colours of the sun. Or even the beautifully destructive and epic shots of Kong against explosions and flames at night. The King always looks fantastic. 

The score by Henry Jackman has some truly standout cues, such as the arrival at Skull Island and Kong’s battles with the Skull Crawlers, as well as good atmospheric pieces with trumpets and tribal flutes that suit themselves to the primeval location. But a lot of the music is fairly typical, servicing the action beats okay but not reaching the orchestral nuance of Alexandre Desplat’s work on Godzilla. The 70s pop songs do a much better job of setting up the period.

For all the action and spectacle that Legendary and Warner Bros. are able to supply in their monster movies, their scripts are their main shortcoming. While this is nothing new to the monster genre, such flaws are not a good model for long-term success. Kong: Skull Island aspires to be a much funnier film than Godzilla, but simply put, a lot of the comedy from the other soldiers just doesn’t work. If this was an attempt to emulate the humour formula that Marvel has mastered, who are without peer at this point, then they should really dial it back. The characters are pretty stock; I don’t really love or hate any of them, with the exception of Reilly’s Marlow. But as mentioned earlier, the strong performances provided by Goodman, Jackson and Reilly are sufficient to deal with the comedy when necessary.

The film moves along at a brisk pace, but maybe a little too briskly. After a prologue introducing us to the island, we spend about twenty minutes in civilisation before revisiting it. The familiar rule of Jaws is abandoned in favour of showing Kong and the other creatures early in the film, so the movie wastes no time in jumping into the fray. This stands in contrast to Peter Jackson’s King Kong and Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, in which the slow burn and build up went on far too long for many to enjoy. Much of the time, we transition from monster encounter to monster encounter, and what little character-focused dialogue we get is fairly paint by numbers, only just hinting at the characters’ backstories or emotional baggage.

Despite the visual cues that homage Apocalypse Now, Kong: Skull Island shares very little with the Coppola classic thematically or spiritually. It has far more in common with any number of monster B-movies in tone and script, being equal parts quirky and grotesque. The discredited “Hollow Earth” theory, a staple in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ writings, is even referenced here as a provable theory, tapping into the sensibilities of pulp adventure books. At first, it was jarring to see Reilly be a goofball when we first meet him, but it makes sense in the film’s context considering the fact that he was stranded on the island for thirty-two years. He gradually dials back his eccentricities as the film progresses, in contrast to Col. Packard. However, Packard’s descent into madness, fuelled by his Vietnam survivor’s mindset, isn’t as compelling as it could have been, but Jackson is able to make the most of it. Ultimately, it shows the contrast between the eccentric and good-natured Marlow as they both deal with being war survivors in a hostile environment. The most interesting dialogue exchanges show how much the world has become more jaded and paranoid since Marlow became stranded.

I’m fine with seeing the “Beauty and the Beast” angle make it into the film in some capacity, but its presence feels very tacked-on and underdeveloped. They encounter each other in the wilderness on a few occasions, and she feels drawn to his size and mysterious character. But it lacks the fascinating dynamic of the Beauty/Beast relationship seen in 1933 and 2005, and either could have been removed or further developed. I suppose it’s fortuitous that Conrad and Weaver don’t attempt a romance, since the film had been playing fast and loose with the lore of Kong to begin with. I cared more when Kong was in danger, rather than Weaver or Conrad.

While Godzilla could be viewed as a self-contained re-imagination of the King of the Monsters, Skull Island plays itself more as a prelude to the future monster mashes in the franchise. It’s certainly a very irreverent film, and doesn’t aspire to be a groundbreaking masterpiece. King Kong is held to an astonishingly high standard, and the filmmakers behind the subsequent remakes took their task seriously. It’s essentially a glorified B-movie, delivering on a ton of well-done action scenes and a slew of well-designed monsters, becoming as basic a popcorn movie as you can get. Come what may, the Legendary Monster Cinematic Universe is about to get a whole lot bigger.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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