Kong: Skull Island (2017) / Action-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language.
Running Time: 118 min.
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, Tobey Kebbell, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero
Small role: Thomas Middleditch (voice)
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenplay: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
Review published March 11, 2017
A quintessential popcorn flick, Kong: Skull Island doesn't try to go deep with important themes or get entrenched in lots of set-up or explanation, built on the premise that audiences want lots of action and humor for two hours without any pretense that it's striving to be anything else. You won't remember much of substance within a day or two after seeing it, but that only means you can watch it all over again at your leisure, fit for those times when you want to just have something fun to watch without the need to pay strict attention to nuance.
After an introductory sequence set during World War II to introduce the massive ape, Kong, and the island he resides on, we spring ahead to 1973, where we find the United States' government, in the waning days of their involvement in Vietnam, planning an exploration of the previously uncharted island in the South Pacific perpetually under storm clouds, hoping to lay claim there before the Russians get there first. Kong is there and greets the military choppers in the manner you'd expect, i.e. he destroys them outright. Those that survive the onslaught find that the island is full of other creatures even more menacing than Kong, especially the "skullcrawlers" (as long-surviving WWII pilot Hank Marlow (Reilly, The Lobster) calls them), who lurk like carnivorous, two-legged dinosaurs around the island consuming every creature in sight.
Directed with maximum fast-paced action-movie style from Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who liberally steals from well-known jungle and island-conflict classics like Apocalypse Now and Jurassic Park, and perhaps a bit of the TV show "LOST", it's built to be a fun thrill ride from beginning to end. It's not the kind of movie that spends time to build up more than the bare minimum necessary to explain the aim of the mission and to give one defining trait to each of its many characters before sending them off to either prevail or, more likely, to die trying in sundry gruesome ways. For those who like to predict who will die among the cast and in what order, you probably won't be caught terribly surprised.
The actors are physically appealing in their roles, though none, save perhaps John C. Reilly as the kooky WWII pilot gone loopy from too many years with no one to talk to save the mysterious native people who regard Kong as a god, especially shine in their performances due to the sparse amount of time afforded to each of them. Because the plot necessitates a brisk pace, there's not much time for the awe that surely would have overtaken the humans encountering such deadly mammoth creatures for the first time, but, again, the characters are here merely to forward plot or to provide fodder for beastly carnage. Visual effects are the real star here, and while they are gorgeous in their level of detail and fluid movement, they also are so knowingly artificial that we can never get the sense of weight or dimension to any of the destruction that goes on screen.
Legendary Entertainment, who also produced 2014's reboot of Godzilla, learned from the criticism of that movie, which left some fans feeling cold due to the abated action and lack of screen time for its main monster. The more expressive Kong shows up here early and in full glory when he does, while the slug-fest battle sequences are prolonged and plentiful. Classic rock tunes fill the auditory canals, upping the fast-paced tempo and music-video style montages to good effect, much in the way that Suicide Squad would for the superhero realm.
There are a number of story threads, none particularly that interesting, serving only to move the action forward and set up conflicts. The most prominent comes in the form of Samuel L. Jackson's (I Am Not Your Negro) character, Lt. Preston Packard, who makes it his mission to destroy the giant ape for taking out a bunch of his squadron of soldiers, not realizing that Kong's presence on the island is what gives it the tenuous balance necessary from utter chaos. (Trivia: in keeping with the Jurassic Park allusions, Jackson gets to repeat a line he used in that film, "Hold on to your butts!") As such, Kong doesn't represent how humankind comes to exploit and kill a beast who meant no harm, but rather, a force of nature for man to contend with in a battle to assert dominion over the planet. Essentially, he needs to be killed because of his capacity to destroy.
For a pure piece of entertainment, you could do much worse than Kong: Skull Island, as it is a slickly directed example of populist nonsense, enjoyably escapist in a modest fashion that should reasonably please anyone who comes in with low expectations. Much like Jurassic World, it crosses the bar by a hair's breadth, but what it trades in terms of plausibility or rationale, it makes up for with spectacle and well-rendered and digitally choreographed rumbles in the jungle. It's a huge crock in the end, but you can't say that it doesn't deliver on goods, adeptly processed and packaged for easy, greasy consumption.
-- There's a stinger at the end of the credits setting Kong up into an expanded movie monster universe.
©2017 Vince Leo