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Friday, March 10, 2017

Movie Review: #KongSkullIsland

The monster movie universe just got bigger with the inventive but slightly flawed Kong: Skull Island.

Review by Matt Cummings
If anything was proven by the mammoth $652 million which Jurassic World took home in 2015, it was that audiences want their big monster movies in whatever form they can get them. With Kong: Skull Island, they'll see their wish granted, giving us a far better version than Jurassic's bore-fest, even though this one has its fair share of problems.
As the United States begins pulling out of Vietnam, emotions run the gamut, but a team of desperate scientists couldn't care less: they represent Monarch, an agency on its last legs because their crackpot leader Randa (John Goodman) can't find anyone to listen to his claims of monsters inhabiting deep caves under the earth. Luckily, a report by Hudson Brooks (Corey Hawkins) has left one last door open to explore a recently-discovered island that the Soviets might claim if the US doesn't. A team is assembled to escort Monarch, including the jaded soldier Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), the letter-writing father (Toby Kebbell), the award-winning photographer (Brie Larson), and the tracker (Tom Hiddleston). But none of them are prepared for what comes next, as their arrival on the island is met by the giant ape known as Kong, who protects the indigenous population and other exotic beasts from horrible forces that threaten their very existence. After Kong renders them helpless on the island, the team must attempt an escape before their window of opportunity runs out, and their lives become forfeit.

From the moment Kong: Skull Island appears, we know this is connected to 2014's Godzilla, both in feel and history: the credits are nearly identical, with those grainy 40's/50's photos and video showing large pieces torn out of ships and nuclear "tests" which weren't tests at all. The theme - that man isn't the top dog on Earth - is also ported over to Kong, as is the idea of Kong playing the role of hunter and protector. Warner Bros isn't just mailing in an exact copy of Godzilla, because its plot is quite different than what you might remember from other versions. There is no longer a damsel in distress, and the story is much more horror-centered than you might expect. We get several nice jump scenes - complete with that uncomfortable silence before a huge island beast swats at you or nose dives for its lunch - and a genuine sense that no actor here is indispensable. That creates moments of genuine dread and thus a more effective story. Another reason why audiences will be reminded of Jurassic centers around the imaginative beasts that the team encounters, from giant water buffaloes with grass growing on their backs, to a huge squid and several thoroughly nasty Velociraptors. It's frankly some of the best parts of the movie, and an indication that this universe is about to get a lot bigger and perhaps nastier.

In fact, Kong: Skull Island is just the warm up to a massive monster universe that's just getting started. Given the fantastic end credits scene, that is happening sooner rather than later; but you'll have to see that for yourself. That will either make your eyes roll or force a shout of glee but no matter what side you stand on, you'll love Kong himself. The idea that his role as top dog (or ape) of Skull Island makes for some interesting decision-making by Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Writer Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly. Why Kong favors the humans trapped on the island and protects other beasts instead of eating them isn't well thought out. Nor is the decision wise to cast a wide range of stars instead of featuring a younger Dr. Serizawa from Godzilla as a sort of passenger between this world and Kong. That would have made a lot of what Ken Watanabe's character did make a ton more sense in Godzilla. Hollywood, I await your phone call to fix Justice League and anything else you wish.

But Vogt shoots a mighty impressive image, placing Kong in some of the most iconic scenes we've seen in awhile. From slow-mo helicopters centering for an attack against him, to a marvelous stare-down between him and Jackson, we get the true sense of Kong's scale. The other CGI beasts are also impressive, as is the location shooting which apparently happened in Vietnam itself. Vogt has so many pins to juggle here - the setting up of Monarch, the battles between military and science, and Kong himself - that it would have been easy for this one to get out of hand. And for a few minutes near the beginning, it feels like pouring maple syrup from a nearly empty bottle. But once it starts moving, things pick up, as does the body count. And that's perhaps the best part of Kong: Skull Island: it doesn't care what you think, content to succeed as a B-movie island escape flick that doubles down on the beasts and makes the humans as tasty morsels leading to the big meal.

Still, this is one of the best casts of 2017, and they do not disappoint. Goodman plays the conspiracy theorist to a tee, burying the truth about Kong from Packard which leads to some really great scenes between the two. Jackson's Packard is looking for a war to win, and that plays very well through. Larson is earthy great, effortlessly gliding along and showing us why she will be so good as Captain Marvel; Hiddleston is a bit underused, his silky-smooth voice never really matching his role as a tracker. But the real joy here is John C. Reilly, playing a WWII pilot who crash-landed on Skull Island 28 years before and has grown a significant beard. He's only anti-social weird instead of someone who should have lost most of his marbles, but it's his humanity and reverence to Kong which is most gratifying. When it comes time for a bit of levity or a dose of reality, Reilly's Hank is right there to lend it. Add Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, and Shea Whigham to the mix, and you have to wonder how long was the original cut of Kong. They serve as pleasant distractions instead of meaningful participants, but it's great to see them here.

Kong: Skull Island is a lot better than Jurassic World, both in terms of scale and smarts. Its CGI is more than up to the task for its gargantuan beast, and its sense of style doesn't really care what you think of it. The fact that a big blockbuster flick like this can stand up and say that just goes to show you how much faith WB has in this universe and how dedicated they are to making it work. Probably none of that will help its bottom line, but at least it has the guts to make so much effort to try (that end credits scene is so cool). Love it or not, the big monster universe is coming, and I for one am excited to see what WB has in store.

Kong: Skull Island is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language and has a runtime of 118 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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