Kong and Skull Island steal the show from puny humans

To the least demanding and most destruction-loving fans, Kong: Skull Island is a vibrant, relentless, gorgeous, grand monkey-monster action flick, filled with equal parts humor and devoured humans. But what sets the movie apart from other creature features is that although the movie fails where it’s expected to fail, it exceeds in being unique in areas no one could ever anticipate. And that includes in proving the age-old rumor that apes eat octopi.

But we’ll get into more of that in a second. First I’ll address the major question on your noggin: how much is this monster mash like 2014’s Godzilla? Yes, it’s a very good question, and the answer is a simple: not at all in any way shape or form lest I be stricken down. Okay, that was a slight fib. The movie begins the same, featuring news reel footage of mysterious things set to ominous music. But then the actual movie opens on an image of the sun, all before a screaming man falls out of the brightness and directly into the camera. This is a WWII pilot we will come to know as Hank Marlow, and his plane has just been shot down over a picturesque island. Not a bad way to go, until Marlow immediately proceeds to get into an almost comic gun fight with an enemy Japanese pilot, who was also shot down. Then after running into the jungle, their SAVING-PRIVATE-RYAN-knife-fight moment is cut short when the mega ape comes barreling onto the ledge. In short, anyone hoping to see the legend early will not be disappointed.

We’re then fast-forwarded to 1973 Washington, with Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his I-should’ve-been-a-cowboy-with-a-name-like-this employee, Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), trying to get funding for their program, Monarch, to track down this mysterious island. From here on out Kong moves with a noticeable, speedy pacing that barrels through details and exposition with just enough to keep the audience informed. Randa gets his funding; he heads to Vietnam to find world-class tracker and overall hunk, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston); then “anti-war” photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is on-board; and finally Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) is hired to escort the crew, a godsend for an action-loving Packard confronted with the end of the war.

This is where we start to see the movie predictably fail, as so many blockbusters do, in showcasing three-dimensional characters. Given the desire to keep the train moving and energetic (a far cry from the slow, slooooow burn of Godzilla), we never learn enough about the characters to see them as more than giant-ape fodder. Hiddleston’s character is dressed-up to look like the rope-swinging hero of dime-back novels, fit with the tanned skin and lack of personality. Larson isn’t fully utilized as well, her passionate and thoughtful character never getting to have her moment aside from the occasional protest.  These are two fantastic actors that, sadly, have become victim of genre fare that doesn’t know what to do with them.

The veteran actors like Goodman and Jackson get the longer end of the jungle vine,  with Goodman’s desperate desire to prove monsters real, and having to hide the true nature of the island from everyone else, giving him at least some motivation and internal conflict. Jackson’s Packard knows nothing but combat and soldierly brotherhood, and this drives him into the villain role when the massive ape demolishes half his crew, setting him on a quest for revenge. Oh, and how could I forget about that carnage?

The lack of character development is virtually offset by the colorful, almost elegantly filmed creature action. As the choppers fly into Skull Island with an Apocalypse Now vibe, they’re taken down with ease by the skyscraper-sized Kong. Looking more like a modern update of the 1933 version and less like the 2005 gorilla, this Kong truly lives up to the creature’s iconic status. He’s both a wonder and terror to behold, with cinematographer Larry Fong filming him with a true sense of grandeur, framing him among the spacious, sun-drenched island. A notable shot is when, discovering the destruction around him, a defiant Packard stares down the ape, who is giving it right back to him from behind the flames and helicopter ruins. We see the ape stomping and bashing around the island, and he’s always given ample room to be shot around, making both him and the island works of art (other a feat of the 2005 version).

The slam-bang-thank-you-ma’am introduction to the island and Kong’s power is one of several terrifically shot action sequences, all of which feature plenty of other uniquely designed creatures that populate the island. Of course, the characters find themselves in these dire scenarios after being split up across the island, each group making their way to a rendezvous point. The characters walk for a bit, and then fight off the creatures. Walk for a bit, fight. Walk, fight. You get the picture. Or do you?

In these action sequences we learn that writers Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly, and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts had no intention of handling one aspect with the same, ordinary procedure of other action flicks: death. Like a satirical horror movie, characters big and small are picked off like they were nothing, often completley out of nowhere. Characters like *insert name here* and *insert name here*, and who could forget, *insert name here* are taken by the island when you least see it coming, playing off cliché troupes to a darkly comic effect.  The island is scenic and seemingly unending in beauty (to the point where you almost want to research timeshare options), but also treacherous in this regard to danger, and because of this it becomes the film’s greatest character.

That is, until, we’re reintroduced to an aged Marlow (John C. Reilly). The bearded, dirty, slightly nuts Marlow has been here nearly 30 years, living with the indigenous tribe. He fears and understands the island, teaching Hiddleston and Larson’s group that Kong is the last of his kind, protecting the island from more fiendish creatures that live below. Not only is Marlow unendingly goofy, he’s also given a surprising amount of emotion weight. We learn he became friends with his Japanese enemy, Gunpei, and they formed a bond, built a boat out of their crashed planes, all before Gunpei was eaten. Though we don’t see this happen, the lasting pain on Marlow’s face says it all. You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking this was Reilly’s movie given how he commands the screen.

Between Reilly, the consistent and often cheer-worthy treatment of character deaths and the spacious, beautifully filmed action Kong will surprise anyone expecting the usual monster fare. However, they will groan at the lack of other character development, and the abundance of characters in general. They may even find the break-neck pacing too much to handle, but it’s all so pretty to look at it’s virtually a non-issue. You came for the ape, and by god you’re gonna get the ape. And John C. Reilly. Both are great.

Grade: B+

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