Kong: skull island
review by dara mcwade
Kong: Skull Island is a stylish and fast adventure movie, and it never needed to be anything but fun to be good.
Let me put this out there first - Kong: Skull Island surprised me. There is an anxiety around big monster or horror studio blockbuster franchise starters like Kong, after so many bad ones. Dracula Unchained, Van Helsing, Roland Emmerich's Godzilla - there have been been more bad or underwhelming entries than good over the years. Legendary, the studio behind Kong, did prove that they are committed to making quality monster movies with Gareth Edwards' 2014 Godzilla, a divisive but ultimately worthy film, but the early trailers and news around Kong suggested a continuation of the drudgery. I am more than happy to report, however, that Kong is one hell of a good time. Stylish, pacey, funny and legitimately spooky, Skull Island is a place that you'll want to spend some time on.
Taking as many cues from Apocalypse Now and Journey to the Centre of the Earth as previous King Kong films, Kong builds its own thematic premise out of a genre-standard plot: a government agency, represented here by the inimitable and always-entertaining John Goodman, leads an expedition to an unknown area, and bad things happen. The difference is, of course, all in the details. Vogt-Roberts pitches the film as a Vietnam movie with monsters, and it shows: the film is set against a backdrop of the disastrous end to that war, with soldier characters scarred and affected by their time in combat. In introducing this aspect early, it also manages to turn the investigation of the island into a metaphor for the Vietnam war, with the US often creating enemies in their attempts to curb enemies. Yet within all this talk of politics and war, the film remains an adventure movie, introducing us and the characters to a new world to explore.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, best known before this for low-budget indie darling The Kings of Summer, brings his A-game to the ultra-budget world of monsters and creepy crawlies, managing to keep a sense of personal style in the often homogeneous blockbuster market. The opening team-gathering scenes, often the most boring part of any genre film here excite, with intense lighting and visuals, fast and clever editing and a sense of pacing that builds to the expedition quickly. The team itself is surprisingly well-developed, the cast is large but each member of the team from the soldiers to the civilians are given a personality that make their red-shirt status seem less cynical. While the film does give many minor characters an extra shot, this does come at the expense of two stars. Tom Hiddlestone's "sexy veteran" and Brie Larson's "spunky photo-journalist" characters are a little one-note, but the pair do get some good moments, including awesome scene where Hiddlestone chops flying monsters from the sky in a tank top and a gas mask surrounded by yellowish-green toxins.
The film belongs to two characters though; Samuel L Jackson imbues the traditional gung-ho general with a wounded pride and a sense of genuine affection for his men, and the film uses his iconic energy to legitimise the stakes in the conflict between him an Kong. You'll believe Sam Jackson can kill the beast. The true surprise in this film however is John C Reilly, who appears a third into the film as a sort of stealth protagonist - a WWII soldier trapped on the island for the past 40 years, he is the one that introduces the audience to the idea that Kong is God, and protector, of the island. He's gone native, in a way - but the film knows that going native isn't always a bad thing.
But a monster film would be nothing without the monsters, and in that, the film delivers. I would hesitate to spoil some of the wonders that the film puts into its intricately designed Skull Island, but Kong has wonderful design of creatures and locales that make the world feel lived in and terrifying. Kong himself is wonderfully realised - a 50 foot tall imposing gorilla that you can still recognise as having a human spirit. Much of this is down to Toby Kebbell, who cut his motion-capture teeth on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and appears here (less memorably) in person as one of the soldiers as well.
The film itself shouldn't work. It's big-budget studio schlock with a large cast, a franchise premise and an island full of potential CGI disasters. Yet, Kong: Skull Island works, keeping you laughing and on the edge of your seat until the end of the film. It is that most unlikely of films, quite like Kong himself, that most unlikely of heroes. In the end, beauty did not kill this beast.