Film Review: Kong: Skull Island
The story of King Kong is rebooted into the MonsterVerse with a new origin story taking place on Skull Island, Kong's home, where he has lived undetected and in balance with the rest of the fauna and flora on the island. Of course, humans invade and chaos ensues.
Kong: Skull Island
is the second movie in Legendary Entertainment's "MonsterVerse", which is a multi-film monster universe that features the big monsters, such as Godzilla and (likely) Mothra, many of which are owned by Japanese company Toho. The first movie in the MonsterVerse was the 2014 Godzilla
(MonsterVerse is similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or DC Extended Universe - but don't confuse it with the upcoming Universal Monsters, which is Universal Studio's universe that features The Mummy, Van Helsing, The Invisible Man, and Frankenstein's Monster, among others. Everyone is getting into crossover universes - we're going to be assaulted with this for a long time.)
Kong: Skull Island
is set in 1973 and serves to expand our knowledge of the shady governmental scientific organisation Monarch, which is at the heart of the MonsterVerse and serves as the storyline thread that connects the big monsters together. Monarch is out to prove that MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) exist and are largely living underground undetected and are therefore a ticking time bomb, which is explored (chronologically) later in Godzilla
in 1999 when Monarch scientists discover a specific species of MUTO in the Philippines (confusingly called Winged MUTO and Eight-Legged MUTO - they don't have a proper species name).
In 1973 a Monarch scientist, William Randa (John Goodman), convinces the government to fund an expedition to the uncharted Skull Island, an island in the Pacific that is usually obscured from satellites due to a violent, permanent storm that prevents detection of the land mass. The team includes former British Special Air Service captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston); the Sky Devils helicopter squadron led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson) that has just finished its tour of Vietnam due to the US having "withdrawn" from, not having "lost" the war; two more members of Monarch, seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) and biologist San Lin (Jing Tian); scientists from an organisation callled Landsat; and anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).
Randa's intention is, of course, to prove his MUTO theory (and that he's not a crackpot) but he disguises the project as a mapping and research expedition that requires military assistance to fly through the storm and reach the island and then guide and safeguard everyone, led by Conrad, to an extraction point once they've finished their research so they can get off the island during a rare break in the storm, else they will be stuck there.
Once they reach the island the military starts dropping explosives developed by Brooks to "research" whether the ground is hollow and map the topology and, as a result, all hell breaks loose because they're intruding on, and destroying, the domain of King Kong and a number of other species that had been living in equilibrium before the arrival of the destructive humans.
That's the essence of the plot. However I don't quite know what to make of this movie. It's a mix of some very accomplished filmmaking and some strange, occasionally troubling, scenes and decisions.
I'll start with the special effects and CGI. Most of the monster CGI is fantastic and looks incredibly real - Kong's fur is amazingly well rendered and there's even almost a spark of emotion and intelligence in his eyes. There are times when he fights in water and you can't tell what's been rendered and what's been filmed. In contrast there are occasional human based special effects that look awful and are badly animated, which came as a surprise.
Speaking of the humans, there are only two prominent female characters in this movie, although that is to be expected since it's set in 1973 at the end of the Vietnam War. One, biologist San Lin, has a few moments and wields a weapon deftly but largely has nothing to do or say. The other is photojournalist Madison Weaver, who is treated better by the story than I was expecting, which is helped immensely by the acting skills of Brie Larson, who portrays her and is able to give her substance even in moments in which she is barely being utilised. She has been paired well with Tom Hiddleston, who is the other highlight of the movie. They're just both great actors and their scenes are the best human-centred scenes in the movie (rather than the monster-centred scenes, which is actually what this film is about). It's similar to the phenomenal casting of Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche in Godzilla
, although their potential was then wasted to give younger, very bland characters more screen time.
Predictably most of the military personnel are expendable and the film makes no effort to develop the bulk of the characters, which would go a long way to making their deaths have meaning and carry some emotional weight to give this movie some substance rather than just be gratuitous destruction porn. Many, in fact, are just background actors who are there and gone so that there can be death without the main characters having to be involved, so much so that there was even one scene where I thought "Where did those guys even come from?" and then seconds later they were dead.
There is also a fictional Pacific Island tribe that makes an appearance in the film, which I found to be problematic. Most of the tribe members look, genealogically, Southeast Asian, but are dressed and decorated in very eye catching costumes and makeup that I don't think is based on any particular culture. (I certainly hope not or appropriation becomes another concern.) The tribe is described as having reached a state of equality and peacefulness. No one owns possessions, everyone pitches in with chores and work to benefit the whole, men and women are equally valued - and no one speaks. They do communicate - through ethereal vibes - but no one speaks. This is what I particularly struggled with. Their lack of speaking coupled with - I have to admit it - beautiful visual design turns them into
fetishised or exocitised presences that serve only to make the film look better. They're muted - only the Westernised people speak - and so they exist purely as decoration.
I couldn't get past it, I couldn't justify it, and so it made me uncomfortable.
Another strange filmmaking choice was to have Kong revealed within the first five minutes of the movie. Godzilla
built anticipation over half the movie with hints and glimpses so the reveal was quite exciting. In Kong: Skull Island
it's immediate. The only explanation that I can come up with for this is that the film-makers wanted to emphasise, right away, that Kong is the star - and hero - of this movie, whereas in other monster movies it's not always clear whether the monster is the hero or the villain. This film reminds us that the humans are incidental - and nuisances.
I think this being intentional is a bit of a stretch but I don't know. It seems more likely to be bad film-making. The trailer that was screened at Comic-Con (which is embedded below) does a better job of building suspense and intrigue. (If you haven't seen any trailers I'd suggest not watching any of the others as they give away many of the surprises in the movie.)
A final aspect of the film that really bothered me was how the camera frequently interrupts the flow to pan towards what would be outdated technological equipment by today's standards so that it can zoom in for an extreme close-up as if to say "Look! A desk telephone!", "Look! A film camera!", "Look! A vinyl record player!", "Look! A slide projector", and on and on as if each is some sort of Instagrammable moment. It was so ridiculous I hope somebody makes a parody of it using cellular phones, tablets, smart watches, game consoles, and VR headsets. The stylistic choice was jarring and completely unnecessary.
The film does have style, however, and it's embodied primarily in the rest of the cinematography. Locations in Vietnam, and a few in Oahu, Hawaii, and Gold Cost, Australia, stand in for various parts of Skull Island and the cameras pick up their beauty and vastness. The soundtrack, too, blasts hits from the 1970s at appropriate times and is very enjoyable, although it's let down by the score, by Henry Jackman, which is functional but not remotely notable.
Kong: Skull Island:
is basically a cross between Jurassic Park
, and Apocalypse Now
with some impressive visual effects and breathtaking cinematography that are worth seeing whether or not you're interested in the story of Kong, his island, and the humans who appear and cause destruction because they feel that they are entitled to do it. (To the movie's credit it doesn't try to position the humans as the good guys, although some of the characters think they are.)
This is a monster movie and it keeps that at the forefront, reminding us about what inhabits the island and what, once awakened by humans, could be coming for the rest of the planet, which sets up future MonsterVerse potential, such as the inevitable clash between Kong and Gozdilla, which is scheduled for 2020.
If you know what you're going in for you won't be disappointed.
Kong: Skull Island was written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly, and John Gatins, is directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and stars Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L Jackson, Brie Larson, John C Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, and Marc Evan Jackson.
The press screening was courtesy of Times Media Films.