Friday, March 10, 2017

'Kong: Skull Island' Review: Lots of Awesome Ape; Very Little Good Story


Four Star Rating: **½

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, Corey Hawkins, John Goodman
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenplay: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
Story By: John Gatins
Source Material: King Kong by Merian C. Cooper & Edgar Wallace
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction
Rated: 14A (Canada)/PG-13 (US) - violence, coarse language
Release Date: March 10, 2017
Run Time: 118 minutes

King Kong is one of the most iconic monsters in movie history. He first wowed audiences in the 1933 box office smash hit, and has gone on to beat his chest and smash all in his path in seven more movies (along with various comics, novels and cartoons). It was inevitable the gigantic ape would return to the big screen, especially in an era where studios are obsessed with spawning franchises based off recognizable characters and stories. This time Kong: Skull Island isn't a prequel or remake, but a completely different story about a monstrous ape that happens to the have the name Kong. He has that name because studio executives decided this movie would sell more tickets with the famous name rather than calling it The Island of the Monster Gorilla (though could Asylum please make that movie?). They also need the world's most famous ape to achieve the movies' major goal of connecting itself with Gareth Edwards' Godzilla to create a "giant monster cinematic universe", and the purpose is even more obvious with the post-credit scene that is designed to get people salivating for the eventual main event of the two titans clashing (along with a few other well-known big beasties).

There are some clear similarities between the two movies, including the idea man is messing with our environment, there are things in nature that are greater than man, and nature has its grand protectors to ensure its survival. Of course, the importance of caring for our environment and humans needing to show respect to the magnificence of our world has been a major theme in almost all big giant monster movies. But this movie only plays token service to it where it is just treated as an obligation that it quickly wants to get out of the way.

Kong: Skull Island is far more interested in being a big special effects spectacle with massive set pieces and big monster brawls. This would be the major difference between this movie and the Edwards' 2014 giant lizard flick. Godzilla is a slow-build to its eventual appearance and even then it is usually only a few seconds of screen time throughout. In this movie, we witness Kong's huge head in the prologue and then he is back in all his glory in less than 20 minutes, where he is smashing down helicopters and stomping on shocked soldiers. There is no doubt that Kong is the star of this movie and gets ample screen time.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts delivers a movie that will appeal to those itching for battles between Kong and giant monsters along with all sorts of carnage for the humans. Cinematographer Larry Fong captures a beautiful and exotic jungle that throws us right into the adventure. Vogt-Roberts and his special effects teams makes several spectacular looking giant beasts including an Eiffel Tower sized spider, enormous water-buffalo-like creatures, freaky-looking pterodactyls, and the real villains of the movie, humungous lizard atrocities known as Skullcrawlers (but you can call them whatever you like). Along with Kong, for the most they look like fully breathing creatures that we can touch and then be eaten by (there are a few scenes where some of the creatures clearly show they're CGI creations). You get cool looking scenes like Kong attacking and them slurping up a giant squid. The showdowns between Kong and Skullcrawlers are great popcorn spectacle. Vogt-Roberts channels the roots of B-Movies with several fun kills where poor humans get things like giant spider legs crammed down their throat or get torn apart by pterodactyls. If you came for the monster mayhem then this picture more than delivers.

The movie runs at one hour and fifty minutes, which is significantly shorter than Peter Jackson's excessive three hours and twenty minutes King Kong from 2005. Yet it is this shorter Kong that at times drags and comes off feeling a bit too long. This comes down to the screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly that may be crammed with cool monsters but lacks fully-fleshed out characters or any interesting story for them to be in. It seems they just hoped that if they stuffed the movie with a dozen human bodies that eventually they could stumble upon someone interesting.

Instead, we have characters who are largely defined by their profession and almost nothing else: Tom Hiddleston is James Conrad the tracker who is getting paid good money to take on this expedition, Brie Larson is anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (who has no purpose to this movie other than to have one tender moment with the big ape), John Goodman is Bill Randa the man who pushed for this expedition to prove monsters exist, Corey Hawkins gets points for playing against type as a geeky scientist (he is the star of the new 24: Legacy and was Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton) but he still lacks any depth, Tian Jing plays generic biologist San so that there is a star for the Asian market (she was also the not quite love interest in The Great Wall), Samuel L. Jackson has some actual layers as the Lieutenant Colonel Packard the squadron leader who has lost some meaning after the Vietnam War ends, and then several throwaway soldiers that mostly exist as fodder.

The one relatable character is also the movies expository dialogue giver and comic relief, in John C. Reilly's Hank Marlow a World War 2 fighter jet pilot that has been stranded on the island since 1944 (the movie is set in 1973). Reilly is having a blast with the role and brings the movie's laughs but also provides some of the humanity. Marlow has grown to have respect for the island, has a strong relationship with the island's tribe (a group that worships Kong as a god), but also misses the life he had almost 30 years ago. It is the lone emotional thrust of the story as a man conflicted with the leaving the family he has now because of the chance to see the family he once had. While no other character is given any kind of depth, I should mention that even though Larson's character really has no purpose that her incredible natural screen presence and her ability to nail a throwaway moment where she interacts with the natives, she still makes you care about her. She is a natural movie superstar, and it is a crime she wasn't given more to do.

The plot really isn't much, but it doesn't have to be. The crew is now stuck on the island because they angered Kong by dropping bombs and he showed is disapproval by swatting them like flies. They need to try to get to the rendezvous location so that they can get back home and prove to the world that monsters exist. There is also an anti-war message and Vogt-Roberts achieves this by creating images and using a classic rock soundtrack that reminds of memorable anti-Vietnam pictures like Apocalypse Now and Platoon (based off characters with names Marlow and Conrad, obvious some heavy Heart of Darkness influence).

There is also a pretty great scene where there is fire blazing in the jungle and Jackson's Packard has a hideous smirk as he has a stare down with Kong after the ape had just killed several of his men. He wants revenge on the ape, but in that moment, you also get the sense that the man who was just ordered to pull out of Vietnam now has a purpose again with his "Ahab chasing Moby Dick" like quest to kill the ape. Sure he really wants revenge, but he wants a war to drive him even more. That great image never really gets a proper follow-through, as the movie is less interested in exploring an anti-war allegory and more interested in having Kong rumble with the Skullcrawlers.

The action sequences prove that Vogt-Roberts, who was plucked from the indy scene with his coming of age movie The Kings of Summer, has the chops to provide the visual magic for the big budget extravaganzas. Though there are a few moments that leans a bit heavy on dated techniques like slo-mo action moments or heavily dollops of CGI when practical effects would have been better. Most of the style choices seem to be more because someone thought it would look cool or that it is what big budget movies do rather than it telling a story. That would be the biggest issue, there are thrills and awe here but it doesn't feel like it is ever really saying anything. This also seems to be a good time to mention that if you are going to see this movie that the 3D version follows the usual trend of adding absolutely nothing and it is better to save a few bucks if you have the option.

If you just want big monsters beating each other up, then this movie delivers and you'll be going home happy. As someone who was a child who gobbled up the classic monster movies (and not so classic), there were scenes where I was captivated and filled with joy. This is also yet another example of a big studio movie that lacks soul and heart, and is just a series of wonderful special effects and loud noise dancing on the screen. You may be entertained, but in the end it feels more like product than art. This is here to whet our appetite for the already scheduled King Kong vs. Godzilla, and there is something really annoying about that. You could spend money on a ticket for this, but there is also a strong chance that two truly director-driven and emotionally packed movies in Get Out and Logan are still playing near you, and so go see them first.

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