Film Review: ‘Kong: Skull Island’ is a Visual Spectacle

“Is that a monkey?”

The iconic story of the colossal ape King Kong has been made and re-made then re-made again. Then again, just for franchise’s sake. Since its first appearance in 1933, the film has been an orbital presence in Hollywood for filmmakers and storytellers. Frequently classed as one of the greatest horror films of all time and somehow important to the surrealist movement, it has captured the basic question of man and nature and asked, is there really anything left to be afraid of?

Jordan Vogt-Roberts has made the leap from directing a small indie-flick (The Kings of Summer) to a major commercial blockbuster without any hesitation. The cinematic beauty of Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island has moments that are so artfully shot, the sheer thrill of watching something so breathtaking and destructive makes you enjoy the film even more. Humorous, charming and bolstered by a fantastic ensemble cast, the film’s success mainly lies in its ability to not take itself too seriously. While visually stunning it is, self-reflective it is not. Moving at an almost breakneck pace, there’s not a moment of rumination to anchor the characters in some of the truly gorgeous action scenes.

The most recent and notable remake of King Kong was Peter Jackson’s feature in 2005. Set in the time period the original film was made, Jackson captured the pervasive materialism of that era and used it to explore the moral implications of caging Kong for profit. He managed to tap into the devastating majesty of the creature and, more importantly, the humanity of the characters who in their own awe and horror created a connection with the monstrous Kong. This makes the film all the more tragic. Yet when anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson)—Vogt-Roberts’ reinvention of the older films’ vaudeville actress Ann Darrow—sheds a tear as she touches Kong, there is so little depth to Kong and Weaver’s relationship, it’s a little weird.

The film’s first five minutes are statured by historic clips of media sensationalism; the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, Russia and America’s quest to conquer space and protests which culminate in Nixon announcing the end of the war in Vietnam. Reality, grounded in the technological progress of satellites and a pursuit of knowledge, is unsteadily juxtaposed with its contradiction. The mythic creature who inspires fear and sympathy, who oscillates between monster and anti-hero, a paragon of destruction, chaos and sentience, Kong is at the center of a simultaneous confusion and demystification. For Kong: Skull Island, ideas are ripe for the plucking but the screenplay falls short of exploring even one of them thoroughly. Instead, it tries tell them all at once. The effect is that the film leaves behind some of its key moral questions as it hastens to push the story forward. 

Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are officials from Monarch, a governmental organization that—if you’ve seen the 2014 remake of Godzilla—you’ll remember attempts to study and understand it. Monarch’s purposes are meant to be scientifically allied, but that’s not the reason why Randa convinces the US government to provide military assistance in the form of helicopter squad, led by Samuel L. Jackson as directly decorated Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard, so that they can preform a geological mapping of a newly discovered island. Along with James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a tracker, and Weaver, who attaches herself to Randa’s crew for vague purposes, a magnificent special effects adventure ensues. The purpose is dissatisfying. It doesn’t pierce the thick bubble of questions that arose earlier in the film and the emotional gravity of seeing Kong, experiencing his presence is lost on us. Questions of humanity’s interest in exploring the unknown, the deep-rooted dissatisfaction that this is all there is, our inherent desire to best nature and command it as the apex predator, lurk muddily on the surface and are never fully realized.

Character dimensionality is replaced with superficial backstories and sacrificed in favor of exhilarating action. For the plot to move forward, for all its moving pieces to click together and form a reason for Godzilla v. Kong to exist, these things must go. Disappointingly, however, Packard was given the “I want revenge” excuse to justify his role as the slowly unhinging villain. It’s not my favorite excuse and, in fact, it’s not even a good excuse because we don’t care about any of the soldiers that die in order to spur Packard to revenge. If we don’t care, we can’t convince ourselves that Packard cares either.

The tension between Kong, mythologized and unknowable, Randa’s desire find Kong and Packard’s obsession with him is thinned by Randa constantly, and ominously, pandering to us that the earth never belonged to man. This is supposed to be the film’s central message, that humanity’s own insignificance is unknown because the truth of these God-like creatures remain undiscovered. This is very important for some reason. Maybe because of our hubris? We can speculate further what it all means when the next movie comes out. As it so happens, in Legendary Entertainment and Toho’s MonsterVerse franchise, this film acts like a filler chapter rather than a definitive story of its own when considered along with Godzilla. Yet it still provides the fun and adventure and escapism we all go to the movies for.

The action sequences are truly terrific to watch and even though they’re not as suspenseful or as horrifying as you’d expect, at least they don’t last for too long. It is, on the brighter side, equipped with great moments of comedy and has a pleasantly surprising and wonderful performance from John C. Reilly, playing stranded World War II solider Hank Marlow. If you’re looking to be entertained, then look no further.

Kong: Skull Island opens in theaters on March 10th. 

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Oritz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly.
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Writers:Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly

Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Running time: 1 hour and 58 minutes.
Rating: PG-13. Someone says the F word. 

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