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Sunday, 19 March 2017

Review: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Warning: Contains Some Spoilers
Kong: Skull Island
I went to see two movies this week and my love of kaiju movies made me want to review Kong: Skull Island. I am a huge fan of King Kong. The original 1933 classic is in my top ten movie list, I was blown away by Peter Jackson's epic movie, and I endlessly watched Toho's King Kong vs. Godzilla when I was younger. I even enjoyed Dino De Laurentiis' 1976 remake. However, going into Skull Island you have to go in expecting a kaiju movie, not a Kong movie. Most of the harshest reviews of this movie which I have seen expected a Kong movie, (which is expected considering Kong is the titular character), and hence were disappointed. I went in knowing that this was more like a kaiju movie so my expectations were much lower compared to other people. Skull Island is a fun but flawed movie.

As the United States is withdrawing from Vietnam Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) of Monarch (from the 2014 Godzilla) organize an expedition to the newly discovered Skull Island. They recruit former SAS captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to act as a tracker, antiwar photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) to escort the expedition. Under the guise of a geological survey they arrive on Skull Island and start launching explosive which are supposedly used to map out the island's topography. However, this draws out Kong (motion captured by Terry Notary) who attacks the group. The expedition is split in two with one half wanting to escape the deadly island, meeting a stranded World War Two pilot (John C. Reilly), while the other half under Packard tries to kill Kong in revenge for killing some of the soldiers.

The plot is very simplistic. This is no Cooper or Jackson Kong. With this in mind it is a good standard kaiju movie and reminded quite a bit of the classic B-movie monster flicks like Creature from the Black Lagoon or some of the Showa Godzilla movies. However, it is lacking something which could make it even greater. Pacific Rim showed us that you can have a simplistic plot which is really engaging. I watched Pacific Rim and thought 'I want to see the characters and the monsters' whereas with Skull Island I just thought 'I want to see Kong'. There is only a handful of character development scenes which seem quite shoehorned in. Marvel movies have shown that you can have action oriented, light-hearted plots but still have good character development. With Skull Island this felt like it was a last minute decision due to the high profile cast. 

Acting and Characters
Some of the Cast
Skull Island has a dichotomy towards the characters/actors. It has good acting but appallingly written characters. A friend of mine described it well: good acting but in the wrong roles. It is a shame as well considering that Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, and John Goodman, (normally fantastic actors), are given quite forgettable characters whose entire character is based around one trope. Of those three actors I only learnt one of their characters' name. I actually forgot at one part that Tian Jing was in the movie. On top of that there are several scenes where they try and develop these characters but they are so short that they leave much to be desired. My two particular favorites both involve Brie Larson and Kong which were very well done. However, I would hazard a guess that they add up to a total of ten minutes. However, there are some really well done characters in this movie. Particularly those of Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly. They were surprisingly well written and the charisma of their actors helped pull off the character. Jackson in particular was great. He struck as someone like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. Near the start of the movie as the Vietnam War is ending for the USA he acts disheveled but when he gets a call for the Skull Island mission he perks up. This was a character who had become devoted to war. It was interesting watching him become more and more consumed by his vendetta towards Kong. Also, I found it quite amusing seeing him say 'bitch please'. For some reason I found it quite funny. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed Shea Whigham as well. It was a small thing but really well done.

Skull Island has a strange tone to it. At times it is deathly serious while at other times it is extremely goofy. When Kong first attacks it is a brutal scene but just as he was going to bite one soldier it cuts to someone eating a sandwich. It is okay to have a goofy movie which has serious parts to it, Marvel has done extremely well with this format, but I felt at times it went too serious and too goofy. I felt that a tone similar to Pacific Rim could have worked to Skull Island's benefit. The serious moments really did work well, and conversely the more light-hearted moments did so as well. The movie takes much influence to movies about the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War the US army fought the Vietcong who were guerrillas, and here the US army fought King Kong who was a gorilla...I saw homages to Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket which were creatively put into the movie. However, like with the character development scenes it feels lacking. One character mentions how they went to Vietnam and created an enemy which ties in the idea that Kong was only their enemy as they made him their enemy. When they did that connection it was really good but it could have had more to it. Also, I was grateful that they toned down the stereotypes for the tribal people in this movie compared to the others. Surprisingly it was the only thing which I preferred in this one to the others.

As everyone who has read my blog before knows that I much prefer practical effects to CGI. Skull Island falls into a recent slew of movies, including Godzilla and Jurassic World, which could have benefited from the usage of more practical effects. As The Force Awakens, Mad Max: Fury Road and Rogue One have shown you can mix practical effects with CGI to make a visually stunning movie. The scene where Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston and Kong interact could have worked well with some practical effects. However, the CGI for Kong and the other monsters was fantastic. Kong was created via motion capture like in Jackson's King Kong and the recent Planet of the Apes films. It made the action scenes extremely good and this shows in the last third of the movie. The monster fights are spectacular in this movie. It is also a surprisingly gory and brutal movie which I did not expect. Characters are impaled by a giant spider, arms ripped off by a bird/bat/pterosaur creature, and the 'skullcrawlers' are torn apart by Kong. This is by far the most gory Kong movie. Although the monster and fighting CGI was done well some ambient CGI was not done as well. There is one scene where Hiddleston and Larson are watching an aurora which looks really fake, and there are two scenes with explosions surrounding Kong with the human characters which looked too fake. It resembled something from a early 2010s video game rather than a big budget movie. Overall the CGI was a mixed bag.

World/References (Contains spoilers!)
A possible reference
Skull Island is full of references to previous Kong movies, future movies and non-kaiju movies (excluding the prior mentioned Vietnam movies). My particular favorite is when the expedition is approaching Skull Island Samuel L. Jackson says 'Hold on to your butts'. One of my all time favorite movies is Jurassic Park and Jackson's character says this line in that movie. The movie is primarily filmed in two areas: Vietnam and Hawaii. One of the Hawaii locations was Kualoa Ranch where both Jurassic Park and Jurassic World were filmed, and of course dinosaurs live on Skull Island (although the only dinosaur we see is a Triceratops skull). There is also a reference to Them! (a movie about giant killer ants) when Reilly mentions that birds in the trees could be giant ants; in Them! the ants sound like birds. At one point Kong fights a giant octopus which he also fights in King Kong vs. Godzilla but in this movie he eats the octopus. This could be a reference to Eiji Tsuburaya, who did the effects for King Kong vs. Godzilla, as he ate one an octopus which was shown in that movie. Speaking of Godzilla this movie is set in the same universe as the 2014 Godzilla, now called the MonsterVerse. Both Monarch and MUTOs from Godzilla are mentioned in this movie as well as the 1954 nuclear tests (in this cinematic universe the tests were actually trying to kill Godzilla). It seems that everyone is trying to copy the Marvel success; we have the MonsterVerse, the DC Extended Universe, and Universal is trying to do the same with their monsters starting with The Mummy. In 2020 Legendary is planning to release King Kong vs. Godzilla and. the Kong in this movie is far taller and more bipedal compared to past Kong's. There is even an after credit scene showing cave paintings of Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah (as well as Godzilla's roar), foreshadowing Godzilla: King of Monsters. It is strange how a cinematic universe which I was not expecting to exist has been thought out more compared to the DCEU...

Kong: Skull Island is a flawed movie but I thoroughly enjoyed it. If you go in expecting King Kong you will be disappointed but if you just want to see a giant ape fight giant monsters you will enjoy the movie. Although I am overall against creating cinematic universes as I feel they easily fall into the trap of being rushed, a big marketing tool for the next big marketing tool, and stifling creativity I am more forgiving towards Skull Island. It feels like it is its own movie and not trying to advertise the next movie like Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad were. However, for the clash in 2020 I hope they chose a tone similar to that of Godzilla or Pacific Rim over the tone of this movie. Overall, I give Kong: Skull Island a 6.8/10.  

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