Monday, March 11, 2013

Kong: Skull Island (2017) (Movie Review)

(NOTE: This post has been replaced with a review of a 2017 movie, just to keep consistency with all the King Kong movie reviews of the month)

    Shared cinematic universes are all the craze now, but it’s nothing new, as some of them date as far back to 1931 with Universals shared monster verse that began with “Dracula”. Another early shared movie universe was Japan’s giant monster series. It began in the 50’s with “Godzilla” and continued with countless other giant monsters that all shared the same franchise. Even America’s King Kong became part of Godzilla’s shared monster-verse for a while. Years later in 2014, the giant monster series was rebooted here in America with a new version of “Godzilla”. Following after it’s modest success, the series continued with a new King Kong origin film titled “Kong: Skull Island”. The time seemed right as it’s been twenty-three years sense the last theatrical Kong movie, and as part of this new shared universe, it had the potential to give us something we’ve never really seen from the ape’s previous films. What really got me excited was the title “Skull Island”, suggesting that this will be a different kind of Kong experience then any of the previous remakes, which all mostly copied and paced the original film. 

      This movie begins with an opening credit montage set to stock footage of historical events from the late 60’s through the early 70’s. We then subtle in 1973 as the base point for this adventure, which I like, as it’s a different time period from the original, but still not in our present day. As one would expect, it’s Vietnam, and the movie is shot and scored just like a film from this period. I’m not sure if the filmmakers are trying to make an allegory of Vietnam in general, but it’s crafted like a Vietnam war movie. Our venture begins when an American satellite discovers a mysterious island hidden from the rest of the world, and a small team of scientists are most eager to go there and explore the possibilities. In truth, this team is secretly following the activities of giant monsters around the world, and they believe this island might be home for one such beast. The military escort on the other hand are taken by surprise, and once they have their first encounter with a giant ape, they wind up getting stranded along with the scientists. It’s soon discovered that the giant ape is named Kong, and he rules over the island like a King. Unfortunately, the military's sudden arrival and subsequent bombings on the surface have stirred up some rather savage beasts, which Kong has been trying to keep buried under ground. Now the group is divided, as some just want to get off the island safely, while the others go out for revenge against Kong after he killed so many troops in his initial attack. In short, this movie is all about an adventure on an island full of giant monsters, with big action sequences spread throughout, and not much else.

     Unlike the other remakes that tried so hard to recapture the majesty of the original, this film goes for strait forward fun, and … for me it works. The whole film is shot and edited like a stylized music video, with an abundance of slow-motion shots, a collection of popular 70’s tunes, and stylish lighting. Visually, I think this might just be the best-looking Kong film, and it’s cut together with a lot of energy. There are also some noteworthy Anime inspired visuals, which I loved seeing incorporated in this film. 
Sense this remake is based on the original live action Japanese monster series, it only makes sense to include visual callbacks to other Japanese properties like “Princess Mononoke” and “Akira”. Skull island itself is very different from any previous movie, as it trades in Dinosaurs for completely original monsters, and unique creature designs. The effects on display for these monsters is top notch, but it’s the creativity in both their designs, and how they interact with the surrounding environments that make them steel the show. There’s a really cool scene when the troops go walking through a forest of bamboo sticks, and in a clever twist, the sticks are actually the legs of a giant spider. There’s another scene in which a soldier sits on a log, which is actually a giant insect of some sort. My favorite design is the giant water buffalo creature, which is one of the friendlier creatures on the island. Actually, I really love that there’s a collection of both dangerous monsters, and peaceful ones, which allows more variety between the different creature encounters. Even the local island natives had a decent upgrade, as they were more peaceful then any of the previous films, offered our heroes a safe haven, and looked more authentic then most other film versions.

       King Kong has never been more exciting, as he’s taller, stronger and more agile then any of the previous films. The opening battle with the helicopters proves his might, whereas all other previous Kong’s always perished when battling armed flying vehicles. Visually, this film dose more things with Kong that might just be his coolest screen shots sense the very first film. Seeing him stand upright and silhouetted against a rising sun is a sheer spectacle to behold, and perhaps my favorite iconic Kong image from any film in the franchise. The downside is that this Kong isn’t as sympathetic, and the audience can’t really form any kind of special connection with him outside of his cool factor. There are moments in which the human characters will bond with Kong, which are okay, but the emotion conveyed just doesn’t resonate like it did in either of the previous 2005 remake or the original. There’s a moment when our female lead tries to free an animal from collapsed rubble, and Kong admiring her compassion comes over to help. This was meant to be the moment when Kong singles out select humans as friends, but for some reason, I’m just not feeling the connection.

    Brie Larson plays our attractive female lead who connects to Kong, and of all the blond girls who have taken a liking to Kong, she might just be the most obvious peace of eye candy of them all.

Naturally, she spends the whole film running around in a bright white, body hugging tank top, but she also has this incredible talent of staying clean the whole time she’s on this island. Despite running through all these dirty locations, or fighting off savage monsters, she consistently looks like someone ready for a fashion shoot. There’s actually a scene when she gets trapped in a monster’s mouth, Kong pulls her out, she falls into a mucky swamp, and in five minutes time, she’s calmly sitting down, and looks like she just had a normal day at the office. To Brie Larson’s credit, she’s certainly trying to give the best performance with what she’s got to work with, but it’s not much. Tom Hiddleston and John Goodman are likewise great talents, and are both a consistently engaging screen presence, but their characters are very one-note, as they each play the part of tracker or businessman, and that’s it. Samuel L. Jackson plays a military officer dead set on killing Kong out of vengeance for his fallen comrades, but that’s just it. He’s the figurative Captain Ahab, but there’s nothing of nuance beneath the surface. Thankfully Samuel L. Jackson is one of those talents that can make any character performance work in his favor, and he’s very exciting to watch. The absolute best character of the whole movie is a marooned World War II pilot played by John C. Reilly. Basically, he serves as the expositional mouthpiece who fills everyone in on the island backstory, but he also had his own personal human layers, emotional stakes, a witty personality, and John C. Reilly really balanced his quirks with some genuine charm and likability. In general, all the characters are stock cutouts with a single function or quirk, but I have no problems with the cast, and I find myself coasting along just fine with the talent on display. 

       At last we have the Skull Crawlers, which are giant lizard creatures that become the main threat for our hero’s to face. These are the only creature designs that I didn’t really care for, as every other creature looked so unique by comparison, and these just looked like designs pulled right off the shelf. 
While they functioned as deadly obstacles for our heroes to face or for Kong to fight, there was something incredibly generic about their presence, which robbed them of any real excitement whenever they appeared on screen. There is one cool sequence in a smoky waist land, where the team battle these beasts, and it’s an exciting action set-piece. The final showdown between Kong and the lead Skull Crawler is really fun to watch and features all the cool stuff a giant monster fight has to offer. There’s an awesome un-edited shot following Kong as he fights the creature, while the camera orbits the action, which got me hyped. Also, seeing Kong launch a rusted boat propeller into the monsters back was great. This might just be my favorite Kong vs monster fight of the whole series … at least, up till this point … I’m sure his inevitable rematch with Godzilla will be sensational. My favorite scene of the whole film is a mid-credit sequence in which John C. Reilly’s character returns home and reunites with his family … and even meets his full-grown son, who he’d never met before being stranded. It was a genuinely heart felt scene, and one that surprisingly got my chocked up. Of course, there’s the inevitable teaser that Godzilla and other classic giant Japanize monsters are on the way, which I suppose was exciting to see. Personally, while I’m all for seeing these monsters come together, I just don’t want to see another franchise follow Marvels winning formula beat for beat.

       In the end, no other film in the “King Kong” series could ever be a triumph like that first movie, so with that in mind, I always judge these follow-up Kong movies on the grounds of entertaining B films. In this regard, I find “Kong: Skull Island” to be the most thoroughly entertaining Kong installment, and I really wouldn’t ask anything more from it. The characters may have been paper thin, but the cast held their own just fine. King Kong himself may not have been as sentimental, but he was unmistakably an entertaining presence. The remaining monsters made for passively entertaining creatures, and the battles were a lot of fun. Truthfully, I think this movie was very wise to go for strait forward entertainment, as opposed to trying to recapture the same majesty of the original, unlike every previous remake that tried and failed to do so. I probably won’t be making a tradition of re-watching this film, but for a simple, entertaining waste of time, I felt this film knew exactly what it wanted to be, and I enjoyed it for what it was.

I give “Kong: Skull Island” 3 ½ stars out of 5. 

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