Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island ★★★½

2017 Ranked
Seen in Theaters

Batman: Do you bleed?
Kong: Yeah. Quite a bit actually.

Dear Billy,

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Kong: Skull Island is his chance at a Vietnam War. In his sophomore feature, Vogt-Roberts seems to have some self-recognition that he will never get to direct a Vietnam War film. This is not a shot at him, as he is certainly a promising young director with both this and his debut Kings of Summer standing as solid starts that show he is capable of handling both small intimate films and huge films of epic proportions. While neither are particularly great, they are both capable films nonetheless. In this film, he takes his chance to add as much Vietnam imagery as possible by setting the film in 1973 and also tossing in some Cold War paranoia for good measure in this story of a group of people wandering the jungles on a mission, encountering a remote tribe, and facing a being that the tribe sees as a god. Did Francis Ford Coppola not make this film, sans the big monkey, in 1979?

Wearing this Apocalypse Now influence on its sleeve, Vogt-Roberts shows a love of both gratuitous shots of helicopters flying into the island or of the smell of napalm in the morning when Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to dump napalm on Kong. Yet, as with all Kong films, it must run through the beats of the story. Fortunately, Vogt-Roberts improves upon Peter Jackson's recent rendition. By chopping off an hour, the film is not so dreadfully long, which is really a major benefit. Give me the dinosaurs, but not for too long. Give me some backstory, but not extended scenes in a boat and trying to get funding for the trip. This latest edition streamlines it, yet still has the time to get into very compelling mythology regarding Skull Island and the nature of Kong as well as the other beasts that call Skull Island home. Additionally, some of the more unsavory elements of Jackson's films included its depiction of the natives of Skull Island. Depicting them as horrible savages out to kill white people, Jackson's film indulges in nasty stereotypes that create a truly captivating opening scene in that film, but that hardly justifies the racism. With Skull Island, Vogt-Roberts dispatches of this nastiness and instead has a smart and respected tribe in the center of Skull Island. Playing host to WWII veteran Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) for 28 years, these are no savages and Vogt-Roberts never pretends they are. Instead, the tribe is given its due respect throughout the film. This latest film also ditches the racist undertones of past Kong films. From the original to various remakes, critics have shown the parallel between King Kong being an ape (as black people have often been derogatorily been referred to as "monkeys") and the white/blonde damsel in distress that he clutches in his hand. To critics, it has been a parallel between the perceived assault on the white race by black America. Now, whether or not you buy that or not, I did once have a film professor who claimed that it was why no studio could have an American direct King Kong again, as that parallel had been made. She was not entirely wrong, even if Vogt-Roberts is American as Brie Larson is never a damsel in distress or screeching in his paw, which Naomi Watts did often in 2005. Instead, he holds her once and it is to save her. By then, she had already established that he was not an enemy and was passed out anyways, so no concerns there from her. Of all of its updates, ditching the possible racist undertones is certainly a major plus, regardless of whether you buy into that angle or not.

However, Vogt-Roberts' influences also come via the heavily 70s soundtrack, references, and the political situation at the time. Fortunately, it does actually have a lot to do with the plot. As the Cold War is burning brightly and the Americans are coming off a loss in Vietnam, the whole country needs a win. This mission to Skull Island is that win. Finding new species' or a new island would re-establish America as the top dog in the world and, as such, is a major effort even if it takes some convincing. Yet, what the film does very well with its 1970s post-Vietnam setting is to show the men trying to regroup and go back to war, even if it is a different kind of war. The men are resistant and constantly thinking home. From writing letters, discussing home, or making references to what they will do once they get there, the men form a common bond of trying to make the best of the situation. Yet, on the flip side men such as Packard or James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) need this war. Even photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) needs the war, though she is anti-war. The three of them have nothing left to do after the end of the Vietnam War and the Skull Island job represents another opportunity to feel useful in the world at a time when opportunities were scarce.

That said, in spite of all of the updates and the post-war themes at play here in the sea of disillusionment that was the post-war 1970s, Kong: Skull Island is a King Kong film. Fighting the god of Skull Island and facing off with the various monsters that also call it home, we get to see Kong rip apart a giant squid and exact revenge on the skullcrawler that killed his family. This is definitively one of those films that shows Kong as a tragic figure with him serving as the protector of the tribe that calls the island home, as well as the benevolent animals that exist there. Defending them against the skullcrawlers, Kong is a lonely and incredibly sad figure. Juxtaposing his sheer size with how small and lonely he has become after having his entire family killed, we get a pretty solemn take on the giant ape that makes the attacks lodged against him by the military even harder to watch. In terms of the action, however, Vogt-Roberts stages every scene with Kong incredibly well and really makes them pack a punch throughout. Yet, the peak of this film comes with the skullcrawlers surrounding the human characters in the mass grave of Kong's family. With nothing but the clicking of a camera inside the skullcrawler to let them know where it is while lost in a sea of bones and a cloud of smoke, the scene is terrifically captured and easily the most tense moment of the film. Though the opening in Skull Island with Kong knocking helicopters out of the sky is similarly tense, we know that only the nameless characters played by actors we have never seen before will die. In the skullcrawler scene, the film has already developed a willingness to kill its cast and is unafraid to indulge in this throughout. As such, this sequence keeps the audience on edge and fully alert, as it is how unpredictable as to who will be wiped out next.

In terms of its special effects, Kong: Skull Island is a truly beautiful film. With lots of smoke and light effects to create a smoky scene in Skull Island, as well as an excellent ring of thunderstorms around the island, every effect is done terrifically well and always delivers the goods. The creature design is excellent and really hits the nail on the head with a realistic looking Kong and fun takes on various dinosaurs or unique creatures. Taking influence from a variety of sources on this front, the creature design here is what really makes it so much fun to watch. Seeing new or unique animals not only makes the land feel more foreign, but also adds a sense of adventure to this monster movie. Every scene feels fresh and adventurous, due to the fact that anything could be lurking around the corner. Its skills and traits are unknown and whether or not it eats humans is even more questionable. Whatever is awaiting the cast, however, is something that inspires awe and will likely have them clutching their guns.

However, as with all modern blockbusters, Kong: Skull Island is simply a palatable take on the story. Though I prefer it to Peter Jackson's elongated 2005 take on the story, the film is hardly unique. While it is a stunning film with excellent cinematography, the film still falls into the trap of ruining tense moments with comic relief and having action that looks cool, but lacks weight or substance. The cinematography really helps the action earn some substance as it feels like Vogt-Roberts staged many scenes just to have an excuse to silhouette Kong against the backdrop of fire or have a gorgeous shot of the landscape of Skull Island. Unfortunately, scenes that do not have this feel hollow and straight forward. Though I love the giant squid scene because it is cool, it is a culprit of being nothing but hollow action. We already know Kong is big and strong. Showing him rip apart a squid hardly furthers this feeling. The writing in the film is also incredibly clunky with many scenes of dialogue either forcing in another reference, bad joke, or just coming off awkwardly. This translates into lackluster performances from Jason Mitchell and Thomas Mann, who receive the vast majority of the bad lines. That said, nobody really has excellent dialogue and character development is, naturally at a minimum. For those that would like some substance with their monster movies, Kong: Skull Island does not deliver there and it only further exacerbates its issue with feeling hollow.

Kong: Skull Island, in spite of its issues with hollow action and lackluster writing, is still a terrifically entertaining piece of popcorn entertainment. Wearing its influences on its sleeves and ditching some of the more unsavory elements of past King Kong films and replacing it with a look at post-war time for soldiers, mercenaries, and photographers amidst this sea of disillusionment and the rise of rock and roll, Kong: Skull Island often feels like a time capsule. For a man born in 1984, Jordan Vogt-Roberts does an excellent job providing great 1970s nostalgia and capturing the feeling of America as Vietnam War ended and the Cold War raged onward. Thus, while it has issues with excessive comic relief, hollow action, and bad characters like every other modern blockbuster, Kong: Skull Island makes up for it with that thematic substance. Above all, however, the film is absolutely visually stunning and, even where all else fails, this film is damn pretty. Fun, dumb, and gorgeous, Kong: Skull Island is the hot blonde of films. Though I am pretty sure it has nothing under the hood, it is just pretty enough to keep me distracted with a light and off-the-cuff personality that really keeps you running and guessing as to what is next. While perhaps not the key to a lasting relationship, it does translate well into being a quality blockbuster.

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