Kong: Skull Island, 2017
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Thomas Mann, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Eugene Cordero, Will Brittain, and Richard Jenkins.
A team of explorers and soldiers travel to an uncharted island in the Pacific, unaware that they are crossing into the domain of monsters, including the mythic Kong.
By now, it’s a given that Kong: Skull Island is an explosive stop on the road to the hugely tantalizing future prospect of King Kong squaring off against Godzilla in a showdown of metaphorical and literal epic proportions. However, what may surprise some is that this early slice of 2017 blockbuster fare is not some half-assed, get the movie shot and in the can solely to tease the real main event, lifeless exercise in big-budget studio filmmaking. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) isn’t merely a hired stooge for the Hollywood machine, no no no, he has brought his A-game and delivered a King Kong entry that in time will proudly stand on its own feet towering above other franchise attempts as high as the mighty ape himself towers.
Kong: Skull Island is actually more of a balancing act between preparing for the future and giving audiences something of substance to chew on in the present. It’s almost like a WWE feud; the goal is to make Kong look strong and an unstoppable harbinger of destruction. By the time the credits for the movie roll, moviegoers and hardcore fans of these beloved, gargantuan-sized mythological creatures require that “holy shit, how will Godzilla ever stand a chance at not facing obliteration” or “you know, I actually now believe Kong has a fighting chance” sensation, and that is accomplished by portraying Kong in his standalone film as utterly dominant. Build him up as death incarnate with a rousing series of spectacles depicting the King demonstrating his right to that title, whether that’s by inviting audiences to beat their own chests in synchronization to him swatting away human occupied helicopters with ease as if they’re flies, or wrestling with the other legendary colossal monsters that inhabit the dangerous, no man’s land island.
Speaking of people and things not named Kong, the film actually succeeds there which is a pleasant welcome considering that many recent offerings of its kind have, putting it bluntly, shared with us characters that weren’t worth giving a crap about. Kong: Skull Island’s solution to this persistent dilemma is actually genius, not involving trekking down the unfitting path of full-on character study, but rather somewhat developed archetypes brought to life by a very charismatic cast. There’s the decorated, bullish war veteran (Samuel L. Jackson), anti-war photographer (played with strength and resourcefulness by Room‘s Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson), Tom Hiddleston as a tracker who gets some of the more elaborate action set-pieces, and John Goodman who is solidly cast as an expeditious man trying to prove the existence of monsters. Jordan Vogt-Roberts also takes advantage of the split between soldiers and scientists to send powerful messages about what makes a sentient being an enemy, and the importance of photographic journalism (one of the most striking scenes is a small subtle moment where a soldier is facing a large but peaceful monstrosity and is ordered to lower his weapon, which is quietly followed by Brie Larson snapping a picture). Make peace, not unnecessary bloodshed dammit!
Keep in mind, that’s just a sampling of the numerous lives stranded in the land of Kong, and while most characters are fun to watch, there are also definitely some smaller supporting players that add nothing. Still, it’s nice actually hoping for safe passage for some of the soldiers and scientists struggling for survival on this FUBAR mission. Even John C. Reilly’s comedic relief vessel isn’t behaving like a silly jackass for no good reason; he actually has a rather touching story arc while also acting as the Skull Island tour guide.
As for the visuals of the titular island… let’s just say it will be one frustrating oversight if Kong: Skull Island is not in contention for awards relating to special effects and cinematography. The opening shot of the film depicts a soldier parachuting down onto the island with a scorching hot sun perfectly framed in the background, all with heat waves altering vision and appropriate color blending. Hell, there’s a moment where Tom Hiddleston is captured from a wide-angle tracking shot slicing and dicing through gross bird creatures with a sword and donning a gas mask, all as toxic gas engulfs the environment. It is a strong visual that I doubt will leave anyone’s mind soon. Naturally, all of this stunning shot composition is also delightful when Kong is wreaking havoc; Jordan Vogt-Roberts loves contrasting vistas with raging fires, which is doubly beautiful in its chaos with Kong in the frame. This should go without saying, but the CGI on Kong is marvelous, and nothing about him looks goofy or awkward as he defends his territory with a ferocious level of carnage.
And then there’s the rocking licensed soundtrack which capitalizes on the 1970s era setting by featuring everything from David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust to Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit. Also, it should be a golden cinematic rule that whenever a film inserts White Rabbit into the experience, the rating automatically rises a few notches. The popular classic tunes are wisely mostly utilized during the typical team recruitment segment, giving the only real slow portion of the film a bit of a jolt.
Reason I say that it’s the only slow section is simple; Jordan Vogt-Roberts is aware that Kong is king not just on Skull Island, but to the entire damn movie. He makes his presence felt before the opening credits and the film is conceptually designed structurally to never go long without him rampaging. Kong: Skull Island is the best modern day film regarding the infamous ape, and boasts what will undoubtedly be some of the most visually showstopping action all year. It’s relentless in its catastrophic, seismic destruction (even containing moderately interesting and likeable human characters), and anyone who isn’t taken aback by it should check their pulse. Kong: Skull Island absolutely deserves 5 stars on our ‘Movie’ rating that grades quality based on entertainment, which worries me because the eventual Kong vs Godzilla extravaganza might shatter the scale.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★