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Review: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Premise: Set in 1973, a team of scientists and soldiers explore a mysterious island that has been isolated from human contact. They discover the island is populated by oversized creatures, among them a giant gorilla known as Kong.

What Works: Anyone who takes pleasure in monster movies will have a lot to enjoy in Kong: Skull Island. The whole point of a movie like this is to watch giant monsters pummel each other and the film delivers that in spades. As a technical exercise, Kong: Skull Island is impeccable. The action scenes put on a spectacular show and the movie is littered with striking visuals. The creature design is great. Kong looks convincing and the other monsters are equally impressive such as a giant spider that snatches human beings from the ground. But the most impressive creature of Skull Island is the oversized water buffalo. The subtlety of its movement and the reality of its presence recalls the Triceratops in the original Jurassic Park. As a Hollywood blockbuster, one of the most admirable qualities of Skull Island is its restraint. That may sound like a strange way to describe a movie in which a giant ape beats giant lizards to death but as big and loud as Skull Island is, the filmmakers never overdo it. The action scenes retain their immediacy and credibility. Especially impressive is the sequence in which the crew of explorers first encounter Kong from their helicopters. As a movie taking place at the end of the Vietnam era, Skull Island incorporates some elements of the war film; the influence of Apocalypse Now (and its source novella Heart of Darkness) is most obvious. The military escort is led by a colonel, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who is disillusioned with the Vietnam War and he gradually loses his sense of judgment. Echoing Dennis Hopper’s role in Apocalypse Now, Skull Island includes a scene-stealing performance by John C. Reilly as a World War II pilot who has been stranded on the island for decades. Reilly gives the movie a sense of humor and Skull Island is unexpectedly funny.

What Doesn’t: Kong: Skull Island succeeds in its monster action but it disappoints in almost every other respect. Skull Island suffers from a bloated cast. There are too many people in this movie and almost no one gets characterized in a meaningful way. Aside from John C. Reilly and Samuel L. Jackson, virtually everyone in Skull Island is indistinguishable from everyone else. All anyone every does is scream, run, and shoot. No one does anything that defines them as characters. There’s no heroism in the movie that would invest us in the cast. The lack of characterization extends to Kong. The giant ape of the 1933 original and the 2005 remake had a soulfulness that made Kong more than a special effect. That’s not true of the Kong of Skull Island. The plot, such as it is, mostly consists of apparently random action set pieces. The arbitrariness of the action is evidenced by the film’s inconsistencies. For instance, in some scenes the soldiers have military hardware that they weren’t carrying before and the number of helicopters varies. The filmmakers devise great looking images but they don’t put those images into any kind of meaningful context. There is no momentum or rising action to Skull Island and one set piece doesn’t lead logically to the next. Skull Island isn’t building toward a climax. That’s especially apparent in the final moments of the film. The movie doesn’t reach a conclusion. It just stops. Nothing has been proven or affirmed and the characters have not transformed in any way. All Skull Island does is reestablish Kong for a new franchise and that’s all this film intends to do. In the end, Skull Island is just a placeholder. The whole movie exists for the sake of the post-credit sequence that sets up the monster movies to come.

Bottom Line: Kong: Skull Island is a fun spectacle. The movie mostly wastes a talented cast and it is dramatically flat. But Skull Island primarily exists to provide monster-on-monster action, and it does that well.

Episode: #639 (March 19, 2017)