Released to coincide with the 84th anniversary of the release of the original KING KONG movie, KONG: SKULL ISLAND offers today’s audiences both a familiar and a new take on an old story.
Set in 1973 just as the US announces that it is ending its war in Vietnam, Bill Randa (John Goodman, TRUMBO; INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) head of a mysterious organisation known as Monarch, claims to have uncovered satellite evidence of an uncharted island in the South Pacific that may be home to several new species. Flush with government funding, he quickly mounts an expedition to visit the island, which sits in the middle of a low pressure system that permanently enshrouds it in cloud. He recruits James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston, the THOR franchise), a disillusioned British soldier as his hunter-tracker; Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN; THE HATEFUL EIGHT), an army colonel who is none too happy that his war is now over; and anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson, ROOM; THE SPECTACULAR NOW; SHORT TERM 12; DON JON). Conrad brings along some of his team for the action, brawny men who are the equivalent of STAR TREK red shirts – completely forgettable and quickly expendable. Randa, too, brings along some of his scientific crew that includes biologist San Lin (Chinese actress Jing Tian, THE GREAT WALL), a character who was clearly inserted into the story to pander to mainland Chinese money and audiences. (Chinese companies Legendary Pictures and Tencent Pictures co-produced the film.)
No sooner has their helicopter armada passed through the menacing storm wall (and incredibly not getting struck by lightning even once), the intrepid explorers come face-to-face with Kong, who is, in this film, the height of a 10-storey building. (Or not. His scale keeps changing. In some scenes he towers over the nearby karst peaks.) Under Packard’s command, they open fire on the giant ape, but the choppers are the size of mosquitoes in comparison and Kong swats them out of the sky killing all the no-name characters and grounding the rest of them in the first five minutes of the film.
With no broken bones to tend to and barely a scratch between them, the survivors try to regroup but now they are at the mercy of the island’s other large-scale animal inhabitants, which include a giant spider, pterodactyl-like birds, an enormous stick insect and a hulking water buffalo. When Conrad and Weaver’s group encounter an Amazon-like indigenous tribe and their resident American guest, Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly, THE LOBSTER), they learn that Kong is the only thing on the island that is keeping them alive. This knowledge sets them on a collision course with Col. Packard who wants revenge on Kong for killing so many of his men.
On paper, KONG: SKULL ISLAND sounds like it should be a fairly good movie. Certainly, monster movie fanboys and fangirls will be pleased but it’s not great cinema by any means. Somewhat of a cross between JURASSIC WORLD and APOCALYPSE NOW! – the ’70s music soundtrack blares from the helicopter’s speaker system as the soldiers strafe Kong, there is very little tension save for the odd surprise attack courtesy of the aforementioned apex predators that winnows the group down even further. When we’re shown Kong in all his hirsute glory in the first few minutes of the film, we’re left wondering why so soon. As we come to learn, Kong has his own enemy on the island who makes an appearance in the film’s final act. I’ll grant that the fight scene between the two is well done though it is more than a bit far-fetched. Kong is clearly one highly evolved Megaprimatus!
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the majority of the Homo sapiens in the film. Character development is virtually non-existent. We’re told about people’s characters, not shown. As a result, Conrad doesn’t seem very convincing as someone who is supposed to be focused solely on his payday. Weaver, too, spends much of her time taking artsy photographs that would feel very much at home inside the pages of a Life magazine but her anti-war stance is reduced to the odd shouts of “Stop!” and “Don’t!”. The only ones who are remotely interesting are Packard and Marlow, the former who has most of the film’s few good lines and the latter who is the film’s comic relief.
On the plus side, KONG: SKULL ISLAND is mercifully fast-paced and the two-hour running time goes by quickly. Kong fans will be pleased to know that a sequel, GODZILLA VS. KONG, has already been set for a May 2020 release. Be sure to sit through the credits and you’ll see a teaser trailer to the film. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in visiting Skull Island, you can find it on Google Maps. It’s located about 4,000 km southeast of Hawaii, due west of Ecuador.
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