It’s been a little over a decade since we last saw King Kong on the big screen in Peter Jackson’s majestic, if overlong opus. Well, guess what? If your favorite part of that movie was Kong busting it up with the two dinosaurs, then Kong: Skull Island is for you.
It basically isolates the gigantic ape on an island chain, casting it as a kind of tropical gladiatorial arena for multiple knock-down, drag-out brawls with other beasties. Plus a smattering of humans as collateral damage.
Set at the close of the Vietnam war, an anti-war rhetoric bubbles at the surface, exemplified by Brie Larson’s “anti-war photographer” Mason Weaver. Her opposite number is played by Samuel L. Jackson, an emasculated, frustrated career military man unhappy with how the US Army is leaving the region.
Tom Hiddleston plays an ex-SAS “tracker,” since retired from warfighting. John Goodman is an obsessed survivor of a prior run-in with a monster (hinted to be Godzilla). John C. Reilly is a marooned survivor from a prior war. Shea Whigham is a grizzled vet.
Toby Kebbell is an earnest soldier that you just know is going to die once he starts talking about life back home. Corey Hawkins and Tian Jing are scientists. There are also a bunch of other soldiers and corporate people, but basically they are fodder.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts may not have been an obvious choice to helm this mega-budget monster movie (his last film, The Kings of Summer, was a small indie about camping in the woods) but the risk pays off.
He executes a number of setpieces that thread action and suspense, sets a tone of mystery when appropriate, and is equally confident at letting humorous moments breathe. While the final fight between Kong and his antagonists is unfortunately the weakest of these setpieces (in this, Godzilla has the better fight choreography), he does an admirable job in giving the eponymous misunderstood hero an exciting introduction, taking down a swarm of helicopters in a thrilling, terrifying sequence.
There is a suspenseful, tense scene in the island’s version of an elephant graveyard, where a common camera flash is turned into a sinister indicator of impending death. There’s also a pulse-pounding section with a giant spider.
The film is not without some problems. There are way too many characters, and as a result they barely get any character apart from their one-line description. They get a few moments each to give a glimpse of depth, but then it’s on to the next threat. As such, we don’t really get to know any of them, and it’s hard to care when they start getting picked off.
The gifted Marc Evan Jackson is utterly wasted as a corporate scientist, given only two lines of dialogue before the film dispatches with him. Even Jackson, remarkably not chewing up the scenery when the opportunity is all around, can’t give much new shine to his role as the moral of the story, i.e. “man is the real monster.”
Made by the producers of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island also feels somewhat incomplete because it serves to set up the inevitable sequel where the two monsters will butt heads. Its opening credits are identical, Goodman’s character is the founder of the company featured in both films and a post-credits scene all but screams sequel, although the timeline of the continuity is odd (Godzilla is set in present day, so when they do meet up none of these actors will likely figure into it, unless they’re in heavy aging make-up).
Like in Godzilla, the filmmakers also make sure to point out that Kong is a benevolent monster, a good guy who helps poor humans from the bad monsters. It feels like an arbitrary decision, perhaps to sell more toys.
Overall, Skull Island delivers the thrills and spectacle we expect it to, but not much else.
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