Review: ‘Kong: Skull Island’ (2017)

Promotional image for 'Kong: Skull Island' (2017).

Promotional image for ‘Kong: Skull Island’ (2017).

Since the success of The Avengers in 2012, movie studios have been trying to find their way to make massive universes of their own, each to varying degrees of success. The minds at Warner Brothers decided to at least not put all their eggs in one basket with the DCEU, but to also go along with green-lighting movies in not only the Harry Potter mythos but in a monster movie universe as well, to culminate in the American remake of Godzilla vs. King Kong. Yes, you read that right, a remake. Toho Studios in Japan created the movie in 1962. It gets pretty weird, and Kong has lightning powers for whatever reason (It still blew my mind as an easily impressed kid when I would rent it and any other monster movie I could find at my local Hollywood Video). However, unlike 1960’s Japanese cinema where it was apparently expected that monsters could be thrown into other monsters’ movies, 2010’s America needs to have a movie to first flesh out who these creatures are. So how is King Kong adapted in this day and age?

Kong: Skull Island is a movie directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and starring a large ensemble including Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Corey Hawkins, and John C. Reilly amongst others. The story starts at the very end of the Vietnam War, wherein M.O.N.A.R.C.H. researchers Bill Randa (Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Hawkins) are forming up an expedition to the newly discovered Skull Island for the purposes of surveying it before the Russians can mount their own investigation. Tagging along on this journey includes an ex-British Forces adventurer (Hiddleston), a celebrated war photographer (Larson), a U.S. Army Major (Jackson) and a team other scientists and the Major’s military personnel. All seems to be going smoothly, until the titular one-hundred-foot-tall ape comes and smacks all the helicopters to the ground, forcing what remains of the crew to scramble to the rendezvous point with the help of an all but forgotten cast away (Reilly). If there is one good thing about this movie from the premise alone, it’s that this movie is not a carbon copy of 2013’s Godzilla manages to carry its own conflicts and themes.

Consider the setting. The tail end of the Vietnam War is great for a movie like this for two reasons. The first is that helps establish an acceptable sense of disbelief. Technology is a bane for storytelling, being as that it cannot only solve a wide variety of problems (Tony would have survived West Side Story if he could just call Maria) but it can also make a movie dated by what it references (Iron Man in 2008 references Myspace, a site that most people under twelve have no clue existed). With setting the movie back some forty years, the movie is able to side step this problem and allows the audience to accept that a large island might have gone undiscovered until then.

The second reason is the thematic significance of the time. The war in Vietnam is felt by all the characters in the film: The photographer gained acclaim with her anti-war stance, the Major doesn’t know what to do after the conflict is over, the grunts are all itching to head home, and so forth. With this in mind, the film is able to evoke the feelings of the time to hammer in the themes of anti-war throughout the film. This is most evident in Larson’s character who, instead of fulfilling the damsel-like role of her 1933 analog, acts as the moral compass of the movie, and the entire movie would honestly fall apart with the absence of her character. The other characters, without going into any real detail, also help fit into this theme while also being believable in their relationships with one another.

The one major character that I haven’t talked about yet is the legend himself, Kong. Kong here is certainly larger than other iterations of the characters, and just as visually impressive. The CGI team did well with animating both his large movements and expressions, as well as little details such as his wet hair, the flexing of his jaw, and the battle wounds in the palms of his hands. Additionally, Vogt-Roberts was able to use both the camera and lighting to give Kong whatever feeling that needed evoking, from menace to awestruck wonder. The other CGI monsters were also designed and rendered with the same amount of creativity and attention to detail as Kong, and really sell the idea that this is a dangerous world.

With all that said, this movie isn’t exactly perfect. There were a number of things that I found either odd or just downright superfluous to the story at hand. A major one to me was the lack of scale for a good many of the creatures and formations of the island. When a large draw of the movie is that this is one of, if not the largest Kong ever put to the screen, it would have been super helpful to have a way to see just to see how large he could be. On top of that, I kept finding myself bothered by the fact that he was so big that he towered over the trees, but was able to sneak up on the characters so easily. And that is just with Kong. The Skull monsters were told to come in different sizes, but sometimes it was hard to tell the difference in size until they came into contact with Kong a few seconds later.

There was also a small problem with the characters as well. While they felt like real people in how they bickered and displayed friendships, the characters didn’t do too much work. No one really has a character arc; the characters are just archetypes and stick to them rather well. Additionally, there was this one character that seemed to me just plain unimportant. This character was introduced later than you would think they would be. By the time the movie ended and I was on my way home, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why this character was in the movie. It might have been that more scenes with this character were left on the cutting room floor, and that would explain why this character got so little screen time.

Speaking of the cutting room, parts of the editing seemed just a bit off. The movie did have some clever edits peppered in here and there, one of my favorites being a cut involving Kong and a sandwich. Still, with each edit that made me smile, there was one that left me scratching my head wondering how it made it into the final entry. For example, there’s a scene where a soldier is talking, then it cuts to Hiddleston’s character who starts talking. You would think that he would be answering the soldier, but he’s instead talking to a different character about something completely different. While little things like this aren’t horrible or movie destroying, it all feels just so careless. Things like that should have been caught before it got to the large screen.

Still, this is a solid entry to Warner Bros.’ third attempt to build a cinematic universe. It not only differentiates itself from the other movie within its universe, but it also delivers something different from the other King Kong movies out there without needing to remake them shot-for-shot or rehashing themes. It may not be a perfect movie, but it’s well worth your time and money.