Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Kong: Skull Island is an impressive spectacle, the kind of movie made for a rousing theatergoing experience. Not that I would know since I watched it on DVR at five in the morning with loads of coffee and no sleep. But I imagine it would be exhilarating to sink into my stadium seat and gaze up at the thirty-foot screen because what is the point of going to the cinema if not to see giant beasts battling it out against a tropical landscape? The film doesn’t hit every mark, but it does deliver a blockbuster bang of star power, mythmaking, and special effects.

This latest Kong story takes us back to the 1970s and Skull Island. Government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) leads a group of scientists to the uncharted territory in the South Pacific on what is ostensibly a mapping mission but is really a search for Kong and other primeval creatures. He enlists the services of former British forces scout James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and is given a military escort led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). They don’t even manage to land before most of the team is killed. The scattered survivors form two groups, one consisting of Conrad, Weaver, and some scientists and the other largely military personnel led by Packard.

Kong, the cause of all the carnage, immediately becomes the white whale to Packard’s Ahab. The lieutenant colonel embarks on a new mission – to retrieve more weapons and explosives and kill Kong. Conrad’s team, meanwhile, encounter an indigenous tribe who have been sheltering an unexpected guest. They learn from the Iwi people that Kong, the last of his kind, is actually the island’s protector, a godlike figure to them because he keeps the far more vicious Skullcrawlers, underwater lizard beasts, at bay.

With battle lines drawn, it’s easy to get swept away by the epic scale of things. The climactic fight between Kong and king of the Skullcrawlers is a brawl for the ages, on par with those lion-hyena-elephant-crocodile fights you see in nature documentaries. A wild-eyed Packard also steels himself to take down everyone and everything that comes between him and Kong. But there are a lot more ideas at play than monster versus monster or monster versus man. With the Vietnam War casting a shadow over everything, the characters’ militarism is even more pronounced. The movie points its critical eye not so much at the fear of the unknown but at the kneejerk response to it, which is always met with aggression and violence. Packard may personify this, but he’s not the only one operating on the ethos of “shoot first, ask questions never.” After all, Randa and his scientists’ gleeful bombing of Kong’s backyard is what sets the whole thing off.

The carnage by beast and human plays out against breathtaking landscape, making the human part of it more savage than beautiful. Shot on location in Vietnam, Hawai’i, and Australia, the film boasts handsome photography. Nevertheless, the striking visuals can’t hide the weaker parts of the story. Everyone’s playing at an idea rather than a fully fleshed character, and the film tries to have it both ways by elevating the heroes it wants to critique. Outside of Kong, Larson’s character comes closest to someone you can root for. Weaver is the movie’s emotional touchpoint and manages to tap into Kong’s tamer side. Of course she further other-izes the Iwi people with photographs that are bound for a National Geographic spread. Hiddleston and Jackson at least have enough grit to turn their characters into charismatic, if troubling, stereotypes. Jing Tian, on the other hand, doesn’t get a chance to break out and merely acts as a prop for Cory Hawkins’s character, lest he poke around the background by himself. There’s blessed comic relief in the form of “crazy Santa Claus time traveler guy” John C. Reilly as well as Thomas Mann, who plays one of Packard’s men. Their contributions keep the film from becoming a generic dark and serious type of action adventure.

Released: 2017
Prod: Thomas Tull, Mary Parent, Jon Jashni, Alex Garcia
Dir: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Writer: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly, Marc Evan Jackson, Richard Jenkins, Miyavi
Time: 118 min
Lang: English, some Japanese
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019