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Movie Review: Kong is King once again in Skull Island

Kong rules Skull Island
Kong rules Skull Island

A funny thing happened at Comic-Con International 2016 during the Warner Bros. presentation. Everyone wanted to see something impressive about the DC Comics Extended Universe, which they got in Wonder Woman. However, another unrelated film got on everyone’s radar, Kong: Skull Island after a trailer was shown that had everyone buzzing and suddenly, a franchise reboot that no one was asking for, became one of the most eagerly anticipated films of 2017.

In conjunction with Legendary Pictures, Warner Brothers continues its monster franchise revival with Kong: Skull Island, following up the 2014 reboot of Godzilla. Unfortunately, in Legendary’s Godzilla, all you wanted to see was the giant lizard rip everything in sight to shreds but instead got endless footage of the uninteresting humans. Godzilla was reduced to a minor supporting character in his own film. Would they repeat the same mistakes or would Legendary fix what was broken in their second attempt to modernize the classic monster movie?

The year is 1973 and the memories Vietnam still linger. Skull Island is rumored to be a remote island in the Pacific that has remained largely unsettled and pioneered by any modern civilization, because of strange properties like the Bermuda Triangle where ships have disappeared. Head of the Monarch group, Bill Randa (John Goodman) massages his friends in the government to fund an expedition to Skull Island, utilizing a military force as a trojan horse for his team of scientists (Corey Hawkins, Tian Jing) to explore the remote island and bring back evidence of unique properties and potential natural resources. A skeptical photographer named Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) joins to document the mission as does James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a former British captain and hunter-tracker whose skills in the jungle will serve them well.

America supplies the military muscle, spearheaded by the well-decorated U.S. Army Colonel Lieutenant Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who accepts one more mission before he retires. So his elite force of helicopter squadron chaperones the exploration, but an error on Packard’s part endangers the mission when trying to land on the island. The 100-foot massive marvel, Kong greets the colonel and defends his turf, swatting down the squadron and destroying most of the supplies and chances of getting off the island. Casualties are plenty and the unit is split up and that’s when the survivors begin to realize they’re a platter of h’orderves walking around Skull Island’s freakish landscapes.

The mission’s only hope is to survive for a handful of days until a planned supply run arrives but that’s easier than it sounds. Kong isn’t the only thing that comes super sized and predators are a plenty on Skull Island.

Meanwhile, Jackson plays a Captain Ahab role with Packard, driven by revenge to reunite all of the survivors and take out the beast that was responsible for the deaths of his soldiers and he won’t budge on his objective despite the advice of Randa, the ramblings of Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) a U.S. pilot shipwrecked on Skull Island since World War II and the natives inhabiting the dangerous locale.

There’s no silly final act to bring Kong to the United States and parade him up on a stage or on top the Empire State Building. Whenever something is discovered, humans have either slayed it or desired to put it on display to make money. But in doing so, denies us of a potential franchise so look to the 1933 film or the 2005 to see that tragedy. Skull Island plays up the discovery of a nightmarish environment and it’s the horrific place you want to be transported to for the entirety of the film; it’s where you want to stay. I didn’t want to see Kong fighting biplanes again, I wanted to see Kong fighting other massive things that were ugly and scary and Skull Island delivered on that hope.

Will there be any survivors? Is Kong friendly or a foe? Will there be a cast member that can string more than three sentences together? These are the dilemmas of a simple but taut action mash-up that feels like Predator, Aliens, Apocalypse Now, and Moby Dick rolled together, understanding one essential thing-Kong is the star of this film. He is a guardian, a deity, a protector of many, but a conversationalist, he is not. This is a monster movie through and through and there’s no need for a deep, contemplative commentary on the human element. They messed up when they stepped foot onto Skull Island and that’s all you really need to know there. Hell, humans mess up everything they touch but we don’t need a movie to tell us that, do we? 

Kong says to helicopter, "Puny fly"
Kong says to helicopter, “Puny fly”

Toby Kebbell, who has already been impressive in a motion-capture performance of an ape as Koba in the Planet of the Apes films, plays Kong. While Koba had more lines than Kong, Kebbell conveys similar power in his body while the superb visual effects team for Skull Island does the rest. Kebbell also plays one of Packard’s soldiers.

Hiddleston uses the film to show he can strike all the poses of the leading man while Larson is a grounded and noble damsel that’s anything but in distress. While not a traditional antagonist, Jackson is certainly a force of aggression and friction. He plays a man trying to steal the spotlight from Kong and his mean-streaked Col. Packard has subtle depth to him but no one is stretching far here in what amounts to an amusement park ride–a really fun one at that. Because whenever Kong comes into frame, you literally hold your breath for what comes next. 

The production design and special effects in Skull Island are impressive and incredibly smooth. This film feels big, it plays big and the scope of planned sequels is something action film fans can look forward to, especially those still holding out for Pacific Rim 2. The only thing that isn’t essential, is seeing this film in 3D. Just see it on the biggest dang IMAX screen you can find.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has come a long way from his first feature film, the intimate indie charmer, The Kings of Summer, and the result of this King Kong revival is a surprisingly entertaining popcorn stuffer that provides a little hope to the tentpole films, that it can stretch beyond superheroes and Star Wars

And then there’s the after-credits scene. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone but it’s an essential scene that fans of this movie and another storied franchise will want to see, and it puts a whole new light on what could be a massive modern franchise in the making. It’s not really a secret but if you don’t know, it’s more fun if you find out after seeing the film. It will explain why the story was changed. Just trust me, and don’t leave early.

No one expected Kong to re-enter the realm of the box office, but it won’t take much imagination to see that Kong is King once again when all is said and done.

3.5/5.0 

Ernie Estrella is a TV and film critic. He is also a contributing editor at SyfyWire (formerly Blastr) and has also written for USA Today.
Ernie Estrella

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