Friday, March 24, 2017

Review: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and for brief strong language

Score: 4 out of 5

Kong: Skull Island is not a movie that I'm gonna be celebrating in five years' time. It proudly draws its influence from old-fashioned '70s grindhouse monster movies, and in some respects it imitates them a bit too well, with a plot that's full of holes and fridge logic, characters who are mostly two-dimensional archetypes, and a severe focus on action over plot. But it does its job admirably, and for that, I cannot fault it. The cast may be a bunch of cardboard cutouts, but a talented cast brought some humanity to them. The fun atmosphere helped smooth over a lot of the dumber moments. The action may come at the expense of everything else, but it is damn awesome action. In essence, it's basically this year's Jurassic World, a movie that's dumb, knows it's dumb, and yet entertains anyway.

Set in 1973 as the US is withdrawing from Vietnam, the film introduces us to Monarch, a government agency that searches for giant monsters and is currently trying to justify its mission in the face of skepticism from government officials, who think they're a bunch of cranks. When Monarch scientists Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) discover an uncharted island in the South Pacific called Skull Island that's filled with strange meteorological and geological phenomena, they recruit former SAS tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), the latter convinced she's stumbled upon a Watergate-level military conspiracy, to join them and their fellow scientists on an expedition to Skull Island. Escort is provided by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), an Army colonel frustrated by the outcome of the war in Vietnam, leading a team of several of his men. When they get there, they learn almost immediately that the place is filled with primeval life that is trying to kill them, not least of which is the giant ape himself, Kong, who destroys their helicopters and forces the survivors to take refuge with a tribe that's managed to eke out an existence on the island. As they plan to trek across the island to their designated rescue location, they meet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II pilot who crash-landed on Skull Island in 1944 along with the Japanese pilot who shot him down, and knows the island and its... unique creatures inside and out.

Pretty much all of the plot I just outlined happens in the first act or so of the movie. This is not a movie that waits around and plays hide-the-monster, like the 2014 Godzilla reboot did. No, it shows us the King in action almost from the moment our protagonists arrive on Skull Island, and it never lets up after that. Slower scenes where Marlow tells the other characters that Kong is the protector of the island's tribe, killing the other monsters that want to kill them, don't just tell the audience this; they show Kong doing just that. It is a pure CGI spectacle with little in the way of practical grounding for the effects, but director Jordan Vogt-Roberts still treats all of these encounters with the sort of awe that should be the only honest reaction when you're confronted with a 300-foot-tall ape beating the living snot out of both other giant monsters and Packard's men trying to take him down. The film takes any and every excuse it can to get to the action and go wild with it, and the result is a rapid pace that manages to strike just the right balance between being plodding on one hand, and breakneck on the other. The motion capture and CG effects are uniformly spectacular, playing for just a bit of cartoonish exaggeration that helps keep them from falling into the uncanny valley zone of "not quite real". Kong is a beast in this film, a towering, charismatic monster who steals every scene he's in and could easily stand toe-to-toe with Godzilla, and the island as a whole carries a feeling of a place that just doesn't belong on Earth, with even the humble water buffalo being several times bigger than it honestly should. Make no mistake: this is a film that you watch for the spectacle.

Even so, however, everybody else still saw fit to bring their A-game. The cast is sprawling, but of them, the four who matter most are Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, and John C. Reilly. Hiddleston and Larson are basically playing Nathan Drake and Lara Croft (albeit with the accents flipped), their first goal being to look good in tight shirts that show off their fit physiques, but they both seem to be having a blast as action heroes, ably carrying the film through the moments when the monsters are offscreen while giving their characters some layers beyond the G.I. Joe figures that they would otherwise be. Samuel L. Jackson's arc as Packard will not surprise anybody who's even remotely familiar with the Moby-Dick story, as he blindly seeks to destroy Kong for killing his men, but Jackson's usual persona works surprisingly well as the closest thing the film has to a human villain. Reilly, however, is the standout. The culture clash between him and the rest of the cast, as well as his ignorance of the world outside Skull Island since 1944, is played for both fun laughs and genuine drama, whether he's wondering how the Soviets became our enemies (we were allies in World War II), bemoaning how his Cubs still haven't won the Series, or reminiscing about both his Japanese fellow castaway Gunpei and the pregnant wife he said goodbye to before he headed off to fight. He probably gets the best arc in the entire film, and the filmmakers knew that they had a good thing on their hands and treated him accordingly.

The heightened adventure movie vibe of this film was more than enough to smooth over the fact that the plot is basically a wire frame upon which to hang everything. The plot turns are predictable, and I called precisely who was going to make it and who was going to get stomped on about ten minutes after they all got to the island. I cared about the characters because the actors playing them gave good performances, not because the writing really fleshed them out. Save for Reilly's Marlow, none of them get much characterization outside of a few sentences in their introductions, while the supporting players who barely had any time to leave an impression felt like the disposable cannon fodder that they basically were. When one of the soldiers made a heroic sacrifice to try and kill one of the monsters, I barely felt anything. The laws of physics behave more or less at the convenience of the plot, such that Kong, the towering, thundering beast, can sneak up on people and appear out of nowhere. As exciting as it is to watch, this is a pretty dunderheaded movie outside of a few moments.

Finally, we come to the big F-word: "franchise". It's no secret that Kong: Skull Island is being positioned as a key part of what's called the MonsterVerse, an attempt by Legendary Pictures (the makers of this film) to create a franchise of giant monster movies existing in the same universe. The 2014 Godzilla reboot was the first film in this universe, and as of now, a Godzilla sequel is being primed for a 2020 release with a King Kong vs. Godzilla movie coming out the following year, with the promise of other monsters in Godzilla's rogues gallery getting American adaptations after that. Honestly, outside of the post-credits sequence, references to an attempt to kill Godzilla in 1954, and the fact that the Monarch organization appears in both films, I barely noticed it here. This is a purely standalone film with a decisive end wrapping everything up, without tying it down in things that would bog down the story and leave plot holes to be filled by future installments. I don't really care about the MonsterVerse either way, but if this is how Legendary is going to go about building their franchise, providing cool monster movies that just so happen to exist in the same universe, I can definitely think of far worse ways to do it. (Here's to you, Batman v Superman.)

The Bottom Line

It's pure fluff, but it did precisely what I wanted it to, which was knock my socks off for two hours. If you're still bummed out by the ending of Logan and want to just chillax, this is your ticket.

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