Film reviews and more since 2009

Kong: Skull Island (2017) review

Dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

Kong: Skull Island is so tonally different from its predecessor, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, as the two exist in Legendary’s new cinematic “MonsterVerse,” and that’s a step in the right direction. Godzilla was such a modern, special effects-ridden movie, to the point where there was an artificiality in both the scenery and the effects on the monster. Time has not been kind to that film with me. Despite liking it initially, I can’t remember much about it other than what little it did for me emotionally and in the sense of longevity.

Kong: Skull Island is a totally different animal. It echoes the pulpy adventure films of decades gone past, which have been sidelined or manifested into a once-in-every-five-years-affair with a film like Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Furthermore, it’s predicated upon everything we’ve grown to love about King Kong: the fights, the action, the mystique of the character, and the general atmosphere of his home and region, all aiding in a vivid and nostalgic depiction of the eighth wonder.

Set in 1973, former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is hired by a government administrative official named Bill Randa (John Goodman) to lead an expedition through an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean known as “Skull Island.” Captain Conrad is joined by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and several servicemen to serve as a military escort, as well as photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who has her own conspiracy theory about the military’s motivations.

Also along for the ride is a biologist named San Lin (Jing Tian) and a soldier named Reg Slivko (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘s Thomas Mann), who provide makeshift weaponry and street-smarts during the expedition. Despite their admirable efforts, the search party is shot down and utterly destroyed by the 100 foot tall ape known as “Kong” upon arrival, who smashes their artillery and attack helicopters to pieces, stranding them at different parts of the dangerous and desolate Skull Island. Captain Conrad and the gang eventually stumble upon an eccentric World War II veteran named Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), who has been stranded on the island for years, surviving day-to-day from the island’s assortment of creatures.

The creatures in the film are nothing short of repulsive-looking, grotesque beasts that are as merciless as they are violent. The main villain is known as an Alpha Skullcrawler, a deceptively fast, four-legged monster that hisses and spits as a form of intimidation before it’s primed to attack. It’s a good contrast to Kong himself, who, in recent times, has been able to effectively match his brute-strength and fist-power with his deafening roar.

Kong: Skull Island has a look of nostalgia embedded in its cinematography, which is largely a mossy-green color, as if the film is about to witness a crippling Midwest rainstorm. Larry Fong (who has worked on the cinematography for many Zack Snyder films) uses Kong: Skull Island and its retro setpieces as a way to make the film mirror classic, vibrant adventure movies, ala Barbarella or Return to Witch Mountain. A soundtrack populated with recognizable, late sixties and early seventies tunes by Creedence Clearwater Revival also work to legitimize the time-period and provide audiences with a throwback feel.

Fong and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (who hit similar fuzzy feelings of nostalgia with his film The Kings of Summer) are all about making a film that echoes the monster films before it as well as embodying their characteristics. This may seem like a bizarre notation, but it’s far more compelling to see a film stay loyal to its an old-fashioned style rather than dabble into it while positioning itself as a modern blockbuster. The only modern attribute about Kong: Skull Island is its use of special effects which, while heavy, doesn’t mirror the artificiality or even visual fatigue prompted by Godzilla. In Kong, they’re bright and attractive, especially when put to good use in a battle between Kong and a Skullcrawler.

For a modern monster movie, you also couldn’t ask for a better, more complete cast of champions. It’s one thing to have Tom Hiddleston (who gave a strong performance in an otherwise weak movie in I Saw the Light) and Brie Larson (Room) in the forefront, but when you assemble a supporting roster of John Goodman, a quirky John C. Reilly, a menacing Samuel L. Jackson, and sprinkle Straight Outta Compton costars Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell in, you have a film as stacked as any ensemble to be released this year.

While the respective characters these actors play may indeed be a bit too light and easy for them – and too often searching for a good quip thanks to a jokey screenplay – it goes without saying that all these individuals bring fiercely watchable personalities to the table and all have their own time to shine.

I, myself, have had a wincing reaction to much of the films coming out this year. In one month, Hollywood is releasing another movie about King Kong, a reimagining of Beauty and the Beast, a franchise-hopeful Power Rangers movie, a continuation of the X-Men franchise, and a film adaptation of a buddy-cop program I’m almost certain no one still watches. It’s understandable to use this month of March 2017 alone to accuse Hollywood of almost entirely rejecting originality on all fronts, but Kong: Skull Island poses an interesting question with its gang-green cinematography and nostalgic sentiments. If a reboot/reimagining is made, and it takes the source material in a different albeit loosely familiar direction, does it deserve to exist? The answer might come to you after you’re in butter-shock from your popcorn and depending on how hyped you are following the credits of this film.

NOTE: As of this writing, Kong: Skull Island is available to stream on Max.

My review of Godzilla (2014)
My review of Godzilla vs. Kong
My review of Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Thomas Mann, Jason Mitchell, and Jing Tian. Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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