KONG: SKULL ISLAND. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts; Written by Dan Gilroy; Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly and John Gatins (story); Starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell; Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language; Running time 118 minutes; In wide release March 10, 2017.
Kong is King, but hidden away from the rest of the world on Skull Island, surrounded by a massive, normally impenetrable storm. In the waning days of the Vietnam War, a group of government scientists and soldiers journey to the island to search for rumors of giant beasts who have ravaged ships and planes for centuries. And all sorts of monkeyshines ensue.
And since no single human can tackle a beast of this size, we’ve assembled a trifecta of our bravest robots to scout the perils of this reboot and let us know if it is beast, legend, or likely to make a monkey out of audiences.
Bryan: I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from this film. After Gareth Edwards’ abysmal Godzilla film that came from Legendary, I assumed there was no writing the ship full of Monsters that Legendary was hoping to create a franchise with. I will be the first to admit that I was wrong. Kong: Skull Island is a thrilling, fun tale with actual human characters (as opposed to the cardboard cutouts in Godzilla) and action sequences of epic proportions.
Adam: I’m right there with you. High atop the list of things I never knew I needed or wanted was another King Kong movie. Sure it looked like it could be fun, but there was no burning desire to see the story told over again after Peter Jackson’s attempt, and I went in just hoping it would be ok. WOW! It was more than just ok. While not the smartest movie out there, it tells a unique and interesting tale that manages to make the story more than just a giant ape wreaking havoc on an island and its inhabitants.
Andy: And yet. . . there’s lots of giant ape wreaking havoc. This is one of those cases where if you’ve seen the trailer and think you’ll have a good time, then you’re going to. I think the comparisons to Godzilla (which you and I argued about before, Bryan) are inevitable and warranted, but this is so different. It is strong in a lot of the ways Godzilla wasn’t, but is weak in some of the others. But it's got a definite tie-in, especially into the original Godzilla origin from nuclear fallout and war in Southeast Asia.
Bryan: Framing the film as an exploration of the atomic age consequences that led to Godzilla is a very smart move, as was making this a period piece that spans from World War II to the end of the Vietnam war. Somehow, it makes the film feel somehow more plausible. And it takes cues from a few of my favorite films set in those eras as well, transitioning from Hell in the Pacific to Platoon and Apocalypse Now.
Andy: And they really play up the Apocalypse Now angle. But even when the homages started to go a little overboard, you just remember-- this is a movie about a giant ape. The soundtrack they chose certainly went the way of Forrest Gump or Suicide Squad though to ramp up the nostalgia to maximum level, just throwing as many popular, evocative songs at the film as possible for maximum resonance. Not to a bad effect, but if you’re not a fan of Creedence Clearwater Revival, then brace yourselves for exactly the songs you think you’re going to hear.
Adam: I had no clue it was a period piece either. By taking place right at the end of the Vietnam War and piecing together motivations from people that ran from being anti-war, to discovery, to doing anything for money, to trying to rid the world of monsters was something I wasn’t expecting. By making the majority of the main characters people we actually care about and can identify with even if we don’t agree with where they are coming from wasn’t something one normally sees in a monster movie, and it was a nice break from all the guns and ‘splosions.
Bryan: When I first saw the cast announcements for this film, I assumed it was overkill. I was convinced this would be a silly disaster, but the cast worked overtime to sell this film. Samuel L. Jackson’s villainous helicopter captain is amazing. Tom Hiddleston’s SAS officer is perfect in the mold of David Niven character’s in these sorts of movies. Brie Larsen’s photographer was a breath of fresh air. And John C. Reilly’s stranded World War II pilot was a quirky addition to the team. Add in the rest of the troops and pilots from the Vietnam era that work as well as the Colonial Marines in Aliens and you’ve got the human cast right for a fun movie.
Andy: The smartest thing they did was add John C. Reilly. He’s so quirky and funny, you don’t even notice that basically he’s just there to tell you what’s going on. But then we, as the audience, get to take the place of Larsen or Hiddleston, so even if they’re a little underwritten, (like a video game player character where you get to impute your own personality on them) it’s a lot of fun.
Adam: I’m with you on most of this, especially with Larson’s character. Although it seemed like Hiddleston was more there to attach a name people would know and spend money to go see. I never felt like he was fully fleshed out or did more than his standard role in the film. Sam Jackson was also wonderful because his character arc was the most intricate of any in the film. He didn’t start out the villain, and when everything went south, it wasn’t hard to take his side and want to see him get the vengeance he craved. But around the halfway point, when madness began to take hold, it was easy to see that he would be willing to go to any depths to accomplish his goals. That kind of villain is always the best because they’re the ones we can understand and then almost grieve as hubris and stubbornness take hold and corrupt them.
Andy: Sam Jackson was basically Captain Ahab, but chasing a monkey instead of a whale. Those are fun characters. I also want to point out Toby Kebbell’s dual work here: as one of the Marines whose letters home to his son Billy provide some of the film’s exposition (and then other Marines start mouthing off, “Dear Billy, this is a total hellhole…”) but he also did the mo-cap for Kong himself. Kebbell knows his way around monkey mocap, having played Koba (my favorite character) in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as well. But there’s a nobility, as well as vulnerability and sadness, to how he approaches playing Kong. (PS-- Yes, I know gorillas aren't monkeys.) Unfortunately, Kebbell's strange and somewhat laughable Mississippi Delta accent gets in the way of an otherwise great performance
Bryan: I think one of the best things they did was put Kong on the island and made him not the only monster. I loved getting to see the ants and the spiders and the other creatures that Kong had to fight to survive and I loved seeing the humans interact with them in all the worst ways.
Adam: GAH, THE SPIDERS!!!! I was cringing in my seat every moment they were on the screen. I hate those damn things!
Andy: And I liked how they made some of the creatures on the island not scary, too. A later scene involving (spoiler redacted) provides a perfect metaphor: just because something is big and strange doesn’t make it a threat. Mankind needs to CTFD.
Adam: The best decisions they made were to keep the story on the island and not include a romance. Kong is at his best in his natural habitat, and it made for a stronger story by not taking him to New York and making him this tragedy wherein “beauty killed the beast.” He is the god of the island for good reason, and distilling the essence of the character to that setting was perfect. And as I said, thank Crom Hiddleston and Larsen didn’t kiss at all throughout the movie. There was chemistry and a possible romance between them, but the fact that it didn’t blossom earned this movie a few points in my book. Glad someone took notes from Pacific Rim. Oh, and can we get a Pacific Rim/Godzilla/Kong crossover? That would please me greatly.
Andy: Oh, you bet your sweet bippy it’s coming. Maybe not Pacific Rim, but the others for sure. But you’re absolutely right about the tone and keeping it on the island. It also allowed for a greater exploration of the themes of man vs. nature, why we wage war and revenge, and so on. If I have a complaint it’s that this was almost a smart, meaningful film. They walk right up to the line of having something important to say and then don’t. It made the film feel more like a product of Hollywood’s assembly-line filmmaking than an artistic statement, but that’s ok. This is going to put butts in seats in theaters and sell lots of popcorn, and that’s sometimes ok. It’s worth mentioning I took my 8 year old son to go see this with me, and he absolutely loved it, giving it a 10/10. This is the movie that speaks to the 8 year old in all of us, but for our adult side that also is still just blown away by and can’t stop thinking about Logan, I can’t give this more than a 7.5 out of 10.
Bryan: I love seeing how Kong gets reinterpreted every 10 or 20 years over the course of film history and this is definitely a worthy addition. And it makes sense, too. When you look at the trend in filmmaking and team films and mashups, having Kong part of a larger “Avengers”-like universe for monsters makes all the sense in the world. But it was a good movie and fun besides, but ultimately not life changing, so I’m giving this a solid 7.5 out of 10.
Adam: This might end up being one of my biggest and favorite surprises of the year. It’s not going to win any awards (except maybe for special effects), but it’s an effective and efficient story that will get the audience’s blood pumping and give them a roaring good time. It’s a bit too dumb at times for its own good, is a bit too anticlimactic in the third act, and it missed out on an opportunity to make a point about environmentalism, but that’s just fine. Go with your friends and have fun watching a spectacle on screen. I did, and I can’t wait to do it again! Oh, and make sure to stay through the credits! 7.5 out of 10