KONG: SKULL ISLAND
Kong: Skull Island is a curious film in that it is not a sequel or prequel to all the various King Kong films made before (though one wonders given the 1970s setting it would have been closer to the 1976 remake). However, in its own way, Kong is setting up to be the first part of a major franchise, which fills me with more horror than the big monkey himself.
It's 1973, and scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman), along with his protégé Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) get U.S. government help in exploring the mysterious Skull Island, a realm which thanks to a perpetual storm cloud keeps outsiders at bay. They get military help, headed by General Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is eager for one last battle now that the Vietnam War is winding down (a war he's convinced we could have won). He takes some of his men on this mission, even if means pulling them out from R & R.
Also going is former British Special Forces officer James Conrad (Loki himself, Tom Hiddleston), who is now a tracker for hire wiling away his life in the dens of Saigon. He senses both danger and something Randa is hiding. Our final explorer is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist who has been using her lens to rally opinion against the war.
They go into Skull Island, where the landing party is almost immediately attacked by a fierce monster: a gigantic ape that smashes their helicopters and kills some of the soldiers. The group is split into two: one with General Packard, the other with Conrad. Packard is determined to save his men, particularly Chapman (Toby Kebbell, who is also the body of Kong), and use the bombs he has to blow this thing out. Conrad, for his part, wants to lead those with him out of Skull Island. He encounters the natives, as well as Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II pilot who in the pre-title credits crashed on Skull Island along with a Japanese soldier.
Like those Japanese soldiers alleged to be stranded on various islands, unaware that the Emperor had surrendered, Marlow is completely unaware of what the world is like now versus 1944. He knows about Kong (the monster) as well as the creatures who killed Kong's family and are threatening all on Skull Island. Kong, in his way, has been the only line of defense against these 'skullcrawlers'. Marlow, Conrad and those with him help put a rudimentary boat together to sail downriver and make a rendezvous point to rescue them.
Packard, for his part, is determined to rescue Chapman (who is already dead). The two groups eventually meet, attempt to save Chapman, get into battles with the 'skullcrawlers', and split over the fate of Kong. It's a battle royale to see who makes it out alive and who wins out in this war for the Island of the Ape.
It's not a spoiler now, but in a post-credit scene Conrad and Weaver are questioned, where they are told that Kong is only the beginning of a whole slew of monsters, and we are teased with images of others that look similar to such creatures as Mothra...and Godzilla.
So, essentially, Kong: Skull Island serves as one of the world's longest trailers for another movie that culminates this Extended/Expanded/Cinematic Universe thing overwhelming cinema. Only instead of comic book superheroes, we get big monsters.
That's one step for civilization...
I perhaps should be more despairing over the state of movies now, given that starting from Iron-Man back in 2008 (wow, less than a decade ago), more and more films are essentially long trailers and teasers for other films set in the same universe (Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC Extended Universe, and now whatever this is called). That might be a good discussion for another day, but for the moment, I was simply too entertained by Kong: Skull Island to give such things much thought.
It wasn't as if they didn't come to me, particularly when we start our post-credit scene. I found that part exceptionally irritating in its efforts to be smarter than the audience: we start with just Hiddleston's luxurious voice intoning, "You're just going to sit there, in the dark?" I don't mind a little winking at the audience, but this bit from screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connelly looks and sounds like outright taunting and mocking of audiences trained, almost Pavlovian-like, to get a little bit of business after the closing credits.
I might call this bit a slight misstep, one that nearly caused me to downgrade Kong: Skull Island. The fact that I'm being teased with more films in this universe as opposed to just having an independent story without thought about making it part of a larger, more epic story also made me question whether I should rate it as highly as I did.
However, as I've said, I had too much fun with this film, which doesn't hide the fact that it's pure escapist fare, an action/adventure film that keeps things moving and has some comedy to go alongside the action.
That comedy comes courtesy of Reilly, who brings a gonzo mania to his stranded Marlow. When telling the story of Kong, he says 'skullwalkers' with a very serious tone...before admitting that he tried to make the name sound ominous because he couldn't come up with anything more frightening to call them.
Pretty much all the performances were solid. I commented that Kong: Skull Island was essentially Hiddleston's audition tape for James Bond, as he played the strong, tactical Conrad with a mix of intensity and sensitivity. Jackson has never been better as the take-no-prisoners Packard, who isn't a clichéd mad general but someone with a bit of a backstory (a man who feels this might be his last chance at doing good in the military).
Larson, I don't think, was given much to do, and while to her credit she wasn't a damsel in distress she wasn't as strong as perhaps her character could have been. I think some of the other supporting players had more to do (such as the duo of Shea Whigham and Jason Mitchell as the somewhat whacked out officer and his more straitlaced partner). Thomas Mann, in a smaller role as the more naïve young trooper, had I think more to do. It's a bit of a pity given Larson's talent, but at least she wasn't relegated to screaming woman in need of rescuing...most of the time.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts for keeping things flowing fast and furious (though maybe the journey to Skull Island took a bit longer than some might have wanted, I found no issue with it). However, some things I can take issue with him and with Kong: Skull Island.
It was too enamored of its time: constantly reminding us that this is set in the 1970s (the music, the references, even a Richard Nixon bobblehead in the helicopter...did they have such things back in 1973?). It is so in love with the era that one might have retitled the film Apocalypse Kong, given how the journey almost wants to think Packard has become some form of Colonel Kurtz. Some of the deaths (particularly when one soldier gets stabbed through the mouth from a giant spider's leg) were particularly gruesome that belies the PG-13 rating.
Also, as in a lot of things in film, some things are just a little too convenient (such as Chapman's head with its dog-tags literally falling at Conrad's feet). Their efforts at trying to draw parallels between Conrad's father dying in World War II and Marlow's yearning to return to his own son were either going nowhere or just there (and one feels bad for Marlow, who upon returning to his family in 1973 will have to wait another 43 years to see his beloved Chicago Cubs finally win a World Series, making him around 94 years old when the Cubbies managed to break the Curse of the Goat).
Yet I digress.
For whatever flaws it has, Kong: Skull Island did what it set out to do: be a fast-paced, pretty solid exciting action film that was entertaining, added a touch of comedy, didn't demand much from its audience, and yes, set up more MonsterVerse movies. I can't complain about a film for meeting its goal.