Friday, 31 March 2017

Movie Review: Kong: Skull Island (2017)



Japan has a certain monopoly on classic city-shredding monsters, what with the king of monsters Godzilla and his rogue’s gallery well and truly ingrained in the popular consciousness. But damn it all if the West doesn’t have its own colossal champion which also represents quite a few milestones for the art of cinema: The big bad gorilla King Kong. Whether it’s the ground-breaking effects work of the 1933 original, the years-in-the-making passion project of Peter Jackson’s 2005 version, to the 1960 introduction between the beasts in King Kong Vs. Godzilla, the Eighth Wonder of the World has quite a colourful history. I’ll admit that I’m not as big into giant monster movies as I probably should be, but I am at least willing to hear it out… even if the trailers didn’t exactly instil hope for this one. So, as we delve into the next step in yet another cinematic universe, how does it hold up? This is Kong: Skull Island.

The plot: Fresh off the heels of the U.S.’s retreat from the Vietnam War, government official Bill (John Goodman) and geologist Houston (Corey Hawkins) get permission from the government to go on a very special expedition. With a military escort in tow, along with tracker James (Tom Hiddleston) and journalist Mason (Brie Larson), Bill and Houston go to the secluded Skull Island. Once they arrive, they discover that this island holds many secrets, among them a host of deadly creatures that could soon spell the end of our explorers.

The cast here is astounding, to put it bluntly. I say this because this might be one of the single most enticing cast lists I’ve seen in a very long time. Established actors like Goodman, Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly, a couple recognizable names from… let’s say less than reputable works like Toby Kebbell, and a whole slew of indie favourites from Larson fresh off of Room to Hawkins and Straight Outta Compton co-star Jason Mitchell to Me And Earl And The Dying Girl’s Thomas Mann filling in the blanks. The only thing more remarkable than the Marvel-level quality of the casting, which makes sense the casting director here Sarah Finn also casted ALL of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date, is how brilliantly they fulfill their roles. From the leaders of the expedition to the military officers to the hired hands who eventually realize the folly of their mission, everyone here delivers. Even those I wasn’t expecting great things from like Kebbell are great here, given how he is a linchpin in one of this film’s stronger thematic moments with the titular Kong.

So, between this and the 2014 Godzilla remake, this is meant to help bolster a giant monster cinematic universe helmed by Legendary Entertainment. Because if Marvel can dominate the box office with its own efforts, why not try and get in on that? Hell, even without my own love for proper world-building in films, this is certainly an interesting idea. Thankfully, it seems that it is far more than just an idea at this point. The way that the film creates this world encompassed in a single island, with some truly incredibly creature designs and a nicely humanized version of Kong himself, honestly makes it seem like this is a universe that can hold its own weight in the market.

This is probably helped by the action beats, which left me with the goofiest open-mouthed grin on my face for the majority of the film. Legendary’s pedigree for monsters over the last few years (excluding Jurassic World) definitely pulls through here, giving us these huge throwdowns between Kong and the other monsters on the island. However, that’s only half of it; the bigger reason why this film feels as awesome as it does is because, well, these people knew what to do with the materials they were given. Nothing sucks more than seeing a film with great concepts but not knowing how to use them properly, and this alone shows why because the action beats here get very creative with how they use everything around them. Rather than go through all the noteworthy moments, which would just summarize the entire film, I’ll put it like this: Once we reach the Forbidden Zone, essentially a giant monster graveyard, the insanity never stops. One after another, we get these set pieces and moments that throttle the Rule Of Cool for its lunch money, and man does it pay off. If you ever wanted to see Loki slice flying dinosaurs to pieces with a katana in the middle of a toxic gas cloud, this is where you’ll find it.

But what about the writing? Is it any good? Does it even matter with how good the surface is already? Well, again considering this film’s place in a narrative universe, the writing should at least serve up something interesting. What initially made me put off watching this was that, even from the trailer, there was a very heavy stench of anti-war propaganda. Despite how much I railed against Billy Lynn, that doesn’t mean that I’m automatically going to love the opposite. And yeah, there genuinely is quite a bit of that in the film proper, all tinged with this Vietnam War afterglow that is somehow both refreshing and tired, but it’s not all bad. Hell, it’s not even mostly bad. Through the juxtaposition of Kong’s sort-of war against the Skullcrawlers (the film is on the fence about that name, but I personally love it) and the just-concluded Vietnam War, we actually get some rather poignant moments, especially when we see just how human Kong really is. Not only that, it ends up fuelling a fair bit of Sam Jackson’s character motivation, making him this almost Spartan general that may be doing the wrong thing but you definitely understand why he would feel the way he does. Hell, if I was sent in unawares to The Land That Restraint Forgot, I’d be pretty pissed too. Ignoring the ironic sly jab at today’s current political landscape in the U.S. near the start, because it is honestly really useless, this film does pretty well with its subtext too.

All in all, I never could have guessed that this film would be this amazing. With a tremendous cast list giving some of their best individual work here and a host of screenwriters also on their A-game, this film features the kind of action beats that I doubt anything for the rest of this year will be able to match up to. Not only that, it also has enough bubbling under the surface to not only build on the foundations that Godzilla left it as the next step in this monster-driven universe, but also be a pretty good war film in its own right. True, its visceral thrills may outweigh its more subtextual musings but it wouldn’t hurt to dig a little deeper. It’s better than Kaabil, as this has more bombast in its action thrills as well as not relying on rather unsavoury characterization to make it work. However, for as brilliant as I think this is as an action film, I can’t see this going down as something important like the perfect sequel blueprint that is T2: Trainspotting.

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