Tuesday, March 14, 2017

'Kong: Skull Island' review

While plenty of films soar to dazzling box office heights without ever stepping foot in Hall H, there really is no better place to generate buzz for your new movie than San Diego Comic-Con. Just ask the people behind 300, Iron Man, and Mad Max: Fury Road. An effective panel at Comic-Con and the early release of a good trailer can set in motion an excellent marketing campaign, one that often leads to strong success at the box office. Last year was widely considered to be a down year for the convention, as Star Wars and Fox opted to stay home. Marvel's panel was the usual party, DC released two okay trailers for Wonder Woman and Justice League, but for me, the real star of the show was Kong: Skull Island. Before Comic-Con, my interest in the movie (and in the so-called MonsterVerse) was limited. I had written a little bit about the film in regards to the stellar cast and Joe Cornish's possible involvement, but there was very little to truly intrigue me.

But when I saw that trailer, Warner Bros. had me hook, line, and sinker. Seriously, they didn't need to show me any more- I was in all the way. Thanks to an epic first look that clearly showed off the film's visual brilliance and Apocalypse Now vibe, Skull Island shot to the top of my most anticipated list for 2017. This was a movie that I just had to see, and I couldn't wait to see if indie director Jordan Vogt-Roberts had pulled it off. Unfortunately, the breakout filmmaker fell short. While Kong: Skull Island is an absolutely gorgeous film with some great ideas, it doesn't quite stick the landing in any meaningful way. It's another giant monster movie with a phenomenal start and a lackluster finish, which means that I'll have to chalk it up alongside Godzilla as a blockbuster disappointment. Vogt-Roberts and the excellent cast had all the pieces in place, but they just couldn't put it all together. Skull Island is big and wild and completely forgettable.

Set in 1973, Kong: Skull Island finds America at the tail end of the Vietnam War, as troops prepare to evacuate the country. Two Monarch scientists, Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), see this as their best possible chance to achieve their dream of an exploration mission of an uncharted island in the south pacific. The US government reluctantly grants their request, allowing them to plan for their bold and ambitious trip along with a military escort, led by the snarling Colonel Preston Packard (a very evil Samuel L. Jackson). In addition to Packard, Randa recruits a famed tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), who warns the scientists of the danger of the mission. A beloved anti-war photojournalist named Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) also comes along for the ride, and the eclectic group of scientists and soldiers head off on their helicopters to Skull Island.

After breaking through the storm, the explorers are astonished by the lush beauty of the hidden island. Oh, but then the giant monkey shows up. The gorgeous vista is interrupted by the sight of a giant palm tree flying towards the helicopter, which means that King Kong is close by. He absolutely demolishes their arsenal, and not even an endless barrage of bullets can stop the supersized ape from killing at least half of the crew. Scattered across the island, the unprepared and bloodied soldiers search desperately for a route to their exit point, while danger and horror lurk around every turn. Along the way, Conrad and Weaver receive a much-needed bit of clarity from Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II-era soldier who crashed on Skull Island during the final years of the war. He tells them that the beast they entered during their flight, King Kong, is actually the king of the island and a friendly creature. The real danger comes in the form of the Skullcrawlers, ancient beings that live below the surface. As the vicious creatures prepare to make their final assault, Kong will have to face them and Colonel Packard, who insists on killing the beast as revenge for the death of his men. Chaos and monster fights ensue.

Let's start with the good, shall we? Kong: Skull Island really does have a phenomenal first act. When the film begins, everything is in place for a terrific, rousing adventure. The 1970s setting is a stroke of genius, allowing for the filmmakers to play with a pitch-perfect soundtrack and some groovy style. Vogt-Roberts is a director with an incredible visual eye, and in the early goings, he creates some breathtaking shots that look like retro paintings come to life. In addition to the exemplary artistic work, Vogt-Roberts and the team of screenwriters (comprised of Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly, and John Gatins) create some classic archetypal characters that feel like relics from the pulp era. James Conrad is a classic Han Solo type, Mason Weaver is the intrepid journalist, Packard is the tough as nails soldier, and Randa is the overambitious mad scientist. All of this feels like the setup for a great journey, one that will deliver the kind of classic, old-fashioned thrills that we rarely see in today's blockbuster culture.

The first action scene on Skull Island, where Kong smashes a seemingly endless series of helicopters is gorgeous and thrilling, even though it is preceded by a bizarre monologue about Icarus from Sam Jackson. Vogt-Roberts gets things off to a rollicking start, but as soon as they crash land on the island, things go downhill almost immediately. Skull Island loses all sense of narrative momentum, and Vogt-Roberts never delivers on the promise of something clever and compelling. The story is weak, the characters are never established in any meaningful way, and the film meanders for a good bit of the runtime. Sure, the cinematography by Larry Fong is consistently incredible and the monster fights feature some awesome moments of geeky action, but it's not enough to overcome the monumental flaws of the whole thing. The final 2/3rds of Kong feel like a major series of missed opportunities, made all the more disappointing by the potential of the project.

The central issues in Skull Island can be blamed on a variety of factors, but for the sake of convenience, let's start with the characters. Plenty of people have complained about the lack of interesting characters in Kong, but that really isn't the main issue here. Instead, there are three major problems with the cast of characters in this film- there's too many of them, none of them have personal narratives beyond their first act backstories, and they don't follow through on their basic archetypes. Look, I don't necessarily think that a giant monster movie has to have dynamic, layered human characters. I love Jurassic World, but I couldn't tell you a damn thing about who Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard played in that film. However, Skull Island compounds the character issues through volume and lack of definition, two issues that are exemplified as the film moves forward.

There isn't a single character who has an actual arc, not even a predictably basic one like you would see in most monster flicks. Half of the characters are there to react to what happens, and the other half are there just to die. Most of the characters in Skull Island are murdered in horrendously unceremonious ways, whether it's being smacked into a mountain during a moment of sacrifice, impaled by the leg of a giant spider, or stepped on by Kong himself. Nobody really wants to feel anything when someone gets killed in a monster movie, but when you're asking yourself "Who was that again?" after someone dies, that's probably not a good sign. The leads (Conrad, Packard, Weaver) are all dull ciphers, and their relationship with Kong is laughably misguided. I don't expect anyone seeking monster-on-monster carnage to complain about the lack of three-dimensional characters, but this is probably the largest contributing factor to the movie's downfall.

The other main issue involves the general narrative incoherence, which isn't a product of a convoluted story- it's the total lack of a reason to keep us moving through the movie. Once they crash on the island, it's all about a game of cat and mouse between the soldiers and the giant creatures, while simultaneously waiting for Kong to fight the Skullcrawlers. Sure, there are a few funny moments with John C. Reilly's Marlow, who stands out as the film's "Man Out of Time" character. But drama is rarely found on Skull Island, as characters are murdered carelessly and randomly, without any pathos or any real sense of rhyme or reason. Motivation is thin, emotion is nonexistent, and logic quickly goes out the window.

And then there's the issue of the grand-scale IMAX monster battles, which is the primary reason that most audience members showed up in the first place. The film definitely has a few cool moments, but the isolation of the island and the lack of investment in any of the characters help to drag the climatic battles down. Not to mention the fact that (as many have noted) Kong is practically a supporting character in his own movie, forced to punch things and brutally attack creatures when the story needs him to do so. The character of King Kong has always had a certain level of depth to him that can be traced back to the 1933 film, which makes the giant ape's bland stoicism in Skull Island all the more disappointing. Some may feel sympathy for the giant ape, but he's big and violent and thinly written, just like everybody else in the film. Kong is a feat of visual effects, but I can't imagine that anybody will find him all that compelling.

As the post-credits scene indicates, this is just the beginning of what has been deemed the "Monsterverse," and there's a good chance that we'll see a whole bunch of creatures in the next few installments. However, Kong: Skull Island will likely go down as a beautiful disappointment, a gorgeously stylized film devoid of pretty much any substance. Jordan Vogt-Roberts clearly has a distinct filmmaking vision, but with his epic re-imagining of King Kong, he never manages to truly put that vision to good use. He carries it along fairly well for a while, but the hollow nature of the story catches up with him. As much as I wanted to love Skull Island, I found myself growing more and more disinterested as the film went on. This is a movie focused on aesthetics and surface level pleasures, and while it has a few bright spots, it falls just short of the mark as a fully satisfying summer blockbuster.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                            (6.3/10)

Image Credits: IMDB/Warner Bros.

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