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The eighth film to feature the monster King Kong is a mess of tones and idiotic character motivations but the titular character has lost none of his appeal and that along with some bright sparks of imagination maybe enough to hold audience interest throughout.

trailer kong skull island

The year is 1973 and American involvement in the Vietnam War is coming to an end. Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), agents of government organization Monarch obtain funding to lead an expedition to a newly discovered island in the South Pacific shaped like a skull. They recruit an attack helicopter squadron from the U.S. Army, war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), geologists, and for a tracker/hunter James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) a former Captain in the British Special Air Service. Tooled up with bombs for seismic recording and ammunition galore they plan to fly in, do tests and observe before flying out three days later on the other side of the island. With the island covered in storm clouds fizzling with red lightning they take off in their open door gunships to see what they can find paradoxically armed to the teeth for what should be map drawing and yet completely unprepared for what they do find.

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What they find is a 100 foot tall bipedal ape who quickly takes them apart after their bomb dropping seemingly awakes the beast in him. Considering these helicopters are more than capable of flying to altitudes well over 10,000 feet it seems a special kind of stupid when these war veterans fail to change tactics in the face of overwhelming force but it ain’t every day you get set upon by a giant monkey. Besides such escapes would not only derail the plot but the set pieces which are the better parts of the film. The monsters and monsters fights never cease to be entertaining and inventive whereas the human characters often are either incredibly stupid or incredibly bland. Given the cast assembled that is a special achievement in itself.

Plenty of these actors you’ve seen do better work in other films, disappointingly Samuel L. Jackson’s Ahab like Lt Col. Preston Packard fails to convince as a leader who wants a winnable war and is prepared to risk losing more men in a personal vendetta against Kong following the initial onslaught. Image result for kong: skull islandBrie Larson fills out a tank top well but besides being one of the more sensible human characters never makes much of an impact. Image result for kong: skull islandTom Hiddleston fills out a tight T-shirt well but fares even worse.

Two performances manage to stand out, one is Shea Whigham as one of Packard’s men Captain Earl Cole who takes everything in his stride like the pragmatic war weary soldier that he is because what else can he do. John C. Reilly is the second in a role that should be thankless but becomes the most memorable. Playing a downed World War II pilot named Hank Marlow (geddit) who crashed on the island twenty eight years earlier he is part exposition and part comic relief but conveys the heartache of these years lost to the world. Image result for kong: skull island nixon bobbleheadThe filmmakers seemed to recognise the impact Reilly’s performance has and give him a credits sequence that satisfies in a very simple way and maybe nails the subtext that often eludes them. A good example of missed character opportunities is Hiddleston’s Captain Conrad (geddit) mentions a father who went missing in World War II but never takes an interest in a man of that generation who went missing from his family too during that same war.

The pacing is good, the first act rushing to get to the island where the action is but taking the time to establish the different characters. The film slows down in between major action scenes too to help us get to know the human characters more but for the most part the dialogue isn’t there and the decisions made by these people cannot enamour us to them. “Kong: Skull Island” suffers from the same fate as stable mate “Godzilla”, they got the monsters right but the humans fail to hold interest for the most part.

In place of the 1933 original’s “Beauty and the Beast” subtext there’s analogies about man’s thirst for war and the environment protecting the ecosystem. For all the fetishizing of 1970s technology and call-backs to “Apocalypse Now” though the best bits are striking new images whether it be Kong slurping squid tentacles like noodles, a Nixon bobble head on the dash of a crashing Huey or a soldier placing a carbine on a prehistoric skull.  Image result for kong: skull islandA bit more of the creative genius that went into these neat images being directed towards the screenplay might have elevated this into a classic. As it is, fans of monster films should find enough here to enjoy and celebrate, for the rest of us the blockbuster season has just begun and there surely must be better films to come.

-Lloyd Marken

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  1. An excellent review of what looks like my kind of film. My own personal favourite is the Japanese “King Kong v Godzilla” but you can never go that far wrong with a100 foot monkey.

  2. Kong: Skull Island met my lowered expectations… and I had a lot of fun. Despite the weak plot and cardboard characters this was a treat, a silly blast of nonsense. It’s Apocalypse Kong, with Vietnam soldiers fighting the literal Viet-Kong.The visual effects and cinematography are great, the period detail is nice and I really enjoyed the Apocalypse Now mixed with Jurassic Park vibe. I just wish this film could have delivered the tone that the first trailer promised us!

    1. Maybe I’m getting old and grumpy. I think there’s good things here, if you’re a monster movie guy or gal I’d say it’s got the goods. I find myself wanting more from blockbusters these days, maybe that’s just a sign that I’m getting on. 🙂 You must be a kid Paul. 🙂

      1. Yep! It only gets worse. That magic felt as a kid is hard to hang on to. That’s why they invented grandchildren. By the time they come along, the movies are entertaining again and their enthusiasm is infectious.

  3. I saw the leads interviewed on TV. They all said that they were never told how big the CGI monster ape would be, so realised after filming that they were not looking, pointing, or shooting high enough!
    I will stick with Fay Wray myself.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  4. And yet again. I will wait and maybe watch it on TV sometime. What always amazes me is the multitude of films John Goodman is in. And he always brings his A-acting with him.

  5. Great post 🙂 The 1933 version of King Kong is a masterpiece, but a lot of the other ones are very good including this one. I personally believe that strong dialogue is supposed to take a back seat to spectacle when it comes to films like these. My main problem with Kong: Skull Island that prevents me from giving it * * * * stars as opposed to * * * 1/2 is that it sometimes feels uneven. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

    1. I’m afraid I have to disagree John, a good film is a good film. There’s a difference between A Guardians of the Galaxy and a Transformer 4. A Man of Steel and A Dark Knight. Whether you have visual spectacle or a kitchen sink drama, a film can be judged on what it has to say and how it says it. Just because a film is supposed to be a fun blockbuster does not mean it get away with weak characterisation. Good dialogue is welcome everywhere even in a silent film. That being said how we judge a film is all subjective. I think most people have had a more positive experience with Skull Island and that’s a good thing. What I like about it, I find myself remembering more and more fondly so who knows if even my assessment will change in time. My brother in law and I were recently discussing The Force Awakens and Rogue One. I told him I will forgive a film many sins these days if the characters are good and The Force Awakens has good characters whereas Rogue One they’re just types. He told me the exact opposite and I found myself thinking regardless of his argumentative points of which there were a few and very convincing ones they were too that I just knew that the truth for him was Rogue One was simply better and that was it. Somebody intelligent and thoughtful liked the film and didn’t that make it a great film in itself. I don’t know how far you want to take that mindset, my mother liking Xanadu should be the outmost limit but there is a truth to it. I’d give Kong: Skull Island **1/2 out of 4. But as monster films go it ain’t half bad and while I don’t agree about strong dialogue being deferential to the spectacle it is quite a visually imaginative film. Thanks for your thoughts.

      1. I understand. If I am watching a cinematic spectacle, the first question I ask myself (If the type of spectacle is an effects driven blockbuster) is does it excite me? For ones that are similar to Lawrence of Arabia types, the question I must ask is does it excite and fascinate me? When it comes to kitchen sink dramas, the main question I ask myself is does it fascinate me? I hope I do not sound pretentious and I sincerely apologize If I do 🙂 Once again, keep up the great work as always 🙂

      2. I don’t think you sound pretentious. Those are good questions to ask. If anybody is in danger of sounding pretentious it would more likely be me. I just have a thing about people saying oh it’s only a bit of fun or it’s only a blockbuster. I want to switch my brain off and all that. I guess I like to think I’m like Roger Ebert who judged films on whether they fulfilled their purpose. He liked blockbusters but not bad ones. And of course that is all subjective. He gave Die Hard 2 stars because of the annoying police captain whereas I think most of us would agree it is a bonafide action classic and time can shape perceptions too. Films do have different purposes and can be judged differently. I’ve walked past an Award Winner at the video store with my wife and my wife will ask don’t you want to see that and I would reply yeah but not tonight. 🙂 A favourite story of mine is Roger got a call at the Chicago Sun Times by a couple going to the movies that night and did he have any recommendations. They talked for a bit about what was showing. The young man asked “What do you think of Cries and Whispers?” Roger replied “I think it’s one of the best films of the year.” “Oh” the man on the other end replied, “That doesn’t sound like something we want to see.”

      3. I just read your second reply below and do not worry, I do not think you are pretentious either 🙂 I too am also a big fan of the great late Roger Ebert. I remember that story about Cries and Whispers. That is a classic story. Did you see that great documentary about him callled LIfe Itself? Once again, keep up the great work as always 🙂

      4. I did and I enjoyed the documentary but I really should get around to reading the book he wrote. I really loved the post he wrote about his father among other things. I even wrote a tribute post to him last year. Glad to hear from another fan.

  6. Man, I must have seen a different movie. You acknowledge a lot of the problems I had with this movie, but for me they were problems that I was literally laughing at. The dialogue for one, it was just terrible. And why piggy-back off the Vietnam War? I’m honestly sick of all these 70’s based movies using the same damned rock songs.

    I do agree though that the monster fights were awesome. They were the only bits I liked. Oh, and Reilly was awesome!! He was by far the only character who really felt like a real person.

    How about when that one guy decided to pull the pins on the grenade, only to get whipped into the cliff-face by the tail of the monster? I’m not sure if that was supposed to be poignant but I choked on my food I laughed so hard! ;D

    1. The guy with grenades was Shea Whigham who I enjoyed in the film. I think it was intended as a rug pulling moment and how the audience reacts is up to them. It was unexpected and I think darkly humourous. I’m elated to see Hueys in a blockbuster again but other than that I think we’re on the same page. You might have laughed more while I raged against the machine. But we recognised the same beats. You going to do a review?

      1. I’m not sure I have much to say about it to be honest! I might if I get the time, my life has been turned on its head, suddenly I have no time it seems, whereas a few months ago I was sitting on my arse wondering how to kill time! I’ll figure it out soon enough

      2. Not that really, it just inspired me so little that I don’t feel any urge to write about it, which I almost always feel after watching a movie. Not horrible, not great. Just average. =/ I’ve already forgotten the last act almost entirely

      3. Yeah you can tell when I feel that way about films because the reviews are shorter. I might write a long review about a film that frustrated me like Suicide Squad but not one that bored me.

      4. yeah, I guess I should have at least tried to write something. But its now been too long so I’ve forgotten parts of it. I really need to write reviews after I have seen the movie. Well at least the core of the review, I usually sleep on it and reread and see what else pops up.

  7. Great review (I’ve been at SXSW as you may know, so haven’t seen it yet myself) – but as usual, I think your titles are just about the best in the biz!

    1. That is very kind Jay, I love your snark when reviewing a film you didn’t like so that is a high compliment for me. What a treat it must be to be at SXSW despite not being allowed to bring into the U.S. things that are useful to say the least. How big is that film festival now? The big ones when I was a kid were Sundance, Venice, Cannes and Toronto but Telluride must be big and I’m hearing so much about SXSW. How does it compare?

    2. Kong: Skull Island seems to sit right on the fence but divide. A lot of people have really enjoyed it and a lot of people have said it just misses the mark. Interestingly enough they usually sight the same strengths and weaknesses so it just comes down to whether those things are deal breakers or savers for you.

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