At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Kong: Skull Island “2017”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Kong: Skull Island “2017”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Monster/Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly, Will Brittain, Eugene Cordero, Marc Evan Jackson, Richard Jenkins, Miyavi, Robert Taylor, Moisés Arias, Nick Robinson, Erin Moriarty, Dat Phan/Runtime: 118 minutes

I think it can be safely said that, ever since he initially roared his way on the silver screen all the way back in the 1930s, the icon and legend that is King Kong is one who has shown a fair bit of longevity in his various misadventures. Indeed he may go from king of primeval Skull Island to Empire State Building MVP quite a bit, but the character is also one that can lay claim to being featured in countless films including a few where he dukes it out with fellow monster legend Godzilla, one that had Jeff Bridges in it from the 70s, a 2005 remake from the guy who did the Lord of the Rings trilogy that is super-long yet also really freaking good, a PS2 video game that was actually quite fun to play back in the day, and a theme park attraction or two at Universal Studios. Of course, how much you enjoy the various works tied to this character, with particular regard to his cinematic endeavors, may ultimately come down to if you have a fatal allergy to monsters engaged in combat or not, but it cannot be understated that the films that have been appreciated the most by both critics as well as the everyday movie goer are those entries that managed to blend together jaw-dropping work behind the camera, thought-provoking material within its core narrative, and a collection of human performers who didn’t just run all over the place, hold up their hands, and shriek until you wish the monster would kill them or your hearing would just give out so you wouldn’t have to put up with their antics anymore. With all of that mind though, I do have a single question to ask: why in the heck did no one ever think to combine King Kong and a Vietnam War movie together?! Yet, while I may not know the answer to that, I can safely say that there is a slice of cinema that manages to do just that. That being the film I am reviewing for you today, 2017’s Kong: Skull Island and honestly yes this film is by no means perfect, but honestly when a film proves to be this much fun who am I to seriously quibble? Indeed the work behind the camera is stylish and beautifully done, the story is actually not that bad, the soundtrack is rockin’ in the best way possible, and the cast all manage to do, at the very least, fairly good work with their respective characters with none of them proving to be downright annoying. Thus Kong: Skull Island might not be the say-all, end-all entry in the realm of monster cinema, but it is quite entertaining and truthfully sometimes that’s all you need.

The plot is as follows: Taking us all the way back in time to that long ago era known as the 1970s, Kong: Skull Island gets underway as we witness an enigmatic yet also slightly eccentric individual by the name of William “Bill” Randa and an associate of his named Brooks as they manage to shanghai their way into a meeting with a U.S. Senator who, truth be told, doesn’t look all that pleased to see them. Of course, we soon learn that the reason this is most certainly the case is because our dynamic duo here represent a certain group known as MONARCH (yes that mysterious SHIELD-like organization from the 2014 Godzilla for those of you who remember) and for awhile now they have been pestering this poor legislator nearly to death to get him to provide them with a way to get to a mysterious island covered in a perpetual storm system that they feel could be extremely invaluable to furthering the organization’s credibility and, incidentally, secure further federal funding. It should come as no surprise to learn therefore that not only are they able to get the Senator’s aid in piggybacking on another agency’s op, but they are also able to get a military escort in the form of an elite helicopter squadron and their iconic leader, one Colonel Preston Packard, literally a day before they are all supposed to head home from ‘Nam and an elite tracker in the form of a former British SAS Officer named James Conrad included in the mix as well (pretty sweet package deal there fellas). Thus with their team, plus a noteworthy photojournalist by the name of Mason Weaver ready for the ride, we see them make their way to this mysterious island and begin dropping their *ahem* “research equipment” to the ground below. Sounds like this is going to be a cakewalk doesn’t it? Well unfortunately that is where you would be wrong dear reader. That is because we soon see that the explosions left by their equipment making impact on the surface of the island have unfortunately triggered the more than just merely annoyed ire of one of the island’s chief residents in the size and shape of an over 100-foot-tall monkey named Kong. To that end, we see Kong quickly make haste of the helicopters and in the process force those who survive his onslaught to embark on a 4-day, 3-night all expenses paid survival tour of an island nightmare that makes the realm of the 90s Jumanji film seem just like a leisurely walk through the park in comparison. Thus can our heroes make their way through this extremely unwelcome rumble in the jungle intact or will the island’s fairly monstrous denizens make them all into human-size appetizers? That I will leave for you to discover for yourself…..

Now in terms of work done behind the camera, this slice of cinema is a complete and utter delight. This starts with the work done by the director in making the first time our human characters fully come across the titular monkey not only riveting, but also visceral and just plain terrifying especially with such jaw-dropping visuals as Kong’s blurry silhouette being set in front of a gorgeous-orange sun as helicopters are flying in slo-mo towards him while explosions go off on the ground below them. Suffice it to say that film helmer Jordan Vogt-Roberts does a wonderful job at giving us moments like this whilst also assertively adding touches to them like a singular camera shot that goes through every helicopter in the air during their decimation by Kong. Yet even though he wants to amaze us, we also see that the director is wonderfully aware that he wants us to be in the know as to who is where and what occurs to them when Kong makes his first appearance and thus this whole scene is actually shot quite clearly. Suffice it to say that this film, from a visual perspective, is thankfully able to keep itself from taking part in camera movement that will make you nauseous and instead allow the camera to operate in rhythms that won’t have you worried you’ll leave this film with a severe case of vertigo. Rhythms incidentally that also extend to this film’s sweet and era-appropriate soundtrack that I promise will leave old-school music fans smiling with glee. On top of that, this film’s screenplay is also fairly cohesive enough that even when there aren’t monsters duking it out on screen the film is able to stand on its own two feet fairly well. I also really dig the way that this film chose to design the titular monster as well. Indeed by veering from what Peter Jackson and co. did in 2005, we see that Vogt-Roberts and his team behind the camera have been able to make it so that Kong might not look as real as he did in that film, but is also a heck of a lot more well-rounded as a character both in personality and behaviors. Yet perhaps the most intriguing element that this film has going for it is how appropriate the film feels to when it was released. I mean there is a back and forth early on between Jackson and Larson involving one blaming the other and journalists like her for why soldiers in ‘Nam lost the support of the general public back home that feels eerily similar to events going on around 2017 (hint: IRAQ). Indeed when one views the film, it really is a little bit difficult to not wonder why the film didn’t devote more to these political nuances rather than boil them down to simple phrases like “Vietnam was not a good idea, we shouldn’t head to a place we are not familiar with and just do whatever we want, and man is the worst monster of all”. Yet with that in mind, there is no denying that the fact that this material is even a part of this film in the first place is definitely something that is worthy of praise all on its own.

Of course, I know that you are most likely here for the monster action and that’s all well and good because that is after all the main point of a monster movie. At the same time however, I feel you should also know that it doesn’t hurt this film that the human talent that has been assembled here is also really freaking good in their own right and not super whiny or annoying like other “monster” movies have had in the past (looking at you 1998 and your so-called “Godzilla” as I write that). With that said though, there is one negative in this area that I would like to get into before I cover the positives in this department. That being that yes this is a terrific collection of talent that has been brought together, but sadly quite a few of the characters don’t really get that much to work with from a narrative perspective. Sure they flesh out their characters to the best of their ability like with the roles of Brooks or Cole played by Corey Hawkins and Shea Whigham for example. Still, the fact remains however that for the most part their characters still could be seen as archetypes, combined with some of the other characters in the cast, or wear a big glaring neon sign over their head that makes it clear that all we need to know about them is they’re meant to be monsta fodda. Having gotten that out of the way, there are some truly fantastic performances in this. For starters, I really dug the heck out of Samuel L. Jackson as Colonel Packard in this. Indeed Jackson does a wonderful job of playing a career military man who is shortly about to be robbed of his purpose in life courtesy of ‘Nam coming to a close, but who is then given this “one last assignment” before heading back to the world to escort this team of scientists and researchers to the island only to have it then transform into a personal and single-minded obsession to rid the Earth of Kong following the titular creature’s darn-near decimation of his unit. Suffice it to say that the character of Colonel Packard is more than just this movie’s U.S. military version of Captain Ahab. Rather, he is vengeance and homicidal insanity-laced rage personified and I feel Jackson brings that to the table in a way that is not just brilliantly intimidating, but genuinely chilling at points as well. We also get wonderful work done here by fellow screen icon John Goodman in the role of Randa. Indeed in most other monster movies, this character would be the slimy and fairly despicable guy who knows more than they are telling and has absolutely no regard for anyone else’s lives or safety other than their own. Yet in Goodman’s more than capable hands, this guy still does retain a degree of shiftiness, but he does also seem to at least somewhat care about the people whose lives are lost along the way even if it is his obsession to prove he isn’t just some crackpot that is the reason why they are no longer countable among the living. Suffice it to say that it is a fairly three-dimensional performance and Goodman nails it hook, line, and sinker. Now I did like Tom Hiddleston in the role of Conrad and he does do a good job in the role with the material he is given, but if I’m being honest that was also a role that I could easily have seen someone like Josh Holloway or Joe Manganiello (if you changed the nationality of the character) playing perhaps just a little bit more convincingly. Of course, every movie has to have at least one hidden ace in their deck of performers and for me that ace would have to be John C. Reilly in the role of Hank Marlow. Indeed it may take a while for him to pop up in this, but once he does Reilly does a great job as this slightly dotty pilot who has been stuck on the island for close to three decades that decides to act as our group’s guide seeing as he knows the island and its various critters better than anyone else whilst also wishing for them to take him along when they leave for reasons I shan’t spoil here. Suffice it to say that Reilly may be best known to audiences for his collaborations with Man Child Monthly’s Man of the Year Will Ferrell in such films as Step Brothers and Talladega Nights, but the man is also a genuinely terrific actor in his own right and more than holds his own amongst the immensely talented group on display here.

All in all I’m not going to lie to you dear reader: there are a few flaws to be found in this slice of cinema and thus I cannot say that this is a film that is an absolute masterpiece through and through (sorry if that’s what you were hoping for). With that being said though, I still feel it should be said that I completely and absolutely did love this film all the same even in the face of those aforementioned flaws. Indeed the visuals are a mix of downright gorgeous and awe-inspiring in equal measure, the film’s narrative plays like a brilliant blend of a monster film and such war films as Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon to name but a trinity of examples from that distinct genre of movie magic, the designs of the creatures on the island are genuinely impressive and fairly creative, the soundtrack is not only era-appropriate, but also quite lively and rockin’, and the fairly sizable cast of players in this all manage to do really good work in this even if some aren’t given nearly enough in terms of narrative material to work with as the others are (to the point that as I said in that section some characters might as well wear a big glaring neon sign that makes it clear they’re here to just be fodder for the various critters). Suffice it to say that at the end of the day, Kong: Skull Island is not only a wonderful 2010’s reimagining of a time-honored cinematic icon, but it is also a lively and downright popcorn creature feature that, its ties to what is being termed the “MonsterVerse” aside, is just a genuinely Grade-A fun slice of cinema to sit down and watch time and time again pure and simple. Make of that what thou will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give Kong: Skull Island “2017” a solid 3.5 out of 5.