Movie Review: Kong: Skull Island

Certificate 12A, 120 minutes

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson

Kong: Skull Island is the latest film in the King Kong franchise. It opens to the sound of machine gun fire, somewhere over the South Pacific in 1944. A man is seen screaming as he falls from the sky, then a USAF P-51 fighter crashes down onto a sunny beach, and a USAF pilot (Will Brittain) drifts gently onto the beach with a parachute. Then a Japanese Zero also crashes onto the peach, followed by that fighter’s pilot. The two men shoot at each other with incredible inaccuracy, and chase through the jungle, fighting each other on the top of a cliff. Then an enormous hand crashes onto the top of the cliff on one side of them, followed by its pair on the other, before finally an enormous face lifts above the edge – Kong.

Kong: Skull IslandThis is then followed by a series of news clips as the years pass by one at a time; the Castle Bravo nuclear tests, wars, ballistic missiles, space flight and the moon landings to name a few, before finally ending in 1973. The Vietnam War has ended, and two men, Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his associate Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins). They work for a little-explained governmental organisation called Monarch – Randa is probably the head. The organisation has run out of money and, with the Vietnam War over, this is their last chance to get an expedition approved.

Randa finally corners Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins), who has been dodging Randa for weeks. Randa says that Landsat has just discovered an island in the South Pacific that is surrounded by a permanent storm (which truthfully sounds a little unlikely). Randa claims that the Castle Bravo nuclear tests were actually an attempt to kill something in this area, an area where a huge number of ships and planes have disappeared over the years, and Brooks states that in a few days the Russians will discover this island – Skull Island – as well, and asks whether Willis wants the U.S. or the Russians to be the first to explore it. This last convinces the senator, and he approves the missions, which is a piggyback on the exploration team that Landsat is sending to the island. Randa also asks for a military escort.

In Vietnam, the 3rd Assault Company, a helicopter squadron commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), is getting ready to move back to the United States. Packard seems more than a little bitter over the fact that they are abandoning the war, and is a result pleased to be getting a final mission, that of escort to the Landsat party. Randa and Brooks look for and recruit James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) in Saigon. Conrad is a former member of the Special Air Service and is being hired for his jungle and tracking skills. In addition, photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson, Free Fire) also gets a position on the expedition. A pacifist, she’s convinced that the military is hiding something (something is being hidden, but from the military as well). Packer seems to respect her bravery, as she spent two years embedded, but is less than happy to have her along, blaming people like her for the war being abandoned.

The ship carrying the expedition and the squadron’s helicopters leaves from Bangkok in Thailand and reaches the impressive storm perpetually swirling around Skull Island. The head of the Landsat expedition, Victor Nieves (John Ortiz), wants to turn back, but Randa says to let the Colonel decide, and they expedition’s helicopters safely make it through the storm and set up camp on the island. Instruments are set up for a seismic survey, and the squadron is having a fine old time dropping scientific instruments for this survey – bombs – on the island (which reveal large hollow areas beneath it) when one of the helicopters is hit by a tree. Not hits: is hit by, as a tree is thrown into it with huge force. Kong has revealed himself, and he’s not at all happy with these interlopers. In the ensuing fire fight, all of the helicopters are knocked out of the sky and many people are killed. The expedition is in two groups of survivors, one led by Packard and one by Conrad. Packard’s party is heading to the site of the downed Sea Stallion of the squadron’s second in command, Chapman (Toby Kebell), who has also survived and whose craft has a lot of weapons on board it.

The other party, led by Conrad, stumble across the island’s natives, whose village is behind an enormous wall. There, they also meet the downed USAF pilot from 1944, Lieutenant Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly). Marlow is a little strange after all these years and it seems he may be having a problem differentiating between inside thoughts and external ones, especially as the natives never seem to talk at all. Marlow really wants to get off the island though.

Packard wants to kill Kong in revenge for the death of his men and this, combined with his bitterness over Vietnam, starts to make him more than a little monomaniacal and rather unstable. Killing Kong is now the most important thing in his eyes – but according to Marlow, Kong is not the most dangerous thing on the island. Kong, in fact, protects the natives from something much more dangerous – and a lot uglier. Skull Crawlers he calls them, monstrous lizards that live underground. The rest of the island isn’t exactly safe either, with many creatures both gargantuan and regular sized proving to be very dangerous. The problem for both groups is going to be making their way across an incredibly hostile island to the rendezvous point so that they can leave. Something that is going to prove deadly for many more members of the expedition.

The film is available in 2D and 3D, with the 3D version being the one watched. There was enough live action, and those that weren’t live action were not really set up properly for this, that the 3D was by and large completely unnoticeable. The film itself is visually spectacular, both the scenery and the monsters. The location itself is gorgeous to look at, and Kong is impressive – and quite impressively realistic. Even down to claw marks on his chest (which should be a hint that there’s something both large enough and dangerous enough to do that to him on the island). The fight scenes featuring Kong, both against the helicopters and against the Skull Crawlers (whose head does look somewhat skull-like) are very impressive.

The characters; well, they are all decently portrayed, as there’s a good cast of actors here, but the characters themselves aren’t that impressive or standout. Some are quite obviously redshirts whose only purpose is to appear briefly and then die. Others you get more involved with, so that their sometimes pointless deaths are more shocking when they occur, but they are still not that much of a surprise. In fact, the most shocking parts about the deaths were the people who didn’t die – some would quite frankly have been expected to die to add a bit more of a shock factor. Packard’s man-heading-out-of-control behaviour is definitely within Samuel L. Jackson’s comfort zone, and he does a good portrayal of this. John C. Reilly provides the comic relief, as a man whose been stuck on the island a little too long to be considered completely sane any longer. Not exactly related, but John Goodman has lost so much weight he’s almost unrecognisable.

The military themselves prove almost totally ineffective at dealing with any of the threats. No matter what weapon they use, from handguns to helicopter-mounted chainguns, the monsters prove almost totally immune to them – only a giant spider falling prey. In fact, the most effective weapon that truly caused a Skull Crawler to pause wasn’t technically a weapon at all. Even though they may cause some minor injuries, they never seem particularly noticeable. As an escort, they are only really effective at dying.

There are some definite flaws in the film. One particular point is, if the island is surrounded by a perpetual storm, how did the primitive P-51 and Zero manage to get through it at the beginning? Also, what were they doing there, so far from anything? Neither had a particularly huge range. This would appear to be something that should just be accepted. There are other flaws too, but the film is visually spectacular enough, and fast paced enough (it doesn’t feel like a two hour film) that it’s possible to ignore most of them. There is a post-credits scene that should be watched out for that definitely hint at sequels, and there’s also a possible link to a previous film. There are some areas in the film that were never covered in enough detail – in particular, just what Monarch is – that are perhaps intended to be explored in the sequels. Kong: Skull Island is definitely flawed, but it’s fun enough and looks good enough that it’s still an enjoyable watch.


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