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Movie Review: Kong: Skull Island

by Emma Smith, Reporter

Take a story about man’s hubris in the face of Mother Nature, add some visual callbacks to Apocalypse Now, drop in CGI reminiscent of the best parts of Jurassic World, wrap it all in classic monster movie goodness, and you’ve got a recipe for a damn fine movie. The King of the Jungle makes his triumphant return to the silver screen in Kong: Skull Island, and this time he cannot be contained.

Minor Spoilers Ahead

It’s 1973, and the United States is pulling troops out of Vietnam, reluctantly according to some. In Washington, two scientists take advantage of the political upheaval and Russian paranoia to convince a skeptical congressman to fund their expedition to chart the mysterious “Skull Island.” Wrapped in a dangerous storm system, Skull Island remained a legend until the advent of satellite photography. The scientists collect a ragtag exploration group: an anti-war photographer on the hunt for a Pulitzer, a former British soldier running from his past, a group of reluctant soldiers days from returning home, and their colonel, who just can’t seem to let the war go. On Skull Island, their invasion goes wrong, an angry Kong destroys their helicopters, and two groups must journey across the island in a desperate attempt to reach a rendezvous point before their only chance of escape disappears. Along their trip, they get help from the natives and a stranded WWII pilot, but face dangers far beyond what any of them imagined. 

There is a lot to love about this new entry into the Kong mythology. Director Jordon Voght Roberts (Kings of Summer) touch can be felt throughout the movie, but he knows when to let his cast and crew shine. The visuals, from cinematography to graphics to set design, are stunning.  No detail is too small for the filmmakers to care about, they even created beautiful, anamorphic cave paintings of Kong in the native’s village. The soundtrack features classic seventies rock to great effect, using “White Rabbit” to introduce a crucial character and “Paranoid” to give you a taste of what lies ahead. The 3D version adds some fun, and startling, moments. 

The movie’s most significant departure from the classic King Kong is the interplay between Kong and the humans. Early in the film, one of the characters tells the story of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and fell when his wings melted. Like Icarus, the men in this film believe they can conquer nature. It is the stated goal of several of the “exploration party” to destroy the monsters lurking beneath the surface of the planet. Fear and anger cause some of the characters to ignore real danger in favor of irrational hatred for the merely different (and scarily large). Fortunately for Skull Island, not all of the members of the expedition share this weakness, and this attitude works out far differently than in the classic King Kong. One soldier warns early in the journey that if you go looking for an enemy, you will surely find one.

There is a stronger focus on character interaction than one might expect from a King Kong movie, and the cast is impressive. The focus stays mainly on badass war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson, Room) stoic former SAS officer James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston, The Night Manager) crazy colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson, I don’t think I can help you if you don’t know who he is), grateful-to-finally-have-someone-to-talk-to stranded pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly, Wreck It Ralph), and expedition leader Bill Randa (John Goodman, Trumbo). Brie Larson is the standout here. Her role manages to both maintain the trope of a woman beautiful enough to “tame the beast” while refusing to reduce Mason to a damsel in distress. Even beyond Larson’s acting, there are no weak performances in this movie. Every single actor held his or her own, even in scenes with the heavyweights of the cast. Of note is young actor Thomas Mann (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) who manages to make his naive, male ingenue role endearing instead of irritating – not an easy task. 

This is not to say that Kong: Skull Island is without any missteps. Much of the humor is startlingly abrupt and feels out of place in the film, even when the jokes themselves are funny. In the larger panoramic shots, the 3D sometimes gives the images an “uncanny valley” feel. While the CGI is impressive, there are shots here and there that don’t quite look right. Still these are minor quibbles in a film that is impressive overall. 

Overall

Kong: Skull Island is fun and incredibly well made. It’s absolutely beautiful to look at, the acting is amazing, and the climatic fight scene is incredible. If you like classic monster movies, this one will definitely be up your alley. Even if monster movies aren’t your style, I still think you should check this one out.

Be sure to stick around for the post-credit scene. It is both entertaining and a nice set up for future monster movies.

ComicsOnline gives Kong: Skull Island 4.5 out of 5 ineffective-against-monsters machine guns.

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