Film Review: Kong: Skull Island

by Chad Liffmann on March 10, 2017

Kong delivers without monkeying around.

This guy really needs to hold on tighter.

I’ll admit that I was more than skeptical when Kong: Skull Island was first announced. A new King Kong movie, really? Peter Jackson’s 2005 version still felt fresh in my mind, perhaps because it’s been playing on TV so often. But Kong: Skull Island was supposedly a different type of Kong movie. It was gonna be more modern, more action-oriented, and part of a larger monster movie series (see MonsterVerse). That all sounded nice and dandy but I wasn’t going to believe it until I saw it. Then, I saw it. I saw it in IMAX 3D. And whaddya know, it’s really good. Kong: Skull Island delivers just about everything you’d expect from its marketing campaign and PR promises. The action is exciting, the special effects are fantastic, the acting is non-distractingly serviceable, and there’s nothing else to it. As pure cinematic escapism, Kong: Skull Island reigns king. 

The story is simple — In 1973, around the close of the Vietnam War, adventure seekers (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) organize a military-infused operation to a secret island in the South Pacific to discover the mythical beasts that may inhabit the uncharted territory. The military portion of the group is led by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), and the civilian aides include former British Captain and now expert tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). As the trailers and ALL other King Kong films suggest, the giant ape turns up and wreaks havoc on the puny humans. The film wastes no time getting us to the giant Kong, and I mean giant, and keeps a steady stream of thrills flowing until the closing credits. 

The Vietnam War is prevalent throughout the film, including blatant Apocalypse Now references (even the posters), character names (Conrad, like Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, and Marlow, named after the book’s narrator), filming locations, and even the general storyline of soldiers trudging through swamps, meandering through forests, and riding down rivers fighting hidden foes. The soundtrack is full of 1970s psychedelic rock songs that were immensely popular at the time, and have been stereotypical Vietnam movie go-tos, from the likes of Jefferson Airplane, The Hollies, Bowie, and a lot more. Kong doesn’t hide its Vietnam War influence, and the film is stronger for it. It doesn’t pretend to engage in subtle nuances and deeper meanings. Characters serve their quick purpose and then spend the rest of the time running from monsters. Even the impactful comedic relief from John C. Reilly doesn’t disrupt the flow of the overall story. Hints of a blossoming romance between Conrad and Weaver remain as hints, thus avoiding the likelihood of a cheesy romance distracting from the real reason everyone in the theater is watching the movie — to see Kong smash things! And smash things, he does!

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who made an impressive indie splash with 2013’s The Kings of Summerkeeps Kong tight and engaged while demonstrating a preference for strategic and beautifully shot sequences of carnage, and utilizing a wide variety of action cinematography techniques. Slow-motion, 360 degree turns, sweeping crane shots, close-ups, and creative camera angles are all employed tastefully to keep the action feeling fresh and stylized. Shout out to the DP Larry Fong (Super 8, Batman v Superman)! I’m not normally a fan of 3D, and especially not of IMAX 3D, but Kong is a worthy exception that makes good use of the format, even if it wasn’t originally shot that way.

Kong: Skull Island is all about the spectacle, which is the best and only comparison I can really make between it and the original 1933 film. They’re both showcases for the top notch visual effects and action camera work of their time, and really that’s all I could’ve asked for. The Vietnam War stuff is an interesting and rewarding contextual canvas, and lends itself nicely to the film’s beautiful aesthetic, but it’s really Kong smashing helicopters and battling giant lizard creatures that people will flock to the theaters to see. Sorry, Mr. Hiddleston.

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Kong: Skull Island comes out in theaters Friday, March 10th.

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