Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Cast: Brie Larson, Toby Kebbell, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Tian Jing, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John C. Reilly
Runtime: 1 hr 58 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)
Released By: Warner Bros Singapore
Official Website: http://kongskullislandmovie.com
Opening Day: 9 March 2017
Synopsis: This compelling, original adventure from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) tells the story of a diverse team of scientists, soldiers and adventurers uniting to explore a mythical uncharted island in the Pacific, as dangerous as it is beautiful. Cut off from everything they know, the team ventures into the domain of the mighty Kong, igniting the ultimate battle between man and nature. As their mission of discovery becomes one of survival, they must fight to escape a primal Eden in which humanity does not belong. In 2017, all hail the King.
No sequel, spinoff or remake has come close to matching up to the mythology of the 1933 classic, and just to be sure, neither does this latest iteration of pop culture’s mightiest simian. Instead, this origin story largely set in the 1970s when America was pulling itself out from the quagmire of the Vietnam War inspires to be no more and no less than a monster-mash adventure of epic-sized proportions, pitting not just Man-against-Kong but Man-against-nature-itself, the latter represented by supersized species the likes of towering spiders, blue-blooded pterodactyls and giant saw-toothed lizards referred to as Skullcrawlers that are all too eager to get a literal taste of human flesh. Oh yes, this is a CGI showstopper in many, many more ways than one, with state-of-the-art Industrial Light and Magic technology complemented with inventive creature design by Carlos Huante to create a fitting modern-day throwback to the B-movie action-driven creature features of the past.
Dispensing with any hint of nuance, the straightforward and utterly functional plot has John Goodman’s scientist cum bureaucrat Bill Randa assemble a team under his top-secret government-funded Monarch project to explore the hitherto uncharted Skull Island, a landmass in the South Pacific hidden by constant electrical storms and magnetic interference which has been only recently uncovered by the first Earth-mapping satellites sent up into space by the US. Among those whom end up one way or another on the mission: Tom Hiddleston’s former SAS officer turned tracker-for-hire James Conrad, Brie Larson’s anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver, and last but not least Samuel L. Jackson’s embittered Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard and his helicopter squadron (some of the more recognizable faces include Shea Whigham and Toby Kebbell). There are about a half dozen other characters too difficult to keep track once the film gets underway, such as Jing Tian and Corey Hawkins’ pair of token-minority scientists who get a couple of pointless lines and no real purpose.
Withholding knowledge of the real intent of the expedition to “document the existence of massive unidentified terrestrial organisms’, Randa instructs Colonel Packard’s men to start dropping bombs from their helicopters under the guise of mapping the island seismographically, which naturally irritates the hell out of its eponymous chief resident. Kong’s grand dramatic entrance consists of hurling a napalm tree towards one of the choppers, before tearing through each and every one of them by either ripping them apart or tossing them against each other. Oh yes, you’ll be glad to know that (unlike Randa) Kong doesn’t hold anything back right from the get-go, meaning that you will get to see him in all his massive vicious glory in every single scene that he is in. That awesome introduction not only cuts the ensemble down to those in the opening credits and divides them into two groups, but also sets up the enmity between Kong and Packard.
Given the simplicity of the storyline, it is no surprise that the characters are but stock types – in fact, the most fully developed character only joins midway through the film, a WWII vet named Hank Marlowe (John C. Reilly) who survived the Japanese pilot after him when both their fighter planes crash-land back in 1944 and has since learned to live peacefully among the natives there. It is Marlowe who narrates the mumbo-jumbo of the role Kong plays in maintaining the ecological balance among the bloodthirsty species on the island – especially the fearsome Skullcrawlers – and convinces Conrad and Mason to stand against a vengeful Colonel Packard hellbent on exacting revenge for his fallen men. Reilly steals every scene he is in – more than just as supporting comic presence, he is a real live wire injecting warmth, humour and dryness as an eccentric lost-in-time pilot. Jackson comes a close second with his brash gusto, but the rest of the actors are not much better than as body count.
But really, who are we kidding – you’re probably not here for the story or the characters but the damn ape himself, and boy, does he look magnificent. With tactile fur and soulful eyes, Kong comes to life in breathtaking realism, aided with motion capture by ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ actor Terry Notary. This Kong is majestic on his own (one such moment has him taking a break in a lake while Kebbell’s terrified major watches from behind a rock a few feet away), and jaw-droppingly powerful during any one of the startlingly photoreal sequences of bestial combat. It bears noting that the monsters which emerge to challenge Kong or which simply make an appearance as part of the fauna of the titular island are also just as stunning, especially a confrontation in a foggy graveyard between the remaining survivors and a Skullcrawler and the climactic Kong-versus-giant-Skullcrawler smackdown that is impressive even by modern-day CGI standards.
Despite being a visual effects novice, indie director Jordan Vogt-Roberts proves right at home in a big-budget motion picture. He creates an immersive pre-historic paradise to complement the exciting monster scenes, and mixes 70s war imageries from ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Platoon’ into the ‘Jurassic Park’ setting to keep his audience hooked. Together with cinematographer Larry Fong, he also manages to capture the monster’s rage in interesting perspectives, such as through the perspective of one of Packard’s soldiers trapped in the helicopter cockpit as the chopper spirals downwards to its fiery grave. Wisely too, Vogt-Roberts opts to skip a love story between Hiddleston and Larson, as well as not to overplay the connection between Larson and Kong (in the same way the 1933 classic did between Kong and Fay Wray) which speaks to the gorilla’s humanity.
Because of his firm grasp on pace and rhythm, what is two hours feels much less so – and if there is one unintended outcome of that, it is the fact that we end up wanting to see more of Kong. As much as it is Kong’s movie, there are also stretches in between where he is nowhere to be seen, and the other nasty dino-like creatures on Skull Island take center stage to exert terror on the human intruders. Ultimately, this is a movie fashioned on pure action spectacle, using state-of-the-art CGI to breathe new life into the old-school monster movie mash genre (you would do well to note that this is meant to be an origin story in Legendary/ Warner’s MonsterVerse franchise, setting up the beast for a planned showdown against Godzilla in 2020). It may all seem familiar, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun or thrilling, so really just grab your popcorn, sit back and enjoy the ride.
(Big on action, thrills and pure spectacle and lean on everything else, this latest iteration of pop culture's mightiest simian is good old monster mash fun)
Review by Gabriel Chong