16 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island review

As the second installment in Warner Bros' attempt at creating a coherent cinematic universe based on the monster movies of old, Kong: Skull Island is something of an oddity. Not only is it almost entirely unrelated to Gareth Edwards' Godzilla - a natural by-product of it being set a full four decades earlier - it's also radically different in both style and tone to the film that it is soon meant to crossover with, to the point where I struggle to see how the studio plan to bridge this pretty significant divide. And that's not to say that one is better than the other - I liked them both, for very different reasons - it's just that we haven't seen a cinematic universe that seems to give its directors this much creative freedom so far.

And if nothing else, that makes for a very interesting film indeed.

Set in 1973, we follow a ragtag expedition group made up of scientists, government employees, a photographer and a mercenary as they travel to Skull Island in order to explore what they believe to be the last uncharted territory on the planet. Accompanied by a US helicopter squadron for protection, they soon find that the island is infinitely more dangerous than most of them could have expected, and after the destruction of their helicopters have just three days to make their way to the Northern shore of the island for rescue.

It's a simple plot that allows Kong: Skull Island lots of time to explore the themes it is dealing with and show off its many monsters, but it's also saddled with an introductory act that gets things off to a very bad start. Ignoring a pre-title sequence that introduces us to a character we'll be reaquainted with later on, Kong: Skull Island's opening is genuinely dreadful, an oddly paced, horribly edited mish-mash of exposition laden scenes that jump from country to country on a whim, trying and failing to set the tone for what's to come or give any of these characters a personality. This giddy, rushed pace mostly disappears by the time we actually get to Skull Island, but the film does suffer for it in a big way, particularly when it comes to the characters - or more accurately, its complete lack of them.

With the exception of John C. Reilly's lovable World War 2 veteran and Samuel L. Jackson's modern-ish take on "Moby-Dick"'s Captain Ahab, the characters in Kong: Skull Island are paper thin at best, poorly sketched archetypes that are sorely lacking anything that could be misconstrued as a personality. Tom Hiddleston is hilariously miscast as a stoic mercenary, and Brie Larson only just manages to get by on her natural likability - everyone else, John Goodman included, is a face and a plot point and nothing more. It's ironic, in a way, that Kong: Skull Island ends up feeling very much like the wrong Gareth Edwards film - like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Kong: Skull Island is big on spectacle but very light on actual characters, and is also harmed severely by a messy, rushed first act.

And yet in spite of all that, Kong: Skull Island is still worth a trip to the cinema - mainly for the simple fact that seeing a gigantic ape beat the shit out of various monsters/people will always be entertaining, but also for the few bits of genuine brilliance that do shine through from time to time. It's rare, but there are moments where the anti-war sentiment of Kong: Skull Island combines with the Apocalypse Now imagery and colorful, pulpy, B-movie cinematography to create something that feels completely atypical in blockbuster film-making in the best possible way. Yes, these characters are mostly D.O.A, and from a film-making perspective a lot of Kong: Skull Island is rough to say the least, but in spite of all that I found myself enjoying a film that clearly has a lot on its mind, even if it's only sometimes able to express itself properly.

Because when Kong: Skull Island does manage to express itself properly, or even just when it starts to fire on all cylinders, the result is wonderful. There is a reason that I singled out John C. Reilly's and Samuel L. Jackson's characters earlier - they're both a fantastic combination of great performances and legitimately interesting writing, serving the themes of the film while also adding enormously to how enjoyable it is on a more obvious level too. And Kong: Skull Island may lack the awesome sense of scale that Gareth Edwards brought to Godzilla, but that doesn't make Kong a less imposing figure, powerful and vengeful and almost Lovecraftian in the impossibility of his size, only furthering the sense that our human characters are so far out of their depth that it's laughable.

It's these glimpses of greatness - alongside the aforementioned "Kong beating the hell out of everything" scenes - that ultimately place Kong: Skull Island on the right side of mediocrity, making it an obviously flawed but undeniably entertaining romp that I can't see many people not getting at least some enjoyment out of. Yes, it could have been a lot better - but it also could have been a lot, lot worse, and the fact that it's still very watchable in spite of its problems is a good indication of how much works when all is said and done.

3 stars

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