Kong: Skull Island is a fulfilling experience of CGI spectacle and well-realized showdowns of behemoths to set up the MonsterVerse.
Legendary’s MonsterVerse, which proves Legendary’s stuffy ambition for catching up with the prevalent “cinematic universe” trend, laid its first foundation in 2014 with Godzilla and later attached the Skull Island project to itself. Thus, Kong: Skull Island also had the responsibility to set up for a crossover between some of the most notorious Kaiju known to film lovers.
The movie went for a somewhat similar tone to what Godzilla tried to do: a social subtext fused into the plot. However, while the King of Monsters had to share its much-valued screen time with some side dish of forgettable humanity, Skull Island audaciously went for a full-blown spectacle of giant beasts bashing each other’s jaw with little care for human characters. It’s an intentionally wise move because the movie barely overreaches to be anything more personal and profound than what it was supposed to be: a fun, swanky monster flick.
During US Army’s retreat from Vietnam in 1973, US government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his assistant Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are under the gun to carry out an expedition to Skull Island – an uncharted location recently known thanks to satellite technology. Presenting it as a geological survey, they ask for military support and add former British SAS Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), as the hunter/tracker for their journey, and anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who only wants to seek the truth behind this fishy trek. With the help from the Sky Devils helicopter squadron led by Lt. Colonel Preston Deckard (Samuel L. Jackson), the crew approaches Skull Island and invokes Kong, a giant ape-like creature. He immediately retaliates for their intrusion, killing more than half of the crew members. Yet little known to them, Kong is the least to worry for on this island.
Skull Island’s script underwent many rewrites, with contribution from Max Borenstein, Dan Gilroy, Derek Connolly, and John Gatins, even though they didn’t work together. It has an Apocalypse Now riff to the plot, with a team of military people following a river to confront an intimidating figure, who eventually turns out to be more than the dossier. The story even shouts out the inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s acclaimed novel “Heart of Darkness” through Hiddleston’s Captain Conrad and a supporting character (not sure whether he really is just supportive) named Marlow.
The decision to put the movie in 1973 context was advocated and accomplished by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. (It was a period of political movements, which sets the background for what Skull Island sarcastically implies behind all those CG-extravaganza.) Joining the long line of indie directors helming blockbusters, Vogt-Roberts brought some dry humor from his directorial debut Kings of Summer to create outrageous amusement for Skull Island. He also shot everything on location, notably in Trang An, Ha Long Bay, and Tu Lan Cave system in Vietnam – an extraordinary feat, considering King Kong (2005) were shot inside Camperdown Studios. As a result, this backdrop of natural heritages and pristine landscapes set a stage for the realistic-looking environment, and both wide and medium shots feel more lived-in as the actors actually ran through wetlands. Likewise, Second Unit DP Jacques Haitkins, whose work ranged from horror classics to modern superhero blockbusters, also put his emphasis on practical effects; there is one scene where he set up two cameras inside the cockpit of a falling chopper to give a POV perspective from the eyes of Kong’s victims. Skillfully rendered, all CGI terrors and explosions are just the cherry on top.
Stephen Rosenbaum (Avatar) served as the senior VFX supervisor and spent two years to create the modern image of this 100-foot-tall primate – the tallest of all Kongs ever seen. It’s a throwback to the 1933 version but with a majestic update on Kong’s physical build: he stands tall on two legs – less gorilla-like than Peter Jackson’s 2005 Kong. He is primal and ruthless in fighting yet still emanates magnificent serenity when calmly walking around his natural habitat. Toby Kebbell (with his fantastic performances in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Warcraft) gave Kong his fierce facial expressions while the overall mo-cap was provided by Terry Notary (Rocket from Planet of the Apes franchise).
After crossing through a stake-free thunderstorm that perpetually surrounds the island only to show off Deckard’s fanatic militancy, the crew drops seismic charges to map out the area. The soldiers, especially Jackson’s Deckard, clearly enjoy the destruction brought down on this primitive habitat because it eases their thirst after having to withdraw from the battlefield. This is the perfect chance for Vogt-Roberts to catch us off guard, as Kong slams his fists to the scene so fast and brutally we didn’t expect the encounter to be this awe-inspiring.
This first confrontation is an impressive highlight in the world out of which Kong was spawned, but the movie didn’t go downhill from there because there’s more to go around. The ragtag groups of soldiers and experts lead us from swamps and graveyards to a tribal society of the Iwi natives, at the same time facing mortal threats from more weird giant creatures. There are some innocuous water buffaloes, a giant spider whose legs could be mistaken for bamboos, and of course the Skullcrawlers – Kong’s arch nemeses (modeled after Cubone the Pokemon and Spirited Away’s No-Face), etc. This provides windows of opportunity for the characters to be more engaging in interactions with those monsters and with one another but usually falls short of its potential.
Audiences couldn’t forget John C. Reilly in his scene-stealing role as the World War I veteran Hank Marlow. Marlow was a fighter pilot who got stranded on Skull Island back in 1944 with a Japanese soldier named Gunpei Ikari (MIYAVI), and they made peace with each other after finding out about Kong’s existence. Reilly effortlessly chewed up the scenery, no matter it was the mandatory exposition about Kong’s godhood on this island, madcap remarks on his isolation from the civilized world, or solemn respect to his late friend. In addition, Samuel L. Jackson brought his usual gravitas to the hawkish Deckard, who is preoccupied with the craving of combat he was about to be taken away from. In some way, he serves as the main antagonist of the movie, with a burning desire to kill Kong, representing America’s pride, greed and urge to dominate.
Other than that, most of the humans here are just cardboard characters with very few personality traits. Conrad and Weaver just act according to their professions without any depth and clear motivation, only elevated to be watchable by Hiddleston and Larson’s acting. Creditably, Vogt-Roberts put another spin on Weaver, as she’s not another blonde in distress, brushing over the interspecies romance with Kong. John Goodman did quite an acceptable job in portraying the government figure who believes in Brooks’ Hollow Earth theory and serves Monarch’s greater purpose, but his screen time was cut short because of too many frantic developments. Amidst plot points, which debut other beasts while killing off several extraneous characters, are banters between a group of soldiers. These oddball characters, portrayed by Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, and Shea Whigham, display great synergy with each other, and audiences feel a sense of likable, ironic optimism even though they’re just disposable walking candy bars for the terrifying monsters to prey on.
Skull Island brought us a fulfilling experience of spectacle and well-realized showdowns of behemoths, and then some. Humans, both intentionally and accidentally, get caught in between the conflicts of something too bizarre and astounding for their comprehension; they are underwhelming as characters because the movie is trying to spotlight on human’s impotence in front of the forces of primordial violence. Kong isn’t even subdued by firearms and explosives, let alone brought back to the city lights and then killed by the beauty. That’s the most innovative and underappreciated aspect of Skull Island.
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