Friday, 10 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island review

I decided to check out Jordan Vogt-Roberts reboot of the 'King Kong' brand, and the second film in Legendary Pictures' 'monsterverse': 'Kong: Skull Island'. Hit the jump for my review!

Hey kids, that poster look familiar to you? Evoking some other film from the annals of history? Ever wanted to see said film remade with  giant fuckoff gorilla?

If so, then today's your day!

Newcomer (well, aside from 'The Kings of Summer') Jordan Vogt-Roberts helms this interesting take on the 'Kong' mythology. Will it be a future monster movie classic, or will it go down as yet another botched remake attempt? Read on to find out...

The monster graveyard...
After a brief pre-credits scene, and a beautiful sequence involving a constantly widening aspect ratio taking us from 1944 to the setting of the film, we open in Washington in 1973. It's the final days of the Vietnam war; and the state is in chaos - 'Washington will never be as screwed up as it is now' quips John Goodman's conspiracy theorist; a decidedly meta joke which had the audience in fits of laughter. Amidst the protesting and flying sheets of paper, he manages (somewhat implausibly) to summon backing from a white house senior official to launch an expedition to the uncharted Skull Island (so the Russians don't get there first of course).

Thus begins an interesting, beautifully lit in Winding Refn shades of neon, and wonderfully designed globetrotting expedition to pick up Sam Jackson's war-hardened Captain, Brie Larson's anti-conflict photographer, Tom Hiddleston's enigmatic tracker, and some other characters we don't really give a shit about. The plan is simple: sail to the island, drop charges to measure the seismic activity, and map the area. Of course, it doesn't go that way.

In scenes resembling 'Apocalypse Now' in startling likeness, the soldiers and crew fly in helicopter formation - slow motion rotor blades, blasting the 70s tunes, and bombing the greenery to hell. Before long, we realise that this isn't a mapping mission after all: the charges have been dropped to awake a mythical beast - and titular creature appears.

What follows is supercharged fight scene after supercharged fight scene: in this world, of course, there's not just a giant 120m tall ape - but also a whole horde of giant spiders, ants, natives, and worst of all - the 'skull crawlers' - a particularly fearsome beast. The parties split in two and fight their separate battles across the island - coming across John C Reilley's stranded WWII fighter pilot in a peaceful village - and then contrasting their peaceful path to escape to Jackson's blazing trail of revenge.
The lost pilot...

By the time the end credits roll, we've seen enough carnage and skirmish to earn 'Kong' a gold star as a tribute to 'Apocalypse Now'. A very weird and idiosyncratic tribute for sure, but one which directly exploits the idea of a bunch of Americans bombing the hell out of paradise, and destroying its beautiful ecosystem - not to mention themselves.

For a 12a/PG-13 effort, 'Skull Island' makes a valiant effort of pushing the BBFC/MPAA boundaries as far as they can go - with some almost disturbing gory images, and a fair bit of bad language. That's discounting the various jumpscare moments, sheer amount of death, and overall quite adult tone of the picture: all the music dates to around the time period of the setting, and the main actors will only really get older viewers excited for their cult appeal. But at it's heart it's an exciting and beautifully colored adventure that I'm sure a lot of younger children would also love to see - I remember the awe I felt at watching Peter Jackson's vision in the cinema at the age of 7: it's grittier and more grown up than what I was used to, but was so spectacular and fun that it provided a perfect all-round experience.

So, before we get onto the strengths of this particular vision, there is a  notable weakness: there really is no characterisation. Tom Hiddleston is a particular weak point: his character has little reason to exist, no emotional grounding, no backstory, and few lines. He's just kinda 'there' - and as a main character, there's no real reason why we feel we should root for him; other than that we like Tom Hiddleston and he knows how to use a katana really well. Similarly, but not as bad, Brie Larson exists for the purposes of 'photographer person' who's anti-war and gunning for a Pulitzer. Nevertheless, she's a pretty charismatic lead - and the films use of her photographs, as well as her almost ethereal and removed presence was just about sufficient to forgive her lack of substance. John Goodman and Corey Hawkins have a promising start, but then are sidelined as soon as the action gets heated.

oooh.... what does this remind you of?
 In reality, we can't sympathise with any of the soldiers (including Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, and Shea Whigham) because they don't have any real depth. Only Thomas Mann provides some relief as the incredulous and most human of the bunch - creating audience laughs. However, we do have two very strong characters to counter this mess. Samuel L Jackson's Preston Packard is a parody of the actor himself: as badass as Jules from 'Pulp Fiction', and spewing Tarantino-esque revenge monologues; not to mention more than a few 'Apocalypse Now' and 'Jurassic Park' references. He's more complex, interesting, and challenged than the rest of the crew - and proves to be pivotal in the story because of it. Likewise John C Reilley's Hank Marlow - a crashed 40s pilot - also adds a lot to the narrative. He's sort of like a faded time capsule: out of this world, a little bit idiot savant, and with a fantastic back story. He also cracks a ridiculously funny joke every minute or so (more on that later), and is the most poignant of all the characters.

With the character issues aside, this movie really is very funny - and not begging to be taken seriously at all. Moments of carnage and violence are punctuated by presidential bobble-heads and jump cuts to innocuous scenes. Even the gorier kills are presented with a kind of dark humour that entertains and causes awkward laughs rather than actually disturbing. And there is almost constant joking about everything from the current situation to East/West tension and the absurdity of the creatures on the island. If anything, the humour seems to owe more to meta horror movies of the last decade (see 'You're Next'). And apart from a surprisingly emotional epilogue, the entirety of 'Skull Island' is an absolute blast - dismissing any notions of lofty themes or melodrama from the get go. It's simply a lot of damn fun.

Not only that, but it's a blast in general. From fight scene to fight scene we witness impressive CGI carnage that looks pretty damn realistic indeed. Kong himself has never been so tangible, so alive even: when smashing planes and tearing apart the kraken, he really looks the part. A seemingly endless parade of enemies are on show to tear apart our heroes: from the bat-like dinosaur bird thingies, to giant-ass spiders, and the 'skull crawlers' that apparently are straight outta 'Neon Genesis: Evangelion', there's a lot to fight. And fight is what they do; there's explosions, weaponry, swordplay, hand-to-hand combat, a shitload of napalm, and some good old fashioned monster-on-monster action. There is 0 substance - and I mean 0 - but it's so deliriously entertaining that we can forget about petty traits such as 'intelligence' and move on.

Nicolas Winding Refn... is that you?
And, in terms of it's aesthetics, 'Skull Island' is never less than scintillatingly beautiful to look at. There are the deep 'Apocalypse Now' oranges and blacks of the sunset on the island, marked by the silhouette of the giant monster; there are neon-drenched bars and side-streets in Vietnam; there are scenes that take place under the cover of the magnificent northern lights; and scenes filmed in thick green fog - in a giant graveyard. Napalm lights the surroundings, and the island is so beautifully filmed that it feels a bit more like an untouched paradise than the rugged rock of the 2005 version. Vogt-Roberts also makes bountiful use of slow motion and freeze frame (B&W through the lens of a camera) to frequently stop the action and give us a moment to take the wonderful chaos in; the movie really is fantastically tuned, more so than 90% of other blockbusters, on its visual side.

And last but not least, the soundtrack is beyond epic, including Ziggy Stardust, Bad Moon Rising, Run Through the Jungle, We'll Meet Again, Down on the Street, and Paranoid among others. It seems like every 10 minutes, another character is playing tunes of the groups portable record player - to a great response from the audience. These well known tracks serve to situate the film in the time and the place in which it is set, as well as keeping up the non-serious aspect of the whole charade: this is an enjoyable piece of fun, it tells us - just sit back and relax.

At the end of the day, 'Kong: Skull Island' is hardly a masterpiece - but who thought it was going to be one in the first place? Its characters are badly defined, and its plot is a rehash from previous iterations of the character - not to mention other movies. But with a winning combination of fantastic CGI, eye-popping visuals, boundary-pushing content, and a rocking soundtrack - this movie is a fuck ton of fun! It's an A-movie with a B-movie heart: filled with the spirit of adventure and swashbuckling action. Enjoy it while it lasts.
'Kong: Skull Island' gets 4 stars!

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