Saturday, March 11, 2017

Not Quite the King: A 'Skull Island' Review

Does the king roar again?

This review contains SPOILERS...

Not too long ago, Legendary Pictures unleashed Gareth Edwards' Godzilla. The first big blockbuster tentpole from the indie director, Godzilla proved to be a pretty rocky movie for critics and audiences alike. One side loved the film's suspense, use of build-up, focus on the humans, and how it treated Godzilla as a force of nature rather than a entity that the "good guys" must stop. It was the exact opposite of Roland Emmerich's 1998 blow-em-up take on the classic kaiju, and rung much closer to the original 1954 Gojira.

That wasn't enough for the other side, though. The other side felt the film suffered because of the vanilla lead characters, the amount of time Godzilla is actually onscreen, and Bryan Cranston's character dying in the first act. I on the other hand acknowledge the film's issues, but I absolute love how it pulled everything off. I thought it had enough Godzilla in it, for I felt this was a film that looked at such large-scale creature action from a human point of view, it didn't make a big deal out of the monsters, it instead asked "What would it be like to us?" It's a very grounded movie, and in the best possible way. There's plenty of suspense along the way as well, along with some knock-out action, a great atmosphere, and some neat worldbuilding.

Now, not too long after Godzilla came out, it was made clear that its sequel and an upcoming new take on King Kong would be tied together in what is now called the Legendary Pictures' MonsterVerse. Kong: Skull Island would be similar to Godzilla, in that it would be directed by someone with an indie background, boast a strong ensemble cast, and promise a unique take on the giant ape.

Given how I felt about Godzilla and how I don't object to the idea of bringing kaiju together onscreen, I was sure I was going to love Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Skull Island.

I didn't.

Kong: Skull Island has what's expected: The worldbuilding, the connections to Godzilla, and lots of monsters. Lots of them. I think the team behind the movie excelled when creating this Skull Island, a lost island not dissimilar to the Skull Islands we've seen before. Though not rife with prehistoric beasts, Skull Island instead is home to all sorts of creatures: Giant cape buffalo things with horns that branch off like antlers, giant spiders, a bug-tree monster, two-legged boneheaded lizards called Skullcrawlers, deadly pterosaur beasts, and more. Kong himself is much, much bigger than the classic version we all know.

It is also a neat period piece. Set in 1973, it works in the US's withdrawal from the Vietnam war, hippie culture, politics, all sorts of things into the story. The soundtrack featuring the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival (it wouldn't be a Vietnam War-era movie without that!), Iggy Pop, The Hollies, Jefferson Airplane and several more is a nice supplement to the already cool and memorable score by Henry Jackman. Jackman used psychedelic trickery in his pieces, adding to it greatly. Visually, it channels many Vietnam war movies, particularly Apocalypse Now (if the marketing didn't emphasize that enough!), and overall has a very unique color scheme. A nice break from the usual.

Instead of a beauty and the beast story, we get a refreshing take that simply treats Kong the way Godzilla treated its titular titan, he's a force of nature. He's at war with skullcrawlers, especially after what they did to his family. That stuff is all good, as are the sequences showing off various different monsters. Vogt-Roberts is clearly having a blast throwing all this stuff at us, and some of the action beats are strong.

Sadly, it's lacking in its first half and the script does little with some of its great cast. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson? Underused, they're just kind of... There. John C. Reilly completely steals the show and saves the day, but he doesn't come into the picture until later. Samuel L. Jackson turns out a decent performance as the baddie, John Goodman also turns in a memorable performance, but yeah... There's little to these characters. Now, the same can be said about Godzilla, and I loved that. So what doesn't work here?

The first half is all over the map. The pacing is way too quick, and there isn't any of that build-up or carefulness that made Godzilla work. Straight to the island, straight to the creatures, boom! Action! The directing is uneven here, too, and the editing seems like it's post-production choppery. Knowing Warner Bros these days, I wouldn't be surprised if this thing was mangled in post. I feel this film really starts to come into its own once we meet Reilly's character, a World War II veteran who got stranded on the island with a Japanese pilot, and got to know the land, the indigenous people, the creatures, and Kong over the course of roughly 30 years.

He, despite being in no more than maybe an hour of this movie, gets a decent story arc that ends very nicely. My thing is, if this was meant to be a movie that wasn't meant to be about a bunch of survivors on an island full of monsters, then why cast such great actors for the stock humans? To draw audiences in, I guess? I don't know, but I feel more could've been done with them given their backgrounds, what's set up and all. As an unabashed monster mash, it works fine enough, bolstered by its second half, which nails it in the directing and pacing departments. Kong shredding monsters and causing mayhem was good stuff!

On the whole, it's a fun two hours or so. There's a lot to like in the picture, and aesthetically it's very pleasing. With tighter direction and editing in the first half, it could've been an overall stronger creature feature. As it is, it's got a lot of good in it, and I am very much looking forward to future MonsterVerse films.

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