A Movie Review in Two Parts, Part 1 - About Kong: Skull Island

I wasn't sure what to expect of Kong: Skull Island. It's the second film in the Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures shared universe (AKA MonsterVerse), and I was a bit disappointed by the first movie in the franchise - 2014's Godzilla. But Kong received mostly positive reviews, looked visually stunning in a way that it must be seen on the big screen or not at all, the cast features Loki and Nick Fury, and I needed something to watch at the theater with my oldest on Father's Day. Additionally, Kong was directed by the same guy that brought us the quirky, sweet, and heartbreaking coming of age story The Kings of Summer. So I felt Kong was worth a shot. I was pleasantly surprised.

Now, let's be clear, this is not the best movie ever. There are flaws. It is heavy on exposition - often at a pace you'll miss it if you're not paying close enough attention. The character set up designed to make us care about characters that are eventually killed off is hit and miss. The ending, while satisfying, is wholly predictable. The tone shifts from a standard action genre romp with all of tropes, to mixing in horror elements, to a sci-fi reimagining of a National Geographic documentary, to an admiring tribute of Apocalypse Now, and back to a summertime adventure. At times, it felt like Kong didn't know what kind of movie it wanted to be.

In the film, John Goodman plays a manipulative cryptozoologist employed by Monarch - a government funded secret organization that exists to study and hunt down giant monsters. Goodman's Bill Randa believes an unmapped and unexplored island in the South Pacific is home to these creatures. As the Vietnam war comes to a close, Randa convinces a senator to fund a scientific expedition to the island complete with military escort. The crew travelling to Skull Island includes seismologist and Monarch employee Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), biologist San (Tian Jing), tracker and former British SAS captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), compassionate anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) finishing his tour of duty in Vietnam, and a bunch of mostly disposable soldiers and helicopter pilots belonging to Packard's squadron who really just want to go home.

Once on the island, they drop seismic charges from the sky which angers Kong, a giant ape. Or as one soldier asked "Is that a monkey?" Kong methodically brings down all of the helicopters in a fit of rage. The survivors of the various crashes are split into isolated groups and each attempt to achieve different goals.

Packard, with Randa, wants to recover the weapons cache from one of the other helicopters so he can confront and kill King Kong. Along the way they encounter a giant spider with legs like bamboo trees and a flock of pterodactyl-like vultures. In another group, Conrad, Mason, San, and Brooks trek to the north end of the island in hopes of rescue from an anticipated supply drop at an exfil point. This second group is captured by a local tribe and meet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a missing WWII lieutenant who crashed on Skull Island during a dogfight and lived with the natives since 1944.

Marlow explains his survival and the friendship he formed with his former enemy, a Japanese pilot who was also stranded after the same WWII dogfight. According to Marlow, the tribe worships King Kong and consider him their protector from bigger and deadlier lizard-like creatures called skullcrawlers. This second group invites Marlow to accompany them so he can return home a war hero. He agrees and escorts them on a boat he built from the wreckage of his and the Japanese planes.

The two groups converge and hope to reach the north shore, but are unable to continue because Packard refuses to give up his self-appointed mission: to bring down the monster Kong. Conrad, Mason, and Marlow attempt to convince Packard to leave Kong alone. They warn him that killing Kong will leave them vulnerable to something worse. But Packard refuses because he blames for the deaths of his men. He wants vengeance.

Earlier in the movie, after the helicopters all crashed, there is a stunning shot of Conrad and Kong staring each other down. It is pure cinematic magic where the anger in Conrad's eyes match Kong's fierce expression. Between the man and the monster, there is no love lost. That brief scene sets up a bitter rivalry with no possibility of a peaceful resolution. As a viewer, you know from that moment on that one will kill the other.

image courtesy of Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures

I won't spoil the remaining plot line. If you're a movie junkie like me, you could probably guess on your own. Yet by the time credits roll, Kong: Skull Island accomplishes what it set out to do - entertain. Many of the big action set pieces were thrilling. The cinematography was stunning and frequently far more beautiful than what is found in typical summer blockbusters and big studio tent-poles; a ton of credit is due to the director of photography. And John C. Reilly turned out to be the action star I never knew I needed.

The third (and next film) in the MonsterVerse is titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters. But after seeing Kong: Skull Island, I dispute the validity of that title. Kong is king. When the fourth film, Godzilla vs. Kong rolls out in 2020, I will be cheering for the big ape.

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