Thursday, May 11, 2017

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

I just saw 'Kong: Skull Island' last night and  HAD.  A.  TOTAL.  BLAST.  As someone who was a little disappointed in both 'The Jungle Book' and 'The Legend of Tarzan' last year, I really think this is the best jungle adventure movie we've had in ages.

As you probably know, 'Kong: Skull Island' takes place in the same world as 2014's 'Godzilla' and is setting up a loose remake of the 1962 Japanese film 'King Kong vs. Godzilla'.  I for one was a little concerned when I heard that this movie would be taking place in the 1970s - I saw this as a potential tribute to the 1976 King Kong, a version that I have both seen and hated.  I was pleasantly surprised though, the Vietnam War era setting really worked well, and even though the jukebox soundtrack was constantly reminding you of how 70's everything was it really captured the feel of a classic adventure story juxtaposed with a war movie.  Also, casual references to 'That nuclear incident in 1954' cough, Godzilla, cough, show that bumping the story forward a couple of decades was necessary for the crossover to work.  Also, changing the setting to the south pacific was a stoke of genius, tying Skull Island to World War II, Vietnam, and in a geographically similar location to Japan (And y'know, Godzilla).

All that crossover stuff is nice, but if you're like me, you didn't come for Godzilla references.  YOU CAME TO SEE KING KONG!  And as this is the third King Kong remake it's nice to see that they shook up the formula a little bit.  Don't get me wrong, I adore Peter Jackson's 2005 King Kong, but we really don't need another straight up remake of the original movie.  Gone is the empire state building and any reference to that fictional Arabian proverb about beauty and the beast.  We have many of the familiar elements, but they put them in a different order this time around.  The traditional King Kong ending - Kong swatting aircraft out of the sky - takes place close to the beginning this time around.  The climax is basically the Kong vs. T-rex fight, but this time around the T-rex is replaced with a new giant creature, a 'Skull Crawler'.

Spoiler warning.  If you haven't seen the movie but want to, proceed at your own risk.

The film starts during WWII with an American and a Japanese fighter pilot both crash landing on Skull Island.  As they are both on opposite sides of the same war their first inclination is to try and kill each other.  But as this IS Skull Island, they soon discover that they have much bigger problems than their personal allegiances.  As in, Kong Kong sized problems.  To this movie's credit, they don't monkey around - Sorry, couldn't resist - when it comes to showing us the monster.  One if the biggest fan complaints about the 2014 'Godzilla' is how little Godzilla actually appears onscreen.  Here we get our first look at Kong within the first 5 minutes, and I was on-board from that moment onward.

Fast forward to 1973.  We're introduced to professional monster hunter and government agent Bill Randa.  He's putting together a ragtag expedition to explore a Bermuda Triangle type skull shaped island.  Like any good expedition leader he's cryptic about his true motivations and how much danger is waiting for them on the island.  Other members of the expedition include hesitant tracker James Conrad - who is sort of your traditional 'great white hunter' stereotype - Mason Weaver, a photojournalist, which is the only pretty much the only available occupation for attractive heroines in classic adventure stories, and Colonel Preston Packard, who is here to handle the heavy artillery and order everyone around.

As well as playing the character types of classic adventure stories straight, they play dated and scientifically questionable elements of speculative fiction completely straight.  We've got an island surrounded by perpetual fog, hollow earth theory, giant spiders, and the movie is taking itself seriously the whole time.  Sure, the characters crack the occasional joke, but in general they take the lost world genre, update the time period, and do it without disrespecting the genre or losing credibility.  It's really refreshing, particularly after 'Legend of Tarzan' which didn't seem to understand that jungle adventure stories are supposed to be exciting and fun, rather than dull and soul draining.

It isn't long after arriving an skull island that the team runs afoul of Kong, and they've inadvertently (or perhaps not so inadvertently?) provoked him.  The survivors of this encounter are scattered.  Colonel Packard is seeing red after the loss of so many of his men, and his group sets out to find a way to take out Kong, while James Conrad, Mason Weaver, and company set out for the rendezvous point.  Conrad's team meet up with a group of natives and the long missing WWII pilot Hank Marlowe.

The natives have of course build huge wall around their village, but it turns out the wall is to keep out something EVEN WORSE than Kong - the Skull Crawlers.  Unlike the original King Kong, this wall is covered in spikes that are caked with the blood of past Skull Crawler attacks.  Marlowe warns the team against trying to taking out Kong, as he keeps the Skull Crawlers in check.  He also warns them against traveling at night, or taking that shortcut through the giant monster graveyard.  Our heroes primarily ignore all of Marlowe's warnings.  Poor Marlowe.

Our heroes eventually converge, but Packard is unwilling to continue to the rendezvous point.  Like Captain Ahab, Packard has become obsessed with a white whale.  A really hairy white whale that walks on two legs and is actually a gorilla.  Under the pretense of 'looking for survivors' Packard talks everyone to going back towards the helicopter where all the heavy artillery is kept.  On the way they have to cross that aforementioned monster graveyard, which just so happens to be where the Skull Crawlers hang out.  And here's where our heroes - particularly Mason and Conrad - get their chance to shine.

Side note: One problem I have with Mason, unlike Ann Darrow in previous versions, is that she isn't given much to do.  She doesn't have a big role in humanizing Kong - They only have about three scenes together - She'll occasionally wander off to take pictures, and you think she's about to be attacked by a big monster, but nothing happens.  She only appears to be in the story because it's traditional for a King Kong movie to have a pretty blonde girl who gets menaced by big monsters, but this movie did away with any of that 'Beauty and the Beast' damsel in distress stuff.  She does play a big part in some of the action scenes though, taking out Skull Crawlers with cigarette lighters and flare guns.  I love how resourceful she is in a fight.

Speaking of the monster fights - another thing that didn't totally work for me was the way they kept cutting away from our main characters to show Kong fighting a big monster.  The first example of this, we have a lone soldier separated from the others.  He stops by the river to wash his wounds.  Then Kong shows up and starts washing HIS wounds from that helicopter fight in the beginning.  It's a cool scene.  But then this big octopus shows up and they start fighting.  What?  Why is this scene in the movie?  It's random and kind of distracting.  The other place is where Marlowe is telling the team about how Kong protects the natives from the Skull Crawlers and we cut to Kong fighting Skull Crawlers.  I get the purpose for this bit, but it seems like an odd transition or something.

Anyway, back to the story.  Once our heroes find out Packard's plan to kill Kong, they are divided - our heroes are heeding Marlowe's warnings, and the soldiers are torn between following orders and doing the right thing.  Unfortunately Packard's attack both weakens Kong and awakens the biggest and baddest of all the Skull Crawlers.  Our heroes hotfoot it back to the river, but they're pursued by the Skull Crawler.  One of the soldier's bravely stays behind to take out the Skull Crawler, a live grenade in each hand.  Unfortunately his sacrifice is wasted as the beast knocks him out of the way with it's whip-like tale.  I had a bit of a debate with my sister about the scene.  She was a bit annoyed at this character's death, saying it felt pointless.  I countered with the argument that it highlighted that character's bravery, made the Skull Crawler seem that much more powerful, and made you more emotionally invested in the climax.  If not for the heroic sacrifice the ending would've just been two monsters punching each other.  And boy do those two monsters fight each other.  I had the biggest grin on my face when Kong grabs an anchor chain from a derelict ship and starts swinging it around like a mace.

And that's Kong: Skull Island.  It respects it's pulp adventure roots, but it's not afraid to shake up the formula and bring new things to the table.  Definitely worth a watch.

- Geekboy.

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