REVIEW: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

The most loaded words in reviews today are “dumb” and “fun.”  Sometimes they’re used as simply as Merriam-Webster intended. But more often than not, “dumb” and “fun” are shortcuts, lazy euphemisms intended to give big-budget blockbusters credit, but enough distance to remain above them.  “Dumb” now means “contains explosions.” “Fun” is somehow the faintest praise in existence, despite being the very mission statement of the movies.  Pay attention to the reviews of the latest action romp, the latest effects-driven epic and you’ll likely see both of these words sprout like weeds.

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Now this isn’t to say there aren’t dumb movies; we live in an age when empty spectacle is cheaper than ever, and entire franchises use plot only as an excuse to string together trailer-worthy set pieces.  But it’s become a catch-all.  Boil it down and it’s not hard to imagine JawsJurassic Park and the original King Kong earning the throwaway distinction of “dumb fun” movies. Explosions, giant prehistoric creatures, eclectic casts of colorful weirdos up against an army of special effects.

Kong: Skull Island has already scored a few “dumbs” and “funs,” but it doesn’t deserve them.

Kong: Skull Island isn’t “dumb fun” – it’s shamelessly entertaining.

It manages to surprise, scare and seduce you with how much creative mileage it gets out of its ten-ton star and his hilariously dangerous stomping grounds.

Does Kong throw a palm tree through a helicopter? Of course he does.

What does the big man do when he’s physically outmatched by another monster? Start whipping around a rusty submarine propeller on a chain.

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Is everything on Skull Island deadly?  Even the trees, some of which aren’t actually trees.

Dumb is taking a big canvas for granted, throwing in big booms and bad CG to keep audiences from falling asleep.

Kong is using that canvas to sop up every drip of awe and excitement the filmmakers can wring from its premise.

It’s no coincidence that the movie draws more inspiration from the likes of Jaws, Jurassic Park and even Aliens than its most recent forebear.

In the closing days of the Vietnam War, two representatives of a shadowy government organization dedicated to giant monsters tag along with a team of Landsat engineers, an ex-SAS tracker, a war photographer on the verge of Time magazine fame and a platoon of disinterested soldiers who just want to go home led by a colonel with a screw loose who just wants to go back to war on a simple exploration mission to an uncharted, perpetually storm-shkong-skull-island-screen1rouded island.

Immediately there are a few “us vs. them” lines drawn among the expedition team. The company and the military.  The pacifist and the mercenary.  Samuel L. Jackson and the sane.

The characters are monster movie standards, or at least artfully plucked from other genres, but it’s really a credit to the actors how fresh they all feel.

John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly run the show whenever they’re on-screen.  And that’s no mean feat considering they’re often sharing it with a fifty-foot ape.

Kong himself is the undisputed star of the picture. Bigger and badder than ever before, the King takes down an entire fleet of helicopters, eats an octopus and batters lizard-creatures against mountains. All before even hitting puberty.  This is a young Kong, the last of his kind, who reluctantly protects his isolated home.  Compared to past stories about him, not much time is spent showing King Kong’s vulnerable side, but the few glimpses provided are touching nonetheless.  It’s enough to make you root for him, to wish that the band of intruders never came in the first place.

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And that’s ultimately why Kong: Skull Island isn’t dumb.  It’s by no means a perfect blockbuster – the de facto leads played by Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson work only because of the actors’ charisma, the Vietnam metaphors bludgeon and not all of the character beats land – but it’s ultimately constructed well enough that we care.  You’ll feel for Kong as he’s hunted by a man who only sees him as a war to be won.  You’ll feel for the soldiers who really don’t want to fight the not-quite-gentle giant, but follow their colonel anyways.

There are explosions. There are big CGI monsters. There’s even a scene where someone runs through a cloud of poisonous gas with a samurai sword hacking bats out of the sky.

But you’re actually invested in all of it.

Kong: Skull Island is a wonderful reminder of what blockbuster filmmaking can pull off when done right.

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It’s a genuine adventure, with nail-biting chases, awe-inspiring special effects, a great sense of humor and moments of genuine horror (Kong pushes its PG-13 on a few deaths and a lone f***, though its put to excellent use).  But most importantly, it has heart.  The ending alone is more touching than it has any right to be.

Like its star, Kong: Skull Island is a tribute and return to another time, when blockbusters weren’t so easily written off as “dumb fun,” when, once in a while, they could remind you what makes movies magical.

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