Kong: Skull Island (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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Desperate to get to an uncharted land before the Russians, a United States scientific expedition secures military escort to scout and document their findings.  Their presence awakens beasts beyond their imaginations, and the team soon faces a fight for survival against the land that continued to evolve as the world around it fought.  Jordan Vogt-Roberts directs Kong: Skull Island, with the screenplay written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly, and stars John Goodman, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, and John C. Reilly.

Kong: Skull Island (just Skull Island moving forward) had me grinning like a damn kid from start to finish.  I didn't have great expectations considering the last indie feature director going straight to the big leagues resulted in the abhorrent Jurassic World.  To see where Skull Island succeeded where Jurassic World failed, all we need to do is look at the foundation laid by their respective directors.  Jordan Vogt-Roberts of Skull Island made the smarter than most coming-of-age fun film The Kings of Summer, while Colin Trevorrow of Jurassic World made the comfortably bland Safety Not Guaranteed.

I want to live in a world where the keys to the toy box are handed to directors like Vogt-Roberts, who create fun worlds with a bit of insight to keep the more critically minded viewers' interest.  Most importantly, there's not a mean bone in Skull Island's tight storytelling, and the conflict arises because of an obsession with personal codes of honor instead of anything as cold or calculating as profit.  Vogt-Roberts made a rip-roaring adventure, mostly aware of the time it takes place in, and showcases creature clash beats with the same rhythm as an excellent action film.  It's unlikely I'll have more fun with a film this year than Skull Island, but if any directors feel up to the task then take a swing at the king.

Vogt-Roberts' direction is sublime, capturing the beauty and devastation of creatures capable of swatting humans away with ease.

Vogt-Roberts shows the same sense of childish wonder before any monsters get involved.  Sounds of off-screen gunfire and airplane engines get us into the world before visuals do, and when the screen does shift from titles to the feature it's in a fantastic shot of a tiny figure plummeting from the sun into a picturesque sandy landscape.  Looking at the vast sands with its firm horizon of water, I thought immediately of the old Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner animated shorts, and Vogt-Roberts spends the rest of Skull Island proving that feeling correct.  He never forgets the physical impact of what's going on as one closeup and nauseating sound of metal as the unidentified (for now) American pilot grapples with his sword-wielding adversary, but it's all a conduit for the kind of adventure kids dream about.

The characters of Skull Island are almost entirely one-note but that works to Vogt-Roberts advantage.  He briskly moves from one setting to another using strong color coding and sly visual shorthand to create the dominant traits that will collide on the island.  Bill Randa's (John Goodman) introduction is gray and bustling with people as he tries to get someone to pay attention to his conspiracy theory-ish claims complete with logo.  James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) dismantles attackers in a smoky bar with blue lighting before sitting down in a nice conspiratorial overhead shot to negotiate terms for his involvement.  Then there's Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), whose sense of morality is as clearly defined as the reds and blacks of her darkroom.

Skull Island moves fast, blending these quick character sketches with knowing callbacks to movies about its '70s post-Vietnam place in time.  As Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his forces escort the scientists onto the island they blast Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" with images of helicopters in silhouette against a bright orange sky.  This isn't as dire as the similar visuals of the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene from Apocalypse Now, but they share DNA in the bloodthirsty drive of the military escort.  Jackson's performance in this bloodthirsty mindset is one of his best in years, barking orders with crackling determination while glaring at the mighty ape that swatted away his team like the Vietnamese in his war.

It's almost shocking how excellent the performances are throughout, and doubly so for John C. Reilly who deserves serious award consideration for his work.  Reilly is a consistent strong hand in any genre but his bewildered, awkward handle of social cues, alternately insightful and terrifying work as Hank Marlow (the pilot who crashes in the opening) is spectacular.  Listen to the way he draws out his words, struggling to make sure he's saying the right thing, and the pitch dark clarity of his terrible attempts at humor by telling the soldiers, "I'm gonna stab you by the end of the night."  In Vogt-Roberts hands, Reilly dominates the latter half of Skull Island, and even Marlow's misguided humor leads to a rousing moment in honor of his once-enemy now deceased friend as he raises a sword in battle.

John C. Reilly's performance shows a master at work, not quite unhinged but not all there, confused about social cues after years of communicating in unknown languages.

Vogt-Roberts transitions with the skill of a decades-long epic director between these small character beats and large scale setpieces.  His setup of each is masterful, with the Apocalypse Now homage leading to the first conflict with Kong, and using normally harmless bamboo as a deadly lesson in how the creatures on the island have adapted to become efficient killers.  There's even room for tenderness and awe amidst the terror of the island.  Larson makes the most of her limited involvement in Skull Island with deep empathy, responding to the sight of a titanic water buffalo with awe, and doing her best to save that same creature later.

I'm growing weary of how many white male indie directors are moving straight to big-budget productions but, at least this once, the producers of Skull Island got it right.  What criticisms I could muster of Skull Island are inconsequential to the total joy that is watching Vogt-Roberts' film.  He showed with The Kings of Summer that he understood the wonder and promise of being on the cusp of adulthood.  Now, with Skull Island, he shows that same wonder can be carried on passed our teens.  Skull Island is handily one of the best films of 2017, and I'm salivating at the joys Vogt-Roberts will bring in the future.

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Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
Screenplay written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly.
Starring John Goodman, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, and John C. Reilly.

Posted by Andrew

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