Movie Review: Kong: Skull Island stays afloat through visual effects

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The real star of Kong: Skull Island is Kong himself, whose emotive performance and immense scars show a lifetime of battle. Courtesy of Warner Bros. The real star of Kong: Skull Island is Kong himself, whose emotive performance and immense scars show a lifetime of battle. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

If you thought the only thing missing from Apocalypse Now was literal monsters, not just metaphorical ones, Kong: Skull Island is the movie you’ve been waiting for. To everyone else, it’s a flick with neat effects and lots of great creature design, spectacular visuals and a bevy of utterly forgettable, interchangeable characters who die with hilarious and inconsequential frequency. While there are clearly many external forces dictating what had to be included for the purposes of building Legendary Entertainment’s MonsterVerse, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts knows exactly what elements of this film work and what don’t, allowing the perfunctory moments to pass by unobtrusively to make more room for the excellent set pieces.

Kong: Skull Island
PG-13, 118 minutes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Kong: Skull Island tells the story of an expedition to the titular location in the closing days of the Vietnam War—a fact you’ll never forget thanks to the excessive amount of period-appropriate licensed music. This is the last uncharted land mass on Earth, we are told, and it is mysteriously surrounded by a permanent storm to prevent anything from entering or leaving. The team is organized by Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), who represent the mysterious scientific organization Monarch. They recruit U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), former British SAS Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), battlefield photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and a whole lot of other people who either die immediately or have basically no bearing on anything that happens. Upon arrival, the team begins dropping “seismic charges,” which the island’s guardian Kong does not appreciate, so he takes out the helicopters one by one.

From here, the team splits in two: those who follow Colonel Packard in his quest for revenge against Kong, and those who encounter Skull Island’s human population, which views the giant ape as a protector. It is among the natives that they encounter Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a pilot who has been marooned on the island since World War II. After regrouping, the two groups attempt unity in order to make the planned rendezvous point and go home, but Packard will not be deterred.

It’s quite a complicated plot for a monster movie about a big ape, and the re-creation of Vietnam-era images and visual references are well studied but empty when it comes to meaning or metaphor. Thankfully, these moments are briskly executed so the real star can shine: Kong himself, as well as the many strange and wonderful creatures that inhabit Skull Island. Some are evil, some are benign, but all are gorgeous. There is real emotion in Kong’s eyes at all times, and his immense scars show a lifetime of battle. This may be the best “performance” given by an entirely digital presence on the screen, and is worth the price of admission alone (along with Reilly’s terrific blend of humor and pathos). There are some homages to the original film, but never to the point of obnoxious winking, self-deflation or irony.

That said, it is difficult to watch Kong: Skull Island without feeling the drag of franchise-mandated characters and side plots—and post-credit sequences that reveal no new information. When was the last time you were ever truly stunned by a post-credits sequence? It wasn’t so long ago that they were cleverly used by studios as a sly means to reward the faithful and promote the future of a franchise while not sullying the integrity of a stand-alone movie. Now they exist as confirmation of already revealed news, fixes for the factoid-addicted fandom that cares more about having its loyalty rewarded than whether the movies are any good. Kong: Skull Island is far better than it had any right to be and knows where its strengths lie, but the idea of further installments and yet another “cinematic universe” with Godzilla is too exhausting to be worth it.


Playing this week

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

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200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

A United Kingdom, Fifty Shades Darker, Get Out, Hidden Figures, I Am Not Your Negro, La La Land, The Lego Batman Movie, Logan

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