Kong: Skull Island

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly


When Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla came out, it was criticised for its slow-reveal approach with the titular monster, who only appeared on-screen for about eight minutes. While Jaws is one example of how well this approach can work when done right, Godzilla shows how tedious it can be with the absence of compelling characters or an engaging story. Kong, the second instalment of the proposed MonsterVerse franchise, takes the opposite approach. We meet the gigantic ape as soon as the characters reach Skull Island and then he remains prominent throughout as he battles monsters and whatnot. This approach will undoubtedly work for many viewers as it allows them to see plenty of exactly the thing they paid to see: epic monster-on-monster action. It didn’t work for me though. This was because the misgivings with character and story were still there. It terms of pure action alone, this movie is weird, exciting and fun. As a whole it is a messy, misguided, and often tiresome film.

It is 1973 and the war in Vietnam is virtually over for the Americans. At this time Bill Randa (John Goodman), a government agent, hires the former soldier James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to lead an expedition to Skull Island. Escorting them is a U.S. army squadron led by the ruthless Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Also accompanying them is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist and vocal peace activist. Upon arrival the troops start dropping heavy explosives to map out the island until they are interrupted by the arrival of Kong, an enormous ape, who attacks the party and scatters them all around the island. The survivors must navigate and survive the threats and creatures that inhabit the island in order to find each other and escape. Packard however has other plans for the monster that wiped out his troops.

The design and animation in this film is first-class. The monsters look like they could’ve been designed by Guillermo del Toro or Hayao Miyazaki. Kong himself is larger than life and he looks and feels as real as any of the human characters. The ground trembles with his every step, the blows he delivers to his foes leave a shattering impact and the sounds he makes teem with life. This authenticity however is only true on a visual level because, unlike the previous incarnations in the 1933 classic or in Jackson’s remake, this Kong has no personality. He isn’t keen or intelligent, he isn’t protective or vengeful, and he isn’t hard-hearted or compassionate; he’s just an exceptionally animated CGI monster there to wreak havoc or to rush in as the saviour depending on what the plot wants him to do. Even if Kong were an interesting character in his own right, he has to fight for his screen time against the half-dozen or so human characters the film saw fit to focus on. Hiddleston somehow has less of a character than Kong, Jackson is one-dimensionally crazy, and Larson’s character only exists because blonde damsels are mandatory in King Kong movies.

What really got on my nerves though was that Kong was not satisfied with being a simple King Kong movie. Even with the lack of character, I would’ve been just fine with two hours of mindless, visually stunning action (I’m only human). The truly baffling thing about this film is the statement it’s trying to make (whatever that statement may be). The movie is unreservedly intent on creating some sort of parable to the war in Vietnam, pitting its gung-ho soldiers and their advanced weaponry against a savage foe who bests them with guerrilla tactics, and clutters the movie with homages to Apocalypse Now and Platoon just in case there was any ambiguity on that front. The point however is lost on me. All I got from the movie’s ‘meaningful’ statements about the war, its superficial characterisations and its extravagant imagery complete with napalm explosions was that the film really wanted to make a Vietnam metaphor.

The total clash in tones makes Kong: Skull Island feel like several different films blended together into an indefinable mixture. There’s the monster movie that we all wanted to see but it has been mismatched with some kind of political allegory that is so blatant and unsubtle and yet so random and unfocused that I’m not sure whether ‘allegory’ is even the appropriate word. The movie somehow takes itself too seriously and yet not seriously enough. It is certainly a weird and crazy enough film that the mess will work for some viewers. At its best the action is thrilling, awe-inspiring, and epic. I however found myself so distracted by the confused, cluttered story and the soulless characters that I was never able to lose myself in the spectacle. Godzilla may have lacked character but at least it was tonally consistent enough that I never felt like the story ever derailed or lost track of itself. This movie was anarchy from beginning to end. Visually stunning anarchy, but anarchy nonetheless.

★★

Warcraft: The Beginning

Cast: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Daniel Wu

Director: Duncan Jones

Writers: Charles Leavitt, Duncan Jones


I didn’t play much of the Warcraft games growing up. I gave World of Warcraft a go when I was 14 or 15 but never got into it the way some of my friends did. My knowledge of this universe with its expansive history and lore was thus little better than one being introduced to Warcraft for the very first time. Adapting such a universe into a movie franchise is tricky. There’s so much to share and yet so little space in which to include it. Sometimes introducing an audience to a world of magic, myth and adventure can be as simple as starting with “a long time ago in a galaxy far away”, but there are still many movies that make the mistake of dumping exposition or failing to establish their own rules. The Lord of the Rings trilogy however proved that such an adaptation can work. And so, considering the story this film wanted to tell and the space in which it had to tell it, I think that Warcraft: The Beginning did a pretty decent job.

The orc world of Draenor is being destroyed by a mysterious force called fel magic, and so the orcs must search for a new home under the leadership of the warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu). They enter the world of Azeroth through a portal and begin their colonisation campaign by raiding human settlements. Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), the military leader of Stormwind, is sent to deal with these raids and ends up meeting the mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer). He tells him that he has found traces of fel magic in their world, leading Anduin to call a meeting with Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), the king of Stormwind. Llane sends Anduin and Khadgar to find Medivh (Ben Foster), the Guardian of Tirisfal, hoping that he might hold the knowledge they seek. Their investigation soon leads them to Garona (Paul Patton), a half-orc warrior who pledges herself to Stormwind. Meanwhile Durotan (Toby Kebbell), orc chieftain of the Frostwolf Clan, starts to believe that Gul’dan’s channelling of fel magic is too dangerous and will cause Azeroth to suffer the same fate as Draenor. He therefore tries to reach out to the humans to form an alliance for the sake of both of their peoples.

One of the movie’s weaknesses is the sheer abundance of names and places that the audience is expected to remember while following this story. 30-45 minutes into the movie I was still trying to sort out who was who and what was happening where. Once I had a basic idea of all these things though I found that I was actually rather engaged by the story. It was difficult to keep track of but when it finally came down to the final battle I was both interested and invested. While the intricacies of the plot could be distracting and messy, I was still drawn into the larger story being told about two vastly different cultures struggling to overcome their differences in order to face a greater threat. The obstacles and perceptions that have to be overcome are great, perhaps insurmountable, and this film simply lays the groundwork for what will be a much larger conflict told over successive chapters. To that end I think the movie is satisfactory. It may not have astounded me the way it wanted to but I am interested in seeing what comes next.

One aspect of the games that this film has down to a tee is the look. From the different species and creatures to the cities and landscapes right down to the oversized armour and mystical auras, this game looks exactly like the World of Warcraft that I remember. Although the visuals do have a tendency to look cartoony, I think that can be forgiven in an adaptation of a video game franchise with a cartoony design. The area where the film probably struggles the most is with its characters. While I didn’t find them to be badly written or acted, there were just too many for the film to keep track of. There were a few standouts like Kebbell as Durotan, the orc who believes his people are losing their way, and Patton as Garona, who feels torn between two different cultures that both regard her as an outsider. The rest of the characters left large enough impressions that I could remember who was who, but that’s about all they did.

I think it’s fair to say that I liked Warcraft: The Beginning more than I expected to. It is messy and it is overstuffed with characters and plot details but not to the extent that I couldn’t enjoy the film. Once I got past the stage of working out what exactly was going on, I was able to enjoy it for the epic fantasy adventure that it wants to be. For those like myself who are not intimately familiar with the games and their universe, the film is not inaccessible to them. So far as I can recall there are not any excessive exposition dumps to scavenge through, no confusing plot developments that only make sense if you’ve done your homework and no gratuitous fan service that gets in the way. Warcraft: The Beginning isn’t a film that will have you deeply invested in its compelling characters or blown away by the massive scale and scope of its action like The Lord of the Rings did. However it is a fun and sometimes thrilling movie with neat visuals that has piqued my interest enough for me to return for the next instalment.

★★★