Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Monday, March 13, 2017

‘Kong’ offers some awesome ape action

As I was watching “Kong: Skull Island,” I found myself wondering how much better special effects could possibly become. With each new blockbuster film, it seems the visuals – particularly the creature effects – are looking more realistic than ever.

Then I remembered I was looking at an ape as tall as a mountain.

Even after realizing the folly of my thinking, I imagined the production meetings in which the director told the animators, none of whom had seen an ape that big, either, “Make him look more real.”

“Skull Island” isn’t about realism, though; it’s about the human imagination and bringing creatures born in very fertile minds to life in a way that will thrill audiences.

Having seen and enjoyed “Skull Island,” I can say they did a wonderful job.

One of the creatures looks like a giant water buffalo, which are big in real life but not this big. As it rises out of a swamp to dwarf passersby, I marveled at the small details: the vegetation hanging from its massive horns like strands of seaweed; its sunken, lifelike eyes; its matted, muddy fur; and the water droplets forming and dripping off its coat.

The creature doesn’t just look extraordinary, it appears to belong in that environment – to be a product of it. This accomplishment did more than anything else to sell the story to me.

Every monster in “Skull Island” is just as impressive. The only other one I’m going to discuss, though, is Kong. One of the pleasures of watching the movie is wondering what fresh, fantastical horrors await those who dared to venture into its setting, and I don’t want to spoil that for you.

Kong is a marvel. Not only does he look remarkable as he wades through the waters of the jungle he calls home, Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has a good eye for making him appear truly massive and lord of all he surveys.

But the thing that impressed me the most was the facial animation. Kong’s skin is vibrant and alive, with muscles rippling beneath it and then stretching and reshaping to create expressions that give him character and impart a sense of emotion.

What’s more, Kong’s eyes are not lifeless jewels but always appear to be looking at something. Artists have been doing that with paint for centuries – and now they have figured out how to do it with bits and bytes.

As the final battle between Kong and another monster played out on the screen, I tried to lose myself in the moment and just watch, but I couldn’t stop marveling at the artistry and technical skill on display.

There are people in “Skull Island,” many of whom end up wishing they were anywhere else. They wind up there just as the Vietnam War is ending, after satellite imagery reveals a never-explored island in the Pacific.

Among the more notable characters are Preston Packard, a U.S. Army man played by Sam Jackson; John Goodman’s Bill Randa, a government official who believes in things no one else does; and Brie Larson, an altruistic photojournalist.

There are many others, many of whom have names but also could have been identified in the credits as “monster fodder.”

The script gives each of these characters enough weight to make them human. Preston wants one last battle before retiring; Randa wants to bring home proof; and Larson has a respect for nature that opens her up to an intimate relationship with Kong.

The one character who nearly deserves equal billing with Kong is fighter pilot Hank Marlow, played with impeccable comedic timing by John C. Reilly. Marlow is no stranger to Skull Island, having been stranded there for 28 years since crashing landing on one of its beaches during the Second World War.

Reilly gets the best lines and the only laughs. “Skull Island” would have been a humorless affair without him, so I’m glad the filmmakers remembered that even monster movies should make us smile.

“Skull Island” does everything a blockbuster should giving us action in spades and characters worth cheering (and a few worth loathing). It moves along at a good clip and there’s just enough going on to give it a little substance.

I was especially intrigued by the period and setting, which brought to mind the film “Apocalypse Now.” Like that film, “Skull Island” follows a group of people up a river to face what they assume to be a villain. What they find is far more complicated.

I don’t want to overthink the movie, though. Just know I had a lot of fun watching it and believe anyone who enjoys a good popcorn-muncher will, too.

Three stars out of four