Saturday, March 4, 2017
As popular and enduring as he is, King Kong has had a fairly checkered film career. The original 1933 movie is a bona fide classic, and still holds up today. But its sequel, Son of Kong, released later that same year, was a semi-comedy thrown together quickly in a rush to capitalize on the success of the original. Kong isn’t even in it—and Junior is but a shadow of his old man. The king himself returned in pair of unrelated movies produced by Japan’s Toho Studios in the 1960s: King Kong Vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes, the latter of which showcases a battle in Tokyo between Kong and his robot double. Despite featuring two of the worst ape suits you will ever see, both movies are very enjoyable, especially if you never exceed the maturity level of an eight-year-old.
Between then and now, Kong appeared in three more movies: the overhyped, underwhelming (except for Jessica Lange) 1976 remake produced by Dino DeLaurentiis; its 1986 sequel, the truly awful King Kong Lives, in which Kong is given a gigantic artificial heart and revived after his fall from the World Trade Center; and the 2005 remake directed by Peter Jackson, which, while clearly a labor of love, proved to be a bloated, surprisingly unimaginative excursion into fanboy excessiveness.
Which brings us to Kong: Skull Island, which will hit theaters on March 10. Based on Kong’s cinematic track record, there was a lot of justifiable skepticism when this film was announced. No one seemed to be hoping for yet another retelling of the original story. And a sequel to Peter Jackson’s movie seemed highly unlikely, since Kong was most definitely dead at the end—and giant artificial hearts didn’t exist back in that film’s 1933 setting.
But the producers of Skull Island promised a major “reimagining,” one that would honor the mythology established in the original story, but with a new, modern-day spin. And that’s what they delivered.
Yes, Kong is still a giant apelike creature. (And unlike the Peter Jackson version, he’s not simply an oversized silverback gorilla—this new Kong is clearly of a unique species, one that can’t be easily classified, which is just as it should be.) Yes, he lives on Skull Island. Yes, the island is hidden from the rest of the world—and in this movie, the reason for that is visually spectacular. Yes, the island is populated by other giant creatures, most of which are incredibly dangerous to humans.
But what this film does, and does quite well, is take those and other familiar elements and use them as a launching pad for a new story, one with its own focus and themes—and one that defies expectations.
The movie is set in 1973. Bill Randa (John Goodman), head of the secretive organization Monarch (which was first seen in the 2014 remake of Godzilla—shared cinematic universe alert!) gets authorization from the U.S. government to launch an expedition to Skull Island, to investigate rumors of unknown creatures living there. The mission includes U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and American photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). Upon their arrival at the island, they encounter a lot more than they bargained for, to put it mildly. Packard, who is filled with disappointment and frustration about the end of the Vietnam War, comes to see this assignment as a new chance for a decisive victory against a formidable enemy. Randa can now confirm that giant monsters do exist. But with only a few days to get to the other side of the island to rendezvous with their ship, the mission—and everyone on it—may never make it home.
Kong: Skull Island is a well paced, beautifully shot film, with stunning visuals and thrilling action sequences.
The cast is strong, with Hiddleston and Larson overcoming the fact that their parts are somewhat underdeveloped. Both get some nice moments, particularly Larson, who finds ways to inject some warmth and humor along the way. It’s also notable that she’s never depicted as “the woman” in the group—she’s an equal member of the team, treated with respect. And, in a nice departure from previous Kong movies, Larson is not a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued by the men.
Of the supporting cast, John Ortiz and Shea Whigham are especially memorable, playing, respectively, Victor Nieves, a nervous scientist who really wants to stay out of danger, and Captain Earl Cole, a seasoned officer under Packard’s command.
But, without a doubt, John C. Reilly is the absolute standout. He steals the film—and when the competition is a giant ape, that’s really saying something.
Reilly plays Hank Marlow, a U.S. military pilot who has been stranded on the island since World War II. He provides much of the necessary back story and explanations about Kong and the island, and he is a delight from start to finish. His character is eccentric, blunt, wise, and often very, very funny—but never in a way that pokes fun at the movie or the genre as a whole. In some ways, Skull Island is really about Marlow, more than any other character.
As for Kong himself, he’s fantastic—noble, clever, brutal when he needs to be, and very much the king of his domain. He’s also much bigger than most of his previous incarnations, standing 100 feet tall. (Only the Kong from King Kong Vs. Godzilla was taller.) The new design is very much its own thing, but you can see where it was influenced by the 1933 version.
Longtime Kong fans should recognize quite a few callbacks to previous Kong movies. There’s even a bit that—intentionally or not—echoes a key sequence from King Kong Vs. Godzilla.
Basically, if you’re a longtime King Kong fan, and you’re interested in seeing something other than the original story told yet again, then Kong: Skull Island has pretty much everything you’d want to see in such a movie. And if you’re not a longtime fan, or know very little about Kong, it’s still an exciting adventure that mixes the giant ape with traces of Jurassic Park, Apocalypse Now, and Aliens.
Oh—and be sure to stay to the very end, past the closing credits. Remember what I said above, about a shared cinematic universe? There’s a big payoff—and a setup for future movies.
It’s pretty clear that this version of Kong will be back—and if the filmmakers can maintain the standards set by Skull Island, then long live the king.
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2017.
Friday, December 16, 2016
It’s kind of sad that people other than George Lucas now seem to understand the appeal of Star Wars better than he does. But if that means an ongoing string of good Star Wars movies for the foreseeable future, so be it.
And Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards, is a good Star Wars movie. It follows in the footsteps of last year’s J.J. Abrams-directed The Force Awakens, in that there’s an emphasis on the characters over the special effects, and a concerted effort to avoid the kind of cringe-inducing dialogue for which Lucas was so roundly criticized on the three prequels that he made between 1999 and 2005.
Rogue One, too, is a prequel. It takes place shortly before the events of the original film (now known officially as Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope, but it’ll always be just Star Wars to me), and sets up some of the characters and situations that we saw for the first time back in 1977. Some familiar faces show up—and longtime fans will undoubtedly be delighted by those moments—but the emphasis is squarely on new characters, both rebels and agents of the evil Galactic Empire.
The plot is fairly simple. Remember the opening crawl in Star Wars, which explained that a team of rebels had managed to steal the plans for the Death Star and transmitted them to Princess Leia? Well, that’s what this film is about—those particular rebels, and how they got the plans.
Among the most notable of the rebels is Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones. She’s a young woman with a tragic past (which we get to see in the film’s gripping prologue), who is handed a unique and profoundly personal opportunity, one that could help the Rebel Alliance and reconnect her with a long-lost piece of her life. Jones is effective in the role, bringing a nice combination of beauty, strength, determination, and vulnerability.
Diego Luna plays Captain Cassian Andor, a dashing rebel intelligence officer who establishes a bond with Jyn but also has a hidden agenda that could destroy the trust between them.
Chirrut Îmwe, played by Donnie Yen, is a devout believer in the Force, although he is never established as having been a Jedi Knight. It’s not clearly established whether he actually possesses Force powers, but he is a highly skilled martial-arts master—and completely blind.
The film’s major droid character, K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, is a real standout. Like C-3PO before him, K-2SO provides much of the comic relief. And while 3PO can range from amusing to annoying, K-2SO is genuinely hilarious throughout the film. Without a doubt, he gets the best lines, and Tudyk gives him a personality that is fussy, earnest, sarcastic, and irreverent, sometimes all at the same time.
I also have to mention the main villain, Director Orson Krennic, played very effectively by Ben Mendelsohn. Krennic is the head of Advanced Weapons Research for the Empire. He’s undoubtedly a cruel and cold-hearted bastard, and ambitious as hell, but you can’t help kind of feeling for the guy—we can see he’s under a lot of stress, with a major responsibility on his shoulders and several extremely fearsome overlords to answer to, along with at least one notable figure working to undermine him in a big way. Krennic is certainly one of the most nuanced, multi-dimensional, and—believe it or not—relatable bad guys we’ve ever seen in a Star Wars movie.
Even though we already know that Jyn and her companions will ultimately succeed in their mission, Rogue One works because it’s not really about the outcome. It’s more about who these people are, what brings them together, and what they’re willing to endure to accomplish a monumental task, against all odds. We get to know and understand them and their relationships with each other over the course of the film. We become invested in them.
The fact that this is a standalone movie, one that is not intended to have any follow-ups (other than the original Star Wars) is a real benefit. We don’t know going in what will happen to these characters—the original movie never establishes the fates of the rebels who stole the Death Star plans—so Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (working from a story developed by John Knoll and Gary Whitta) have plenty of freedom to take the characters wherever they feel they need to go. And since Rogue One is, at its heart, a war movie, it’s not always going to end happily for the heroes. (By the way, a big kudos to Lucasfilm and Disney for not shying away from showing the real consequences of war. This movie has balls, that’s for sure.)
I should also add that this is a beautiful looking film. There is some truly stunning imagery on display, and the special effects are absolutely top notch. No surprise there—one would expect nothing less than superb work from the wizards at Industrial Light & Magic. And the attention to detail, especially when recreating elements from the original Star Wars, is simply amazing.
Quibbles? I have a few. The rebels, at this stage of the galactic civil war, seem a little too effective when taking on Imperial forces in a major space battle, armed with technology we’ve never seen them use before. (Where was this stuff at the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi, when it would have really come in handy?)
And I must say that as I watched this battle, there were moments when I couldn’t help but feel that I’d seen it all before. And the reason, of course, is that I had. Make no mistake, it looks fantastic and is very well paced. But I’m afraid there just wasn’t much here that was different or innovative enough to set it apart from similar sequences in the other Star Wars movies.
Also, I’m not sure the ending flows quite as seamlessly into the beginning of Star Wars as it’s meant to—there are some continuity details that don’t seem to line up perfectly. But maybe a second viewing will convince me otherwise.
But overall, Rogue One is a worthy addition to the Star Wars canon that should please both longtime fans and newcomers to the series.
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2016.