Saturday, March 4, 2017
EARLY REVIEW—KONG: SKULL ISLAND
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.