MOVIE REVIEW: Kong: Skull Island



“Kong: Skull Island” taps into the same lengthy definition of “spectacle” this writer and website applied to “Jurassic World” nearly two years ago.  This ain’t your old “King Kong.”  This is “go big or go home.”  If you’re looking for the version steeped in awe and wonder, go watch the 1933 original.  To expand the original’s wonderment with the best of today’s special effects, go watch Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake.  If you want a rip-roaring roller coaster with no strings, rules, or heavy gravitas attached, you’ve come to the right place in 2017.

It is certainly too soon since Jackson’s epic treatment, but in this film, the humans in Kong’s Whac-A-Mole game are a hodgepodge of soldiers, scientists, and unlucky observers in 1973.  Monarch special agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his Ivy League geologist associate Houston Brooks (“24: Legacy” star Corey Hawkins) have scored government clearance to explore an uncharted island in the South Pacific newly revealed by Landsat satellite mapping.  To tackle the unknown terrain, Randa recruits James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), the best hunter-tracker in the business and former SAS captain.

Landsat’s team and Randa’s people are accompanied by a defense detail of the U.S. Army’s Sky Devils helicopter squadron, fresh out of the Vietnam jungle, lead by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and comprised of his best battle-tested grunts (the ensemble of Shea Whigham, Toby Kebbell, Thomas Mann, and Jason Mitchell).  Closing out the roster is Mason Weaver (Oscar winner Brie Larson), a peacekeeping war photojournalist there to document the proof of whatever they find.  Gee, I wonder how the beast is going to take to her.

The rub is Monarch might know more than they are letting on about what possibly awaits on Skull Island.  Once their choppers clear the storms circling the island, buzz the treetops on the deck, and start dropping seismic charges for geological surveying, the shit hits the fan as the alpha predator primate (played by performance capture specialist Terry Notary) socks them out of the sky and scatters the retreating visitors into different sections of the island.  With the help of Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a cooky Chicago fighter pilot stranded among the natives on Skull Island since World War II, the party learns what they are up against and what it is going to take to escape with their lives.  

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts follows his well-regarded 2013 feature debut indie film “The Kings of Summer” to assume the helm of this $190 million franchise starter for his sophomore effort.  If you couldn’t tell from every stitch of marketing for “Kong: Skull Island,” the largest stylistic influence is the Vietnam war saga “Apocalypse Now.”  Going to the well to ape (pun intended) the silhouetted-by-the-sun shot a few too many times, frequent Zack Snyder collaborator (that should tell you something) and cinematographer Larry Fong infuses Coppola’s scorched jungle look with enough slow-motion action pans and colorific establishing shots through dust, smoke, fog, and foliage to blind the screen with action.  A catchy-yet-overplayed period-specific soundtrack and Henry Jackman’s brassy score marry together on the aural end while Industrial Light and Magic fill in the rest of creature feature’s visuals that were predominantly shot on location in North Vietnam.

Focusing on blockbuster peril that spins an Agatha Christie wheel of shocking deaths, “Kong: Skull Island” manages to sprinkle pinches of exposition and world-building for a bigger picture (see Lessons below), aided by a script assist from “Nightcrawler” director Dan Gilroy.  The humans are secondary and no one is winning Oscars here.  Jackson and Goodman are the intense veteran presences you expect them to be.  Tom Hiddleston puts forth his best James Bond audition tape and John C. Reilly steals the entire show as an absolute hoot concocted from an extra breed of crazy equaled by incomparably charming heart.

For those of you asking how many times can they remake “King Kong,” your answer is “perpetually” or “infinite.”  The character has an immortal mystique and the sense of fascination surrounding it is inescapable.  Every monster movie that has graced the screen since 1933 can thank this sizeable simian for opening the doors and knocking down the walls.  Like “Jurassic World,” “Kong: Skull Island” dispenses with myth and lore and jumps to the mashing and clashing we all dreamt about since slamming plastic toys together as kids.

LESSON #1: IN THIS CASE, BIGGER IS BETTER-- The head honchos at Legendary Entertainment found the easiest and most irresistible route to selling a new Kong film: Make him bigger.  “Kong: Skull Island” has smacked an invisible label on the cinematic Cheez Whiz jar that reads “now bigger than ever,” jacking up the normally and plenty-imposing 25-foot gorilla into a gigantic 100-foot bipedal behemoth.  That changes everything when it comes to the monster’s capacity for destruction and man’s impossible chances of opposition.

LESSON #2: TURN AND RUN-- If you thought a 25-foot ape was indomitable to man’s weapons before, don’t even try with bullets against one that’s a dozen stories tall.  If he doesn’t flinch from your gunfire, turn and run.  If he swats an entire helicopter out of the sky like you would with an annoying moth, turn the other ones around and get away.  When you invade said creature’s home turf and think you can stay, you’re just asking to get killed.  

LESSON #3: WHERE THERE’S ONE, THERE’S MORE-- Skull Island is just one “emergence point” of many across the globe that release the dark dangers of the prehistoric deep.  The overarching goal is to plug Kong into a greater silver screen ecosystem of ancient monsters with Monarch as the S.H.I.E.L.D.-like human thread.  Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment are slamming on the accelerator for their proposed MonsterVerse and a future showdown looms with a certain atomic-breathing amphibious reptilian and his cohorts (stay after the credits).