By Elias Savada.
Kong: Skull Island, Hollywood’s latest outing for its furry Eighth Wonder of the World, has arrived in an energetic, well-mounted, 3-D, IMAX-sized package. King Kong (1933), the species’ black-and-white, ground-breaking original, still reigns as the best big ape/deity movie ever. The new reboot of the monster, despite a somewhat predictable good-bad freaks (of nature) vs. (army and civilians) geeks script (worked on by Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly, from a story by John Gatins), is a witty, popcorn-pleaser that provides an abundance of well-paced action for today’s CGI-infused audiences. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (last feature: 2013’s low-budget The Kings of Summer) plays out the jungle story as a mad monster battle between unnatural beasties, the titular 100-foot-tall primate, and (human) characters that might have been culled from the cast of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). In fact, some of the imagery (nicely captured by director of photography Larry Fong) seems plucked from that Oscar-winning feature. I’m sure not the first person to think the film’s subtitle could easily be Apepocalypse Now. And that’s a fitting tribute, as the movie is mostly set in 1973 – in the days following the end of the Vietnam War – when cranky army officers are pissed at the United States government for not “winning,” and anti-war photographers are looking for new assignments.
Set on a lush, proverbial uncharted island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, the film was actually shot in Vietnam (and Australia and Hawaii), although there is a brief segment set in our nation’s capital. The strategically placed comic toss-away lines begin there, as John Goodman’s secretive, politically-connected character, Bill Randa, suggests “There’ll never be a more screwed up time in Washington,” near the start of the film. I wonder if they’ll use that line again 50 years from now, when a future Kong is set in our present day.
There’s also a passing resemblance to the numerous, tropically-set Jurassic Park films (1993-?), particular when comparing that series’ menacing velociraptors with the gnarly and vicious skullcrawlers that killed off Kong’s family and want to finish the job. Of course, in those dinosaur films we generally have attractive heroes. The eye candy on the human side of the camera in Kong: Skull Island consists of Tom Hiddleston as Indiana Jones-style tracker James Conrad and Brie Larson (Room) as Mason Weaver, a strong-willed photographer. She’s hitched a ride with the Army escort for a group of scientists, accompanied by Randa’s small but diverse group of men and women on a mission. Larson looks and feels the part, down to her bell-bottom pants. It’s a good start for her big-budget, action career, which will find her suiting up as Captain Marvel in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War.
A Santa-bearded John C. Reilly provides a lot of the film’s funnier lines (particularly about his beloved Chicago Cubs) as American airman Hank Marlow, shot down during an air battle with a Japanese pilot in 1944. This WWII sequence opens the film before it scoots ahead almost 29 years. He’s found a home among the island’s well-camouflaged natives, an indigenous group who rarely speak and have built a wall not unlike the barrier found in the 1933 film. This one has a slightly different use.
There’s also the grown-to-expect-his-scenery-chewing Samuel L. Jackson as abrasive Lt. Col. Preston Packard, a career officer who finds his helicopter unit decimated upon its ill-fated arrival through the cloud-electrical storm that enshrouds the island. Think of him as the Colonel Kurtz character, angry and anxious to take revenge with his next tweet. I mean with his next bombshell.
Other cameo appearances include such old timers as rotary telephones, 35mm cameras (with a recycling electronic flash), slide projectors, and Sony camcorders. There’s also portable record players, which nicely help source the era-appropriate music (Jefferson Airplane, Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater Revival, etc.) from real places.
The film’s focus has various survivors spread out in the jungle. The story moves about the island as the remnants of the failed expedition attempt to reconnoiter with their separated members. They also need to figure out a way back to civilization without becoming fodder for the local ecosystem. Naturally, there will be folly. And a few heroes.
This big budget ($190 million!) beast of a movie is especially enjoyable in the large screen format, lesser so for the 3-D edition. IMAX actually becomes part of the fun with a re-worked countdown made especially for the film. No matter what version of the film you watch, be sure to stay through the entire end credits and copyright notice. While there is an affectionate home-movie style snippet when the action ends, there’s even more footage after the lengthy scrawl. If you remember that the film’s team of producers also brought you the 2014 version of Godzilla, and you spot a particular credit in the lengthy roll call of cast and crew, you might guess at what I’m not telling you.
I’m not sure anyone else wants to talk about this, but there’s probably a reason the film has a PG-13 rating (for human and creature violence), and it’s because of what the filmmakers have removed from any naked male monster’s anatomy. After all, Kong did have a family. It’s not a problem with the other large critters (water buffalos, spiders, stick bugs, pterosaurs), but just something for thought.
Kong: Skull Island is an action-packed Darwinian fairy tale, full of digitally appealing assets in a beautiful setting. Are you ready for your close-up, Mr. Kong?
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).