Saturday, March 11, 2017

Zaki's Review: Kong: Skull Island

King Kong has been a screen icon from the moment he first bestrode the big screen eighty-four years ago, a marvel of high concept imagination and revolutionary stop motion effects technology. So vividly realized a creation was Kong that, from his eponymous 1933 debut to now, there have been six additional offerings starring the giant ape. Some of these have simply re-told the same tale as the original, some have tried to sequelize it, and others have done...something else entirely.

But though the majority of these ended (or, in the case of 1933’s Son of Kong, began) with the big guy stone dead, even that wasn't enough to stop him from being periodically resurrected for another go-round. The most recent such effort was Peter Jackson’s epic-length, megabudget 2005 remake. Coming twenty-nine years after the Dino De Laurentiis produced 1976 King Kong redo (which I will go to my grave defending as an underrated gem), Jackson’s opus clocked in at three-plus hours, and while it may have been a pure labor of love for him, it was just plain laborious for many in the audience.

I didn't think so at the time, of course. Going back and reading my effusive comments about the Jackson film with the benefit of eleven years of distance is a little bit embarrassing. But at the very least it does bespeak just how much fondness I retain for Kong, the character, the icon, several decades after first encountering him as a kid growing up in the 1980s and watching the old flicks and the cartoon show on TV. As such, it was with a mixture of anticipation that I greeted the news of yet another Kong pic, this time from Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures (who last teamed on 2014’s Godzilla reboot).

But while Kong: Skull Island, the gloriously gonzo monster movie from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (a TV vet making his big budget debut), is situated within the same world as Godzilla, it ditches the self-serious tone of that earlier offering (which I did enjoy) and more freely bounces between horror, humor, and action. Also unlike Godzilla, which was set in the here-and-now, Skull Island takes us back to the waning days of the Vietnam era, when a mysterious government official named Randa (John Goodman) puts together an expedition to the uncharted and explored island of the title in search of...something.

Along for the ride are man-of-action Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), photographer (Mason) Brie Larson, angry army guy Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), and various other military types. Now, given that this isn’t our first cinematic go-round with the titular monster, it’s no great surprise what they’ll end up finding when they get there, so really it’s just about waiting out the clock until they do. Once Kong does show up, it’s clear to see that this is unlike any other iteration of the big ape that we’ve ever seen. He’s bigger, for one. Way bigger. Where the earlier (American) versions stood about 30 or 40 feel tall, Skull Island’s Kong easily doubles that.

Also, unlike the previous versions of the story that had the island’s native living in fear of the ape, regularly offering sacrifices and erecting a wall to keep him out, this Kong serves more as protector than predator, keeping watch on the island’s natives, and keeping them safe from the far-worse beasties (“Skullcrawlers,” one character calls them) that regularly pop up to pick people off. (In that sense, his characterization is closer to that of his pint-sized kid in Son of Kong.) Overall, things are going pretty well on Skull Island. The system works. Then, as is usually the case, modern man shows up and starts messing everything up, dropping bombs and blasting ‘70s tunes from loudspeakers.

This is a movie that's smart enough to know when to be silly. It's the kind of movie where a monster can conveniently hack up a guy’s dog tags so the other characters can know he’s been eaten. While there are some attempts at social commentary (Jackson’s Col. Packard is using his experience on the island as a proxy to win the Vietnam war), and Vogt-Roberts has clearly absorbed his Apocalypse Now, Skull Island mostly plays like a larger-budgeted monster picture of the kind that populated weekend afternoons on TV in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which is exactly as it should be.

While Hiddleston and Larson are both fine as the nominal, non-Kong leads, the show is really stolen by John C. Reilly as a shipwrecked airman named Marlow who’s been stuck on the island since World War II, and gone slightly stir-crazy in the interim. Instead of going native a la Brando in Apocalypse, Marlow’s extended Skull Island stay has just made him more...John C. Reilly-er, which in turn adds some zest and zing to the gobs of exposition he’s been tasked with doling out in the screenplay Dan Gilroy & Max Borenstein & Derek Connolly.

Of course, in this age of multi-level movie franchising, it’s not enough to just have one film that exists all on its own, or even that sets things up for its own sequel. Nope, it’s a shared universe now, and we’re just living in it. The real purpose here is to lay a trail of breadcrumbs for Legendary’s Godzilla vs. Kong, which hits theaters in a few years (I’m hoping desperately that the two monsters will finally team-up after one pleads with the other to “Save...Mothra!”).

To that end, there are plenty of Easter Eggs and bits of continuity tying this to Godzilla, not to mention the requisite post-credits tease that comes standard with the “Shared Cinematic Universe” Breakout Kit. I have to admit, when I first heard the idea of (another) Kong/Godzilla throwdown being mooted, I was stuck somewhere between apathy (at the usual CGI stuff we’ve come to expect) and confusion (given the size differential between the two towering titans). But after seeing Skull Island, I’m ready to believe. Bring on the monster mash! B+

For more movie talk, including a spoiler-filled discussion of Hugh Jackman's X-Men farewell in Logan and an interview with director Mark Pellington about The Last Word, catch the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below:

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