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Kong Is Still the King

Tom Hiddleston
Tom Hiddleston
Warner Brothers
 118 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson
Kong: Skull Island

After three major releases, each showcasing state-of-the-era special effects, and who knows how many sequels, spinoffs, imitations, and rip-offs, seemingly the last thing the filmgoing public needed in 2017 was yet another version of King Kong. Further, this latest version, Kong: Skull Island, is directed by a relative novice making his first film with a seven-figure budget (in this case, way over seven figures). Yet, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, aided by some terrific effects work and an A-list cast that is obviously having a great time here, manages the seemingly impossible task of making this latest Kong an excellent popcorn movie.


Kong: Skull Island, like Peter Jackson’s 2005 version of the giant ape tale, is a period piece. But while Jackson’s story was essentially a remake of the 1933 original, down to its Depression-era setting, Vogt-Roberts sets his tale on that same mystical Skull Island in the South Pacific, but in the year 1973, as the Vietnam War is winding down. A secret government agency called Monarch, headed by Bill Randa (John Goodman), has been authorized to head a mission to a mysterious new island, only recently discovered using satellite photography. While ostensibly helping to chart the island, Randa really wants to go there because there’s something big there. And any member of the audience over the age of five knows just what that something big is.


The island is surrounded by a layer of storm clouds that keeps it shrouded from the outside world. In order to reach the island, Randa enlists the aid of an Army attack helicopter unit under the command of Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), as well as a former British special forces soldier and tracker extraordinaire Jack Chapman (Tom Hiddleston). Also along for the ride is civilian photographer and peacenik Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).


Once Randa’s party survives a harrowing excursion through powerful storm clouds and reaches the island, they don’t need an expert tracker to find their quarry. Instead, the helicopters fly right on top of King Kong, who manages to knock down every single one of them, as the pilots seem not to realize the value in staying a sufficient distance away from a 100-foot-tall ape. The survivors regroup and meet another survivor of a much earlier excursion to the island, Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II pilot shot down in a dogfight who has lived with a beleaguered group of natives ever since. Marlow provides much of the “you’re all going to die” dark humor in the film, as well as serving as a travel guide, informing the others of the other dangerous denizens of the island.


The second half of the film is pretty much a nonstop creature action film, as a host of other giant CGI creations, including pterodactyls, a giant water buffalo, and bunches of spiders, gradually reduce the number of human actors in the film. The most noteworthy of these is an imaginatively-thought-out dinosaur dubbed a “skullcrawler,” a two-legged T-rex offshoot that drags its body by powerful front legs and has a snakelike tail. The film’s final setpiece (the first few seconds of which appear below) is a battle royale between Kong and the largest Skullcrawler.


Both the 1976 Dino de Laurentiis remake of King Kong and Peter Jackson’s 2005 version were essentially remakes of the original film down to the final showdown on a New York City skyscraper. But Vogt-Roberts doesn’t go beyond Skull Island itself and, in addition, assumes the audience’s familiarity with the general King Kong storyline. So, he throws in bits and pieces designed to elicit knowing nods from viewers, like the wall the natives build to keep the various creatures out and, most tellingly, the friendship between Kong and the lead female in the cast. Kong doesn’t display the hots for Brie Larson the way his predecessors fawned over Fay Wray, Jessica Lange, and Naomi Watts, but he does share a sweet moment with her and saves her from dying at the hands of another, less altruistic creature.


Kong Skull Island pays lip service to an ecological message, but, in reality, that’s just a bit of cover to distinguish the benevolent civilians from the sinister government types as exemplified by John Goodman’s Randa. Goodman is in fine form here, gravely intoning such gems as “This planet doesn’t belong to us.” And, while Goodman is tongue-in-cheek serious here, Samuel L. Jackson goes in the opposite dirction, with one of his typical gonzo performances as Preston Packard, who, the audience gradually realizes, is yet another one of Jackson’s typical over-the-top characters, here chasing a giant ape instead of snakes. The single best shot in the movie is a cut between the scowling Colonel Packard and an equally scowling Kong, whose facial features in that shot bear a marked similarity to Packard’s. And, needless to say, the entire quest to Skull Island by the army recalls Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, with Packard a good stand-in for Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore.


With a last hour dedicated almost completely to action, Kong: Skull Island rises or falls, and in this case mostly rises, as a result of its special effects. Impressive as Peter Jackson’s work was, the CGI here is considerably more effective. Best of all, in my view, are the Skullcrawlers, dinosaurs that are just different enough to be exceptionally creepy. The fight sequences are quite well done, especially a ten-minute long duel to the death between Kong and the largest Skullcrawler.


All the technical prowess and goofy overacting in Kong: Skull Island can’t disguise the fact that there is no real substance to the film, and the clichés that pass for character development among the largely Kong or dino fodder supporting cast make the dramatic interludes somewhat less than compelling. In addition, when one significant character meets his demise, it’s more with a whimper than a bang, a disappointment to the audience expecting something spectacular. All in all, there’s little of real appeal in this movie that would make people want to see it more than once, a vital prerequisite for cult status.


In an era featuring disastrously inert monster films like The Great Wall, director Vogt-Roberts and his crew have fashioned quite an entertaining film, one that already promises an even greater spectacular for a sequel. Kong: Skull Island delivers something that is seemingly even more rare than a 100-foot tall ape, namely a solid mindless fun time at the cinema.

In this scene, King Kong prepares to do battle with a very large Skullcrawler.

Read other reviews of Kong: Skull Island:


Kong: Skull Island (2017) on IMDb