King Kong has proven himself a surprisingly elastic movie monster since he first hit the screen in the early 1930’s. The character, a giant ape that once ruled the primordial kingdom of Skull Island, has been at the center of a series of sequels, spin-offs, remakes (most recently by Peter Jackson) and theme park attractions. Mileage may vary in terms of your enjoyment of the films beyond the hallowed original (especially if you have an allergy to giant monsters wrestling each other), but it’s undeniable that the most successful films in the franchise are the ones that combine genuine, gee-whiz craftsmanship with rich metaphoric undercurrents. It’s into this arena that “Kong: Skull Island” enters, with lofty ambitions and style to spare. Whether or not it completely succeeds is open for subjective debate, but damn if it isn’t a hell of a ride.
Up until now there hasn’t been a Kong film set almost entirely on his mythical homeland of Skull Island. As film historians have noted, King Kong’s story is the story of the American immigrant (or, perhaps, the slave), one who leaves his home and comes to the United States, where he is tamed, exploited, persecuted, and ultimately killed. But with “Kong: Skull Island,” the filmmakers have chosen to follow a ragtag group of researchers, soldiers, and documentarians, as they travel to Skull Island ostensibly for a mapping expedition. Most tantalizingly, the film is set right after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, with a small platoon of warriors rerouted from their trip home to serve as accompaniment for the adventure. That means that there’s an expansive soundtrack of ’60s and ’70s psych-rock jams, helicopters pornographically photographed in slow motion, and napalm – lots and lots of napalm. (But more on that in a minute.)
Leading the expedition to the fabled island is John Goodman, as an intrepid Monarch agent (the secret, monster-tracking agency introduced in 2014’s gorgeous “Godzilla” reboot); Tom Hiddleston, as a charmingly roguish mercenary; Brie Larson as a moralistic war photographer; and Samuel L. Jackson as a vengeance-hungry soldier and leader of the squadron. John C. Reilly, who has been kept out of most of the film’s marketing materials, shows up as a kooky American who has lived amongst the island’s inhabitants for reasons we won’t spoil here.
Once the team arrives on the island, they start setting off bombs (Goodman has a theory that the earth is hollow), and Kong is, understandably, upset. The first confrontation between the giant ape, re-imagined here as a much more streamlined creature (as opposed to the straight-up simian nature of Jackson’s), is absolutely stunning – it’s brutal and violently unexpected. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, a young filmmaker whose “Kings of Summer” was a Sundance favorite a few years ago, shows an impressive confidence when it comes to staging elaborate set pieces like this one. He fearlessly piles on flourishes like a single shot that passes through all of the helicopters while Kong attacks, while still maintaining geographical clarity and spatial orientation. Vogt-Roberts wants to dazzle, but he also wants the audience to know which characters are in which helicopters and what happens to each of them when Kong shows up.
After the initial attack, “Kong: Skull Island” becomes slightly listless. The characters are split up, with a vengeance-seeking Jackson looking for a fallen comrade (played by Toby Kebbell with a questionable Southern accent) and the rest of the survivors (Hiddleston, Larson, etc.) keen on getting to an extraction point on the island so they can possibly return to civilization. As in all King Kong stories, there are tons of giant beasts (nasty, lizard-like critters called Skull Crawlers, colossal spiders, an ox that looks like something out of a Miyazaki masterpiece, etc). There is also the innate understanding that humans, and not those that dwell on the island, are the true monsters – something that anyone watching the news lately can totally identify with.
On a purely visual level, “Kong: Skull Island” is a delight. It forgoes many of the pitfalls of large-scale action film-making, staying away from quick cuts and jerky camera movements, in favor of more elegant compositions and rhythms. And the screenplay, credited to Dan Gilroy, John Gatins, Derek Connelly and Max Borenstein, has a solid enough foundation that the movie doesn’t wobble as much as it should in the spaces in-between sequences where creatures show up and wreak havoc. There are lovely, tiny moments where Larson will just photograph the other soldiers or the island’s natives, who wear 8-bit face paint and stay (mercifully) away from the tired, racist stereotypes that have hounded the franchise since the beginning.
It also cannot be overstated what an asset Reilly is. The moment he shows up, the movie feels enlivened and energized; his mere presence adds a tremendous amount of oddball charm and humor. Reilly’s performance is so wonderfully weird, it’s amazing that he survived until the final cut. (The other human leads, most notably Hiddleston, don’t offer nearly as much interest, echoing a similar problem that befell “Godzilla” – cool monsters, dull humans.)
The Kong redesign adds much, as well. By stepping away from the rigorously realistic standards set forth by Jackson and his confederates in the 2005 film, Vogt-Roberts and his team of skilled technicians and artists at Industrial Light & Magic (as well as Terry Notary, who did the motion capture performance), have made a more fully formed character. He looks less realistic but feels inherently more real; he’s certainly more three-dimensional than any of the human characters, especially when he’s set up as something of a villain but later shows his more vulnerable side. By making him more of a monster and less of an animal, King Kong is given a greater sense of scale and purpose, at times feeling like an ancient deity or protector of the island; less a king and more a god. It’ll be interesting to see, a few years down the line, what causes Kong and Godzilla to duke it out, since they serve similar, nature-balancing purposes in their respective films.
What’s fascinating about “Kong: Skull Island,” too, is how timely it feels. There’s an exchange early in the film between Jackson and Larson, where he criticizes her war photography and blames the press for losing morale during the conflict, which feels uncomfortably topical (#fakenews). It’s also interesting that the mission the soldiers and Monarch agents are piggybacking on was part of Landsat, a real scientific initiative in the ’70s to map uncharted portions of the Earth’s surface. Such boundless scientific inquiry seems virtually impossible in today’s anti-intellectual, climate-change-denying landscape. Watching the movie, it’s hard to not wish there was a little more time given to the political undercurrents of the film, which largely amount to: “Vietnam was bad, we shouldn’t go into dangerous jungles and start shit, the monster is us.” But the fact that there is any of that stuff in the movie, especially in a studio film meant to stand as a pillar for a much larger franchise, is commendable in and of itself. Vogt-Roberts knows that a stylistic elevation and attempt at politicization are keys to the character’s success, and he houses those in a fantastic, monster-strewn adventure. These days, getting out of the muck of the real world and into a fully realized, escapist romp, feels positively essential. [B+]