“The land where God didn’t finish creation.”
One of the most iconic of screen legends is back and bigger and badder than ever. The one and only true king – the mighty ape known as Kong – has returned once again to enthrall and entertain moviegoers in what will eventually lead to the ultimate monster showdown. That’s something we’ll get to in a bit. In the meantime, behold the wonder that is Kong: Skull Island.
After an opening prologue set during WWII where we get our first look at the giant simian, we move to 1973. While the clock is ticking towards the end of the brutal war in Vietnam, elsewhere in the Pacific lies an uncharted island which time has apparently forgot. A government agent (John Goodman) and his small team of scientists are convinced this mysterious locale is worth exploring and receive the go-ahead to mount an expedition. They hire an expert tracker (Tom Hiddleston), and are given a military escort led by a Colonel (Samuel L. Jackson) who is none too happy to see the war ending and relishes any chance to stay in the game. Joining them is a photojournalist (Brie Larsen) looking to expose the truth behind this operation. When their helicopter squadron reaches their destination and begins dropping explosives all over the place, they are suddenly and viciously attacked by a massive ape-like beast that reigns over the island and all its other huge inhabitants. After the dust settles, the survivors must battle a variety of colossal creatures as they clash between wanting to get off the island or completing the mission, which isn’t the same for everyone. With the help of a man (John C. Reilly) who’s been stranded on the island for quite some time, living with the local natives, it becomes the story of man vs. beast, or is it man vs. man?
In bringing Kong back to the big screen, the filmmakers were faced with the daunting task of resurrecting one of film’s all-time screen legends in a way that would be fresh and exciting, and not simply a rehash of previous efforts. Everyone knows the classic 1933 original, starring Fay Wray, who played a sort of love interest to Kong, brought to incredible life by the groundbreaking stop-motion work by Willis O’Brien. In 1976, Jessica Lange was the nubile object of Kong’s affections in the Dino DeLaurentiis-produced remake featuring make-up fx wizard Rick Baker’s man-in-an-apesuit. In 2005, Peter Jackson went all out with an ambitious epic featuring Naomi Watts as the one Kong falls for amidst an island of CGI dinosaurs. With Skull Island, in a wise and welcome move, they’ve decided to forego the ‘romance’ angle of earlier incarnations. By skipping that aspect and spending less time getting to the island, we get more of the fun stuff, mainly, Kong battling man and monsters. This Kong is truly a wondrous sight, 100 feet tall and standing upright, unlike the giant silverback gorilla featured in the most recent remake by Jackson. That height not only makes for a more magnificent beast, it serves a necessary purpose for future films, which we’re getting to, promise.
“A place where myth and science meet.”
Now a king can only be crowned as such if he has a kingdom and others to rule over, and that is certainly the case here. The 1933 and 2005 versions took place on a remote island populated by prehistoric beasts which Kong fought in a never ending struggle for survival. These goliaths were all dinosaurs that were familiar looking and based on actual fossils. (The ’76 version gave Kong only one nemesis to fight – a giant snake – a major drawback in an otherwise entertaining film.) In Skull Island, the makers have populated the island with a plethora of fantastic beasts, but they made the creatively wise decision to come up with exciting, new creatures, the likes of which we’ve never seen before, for the protagonists and Kong to clash with instead of the standard dinosaurs we already know and love. A ginormous long-legged spider, a colossal cephalopod, a behemoth of a buffalo – they’re just some of the denizens of this lost world that await around every turn (we do see a triceratops, but only its skeleton). The fiercest and most horrifying monstrosities of all are the evil-looking Skullcrawlers, an apt name for these skeletal-looking, two-legged lizards. A clearly battle-scarred Kong has seen plenty of action combatting all these creatures, much like the men are worn and weary from their days fighting in Vietnam.
Setting the movie during the tumultuous time of the Vietnam War was another interesting choice. The parallels to films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon are readily apparent. The music choices – Creedence, Jefferson Airplane, Sabbath, Bowie- evoke the time period as well and add a whole other dimension to the film. It’s a welcome rock soundtrack on a par with Guardians of the Galaxy or a Tarantino film. The locales as well – the film was shot in Hawaii, Australia and Vietnam – add a layer of authenticity amidst all the incredible otherworldly creatures on display. And, homages to movies like Jurassic Park and Cannibal Holocaust add further fun for fans. Now it must be said that a lot of these terrific choices stem from a well thought out script, and ultimately a great deal must be attributed to director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Amazingly, this being only his second film, Roberts has given us another Kong for the ages, at once recognizable, yet fresh and invigorating. Everything, from the slow-motion whir of the helicopters, to the jungle explosions reflected in the sunglasses of a soldier, to the sound design falling silent at times, to a close-up of Kong’s clenching fist as he’s about to unleash his fury, all add elements of nuance and style to the movie. Yes, this is a movie in every sense of the word – a pure, cinematic spectacle. No question that greatness lies ahead for Roberts.
Last, and certainly not least, they’ve assembled an impressive cast worthy of taking on a beast as mighty as Kong. Tom Hiddleston brings strength and understanding to his role as a British tracker. Brie Larsen, fresh off her Oscar-winning performance in Room, works with a much bigger canvas here and shows she is up for the task as what she refers to as an “anti”-war photographer. And what can you say about John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly? These guys add life to everything they are in, and having all three together in one movie is reason enough to see it. Goodman adds intelligence and mystery to his government agent role. Jackson, in what would be considered the bad guy, is much more than that, with justification for taking on that persona. And Reilly is given and brings a whole other dimension of empathy to what could have been a standard lunatic, comic relief role. It’s interesting to note that Michael Keaton was originally tapped for the Reilly role, and J.K. Simmons for Jackson’s part (they both had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts), and they’d surely have done terrific jobs. But this cast simply can’t be beat. What’s great is that no one or two can be considered the leads in the film. They all shine equally. Other recognizable faces include Corey Hawkins (Heath on The Walking Dead, 24: Legacy) as a geologist, and Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) as a weathered and weary Captain.
Within all the chaos and wonder are messages that shouldn’t be ignored. Of course, there’s the obvious theme of the horrors of war, and how no one really wins in the end. In this timeframe just before Watergate, in the middle of all the war protests ensuing in America, Goodman’s character utters, confidently: “Trust my words, there will never be a more screwed-up time in Washington.” This so eerily reflects our current anarchy and disastrous situation today that one wonders if this was added post-production. On top of everything is the overriding message of man’s relationship to nature and all of its creatures, great and small. Kong isn’t the enemy here – he is doing nothing other than protecting his world in which others, heavily-armed others, invaded. As Goodman’s character declares, “Ancient species owned this Earth long before mankind, and if we keep our heads buried in the sand, they will take it back.” Now it’s unlikely that giant, prehistoric beasts are waiting in the wings to once again rule the planet once humankind wears out its welcome from Mother Earth. But it’s not a stretch to equate this philosophy with those climate change deniers (an extreme minority it must be said, though, unfortunately, in the current majority in Washington) who are ignoring the overwhelming evidence of science. Not seeing the forest for the trees could result in a lot less trees, and bees and bats, and all other flora and fauna, and ultimately, us. Kong’s plight is similar to that of real world apes – gorillas and orangutans, especially, who are creeping ever so closer to extinction as they’re hunted for their meat or souvenirs, and see the destruction of their habitat, from clear-cutting for palm oil plantations or development. (Palm oil, by the way, is used in everything from baked goods to cosmetics to detergents – learn more here: Say No to Palm Oil.) We can’t turn away and hope for the best. We must act now to preserve life on this planet and stave off what some are calling a “Sixth Extinction” crisis level event. Not good.
As mentioned earlier, there is more to this Kong than meets the eye. As part of Legendary Pictures’ ‘MonsterVerse’, Kong: Skull Island follows 2014’s Godzilla reboot. (Kong was originally under the Universal banner with Legendary, but was given to Warner Bros. for the sake of this shared universe. Universal, in the meantime, is beginning their own monster franchise with the Tom Cruise-starrer, The Mummy, this May.) Godzilla: King of the Monsters is set for March, 2019, where we’re expecting to see other ‘Kaijus,’ or MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah face off against the atomic-charged lizard. This will lead to the ultimate battle of the behemoths, Godzilla vs. Kong, in May of 2020. Set your calendars for stun. That future square-off is why Kong was made so huge for this installment. How they’ll bring Kong from the 70’s to fight a Godzilla, whose last iteration was during present day, is not yet known. However, moviegoers need to be reminded once again to stay through the credits of Skull Island for some exciting information tying the franchises together. Who could possibly win in such an historic bout? Who would you even root for? Stay tuned – the planet is about to get a lot more crowded and noisy.
— review by Brian de Castro