Kong: Skull Island (2017)

While Godzilla has had numerous reboots, going from good to bad to just a force of nature to, even at one point, being the embodiment of the souls of Japan's war dead, King Kong hasn't had the same fortunes.  Sure, he never had to suffer a little ape blowing smoke rings, but his reputation has mainly rested on how good the 1933 film was, and still is.

The original movie got a mediocre sequel, then got to fight Godzilla in that monster's fourth movie in 1962 - a movie that got its own sequel, King Kong Escapes, in 1967.  We then got our own monster back for a 1976 remake, which then got its own sequel 10 years later - neither of which did the monster justice.  So, keeping with that two-sequel pattern, when I saw the advertisements to this, I thought that someone decided to rush out a sequel to Peter Jackson's 2005 version.

Instead, this is more of a sequel to (or prequel, really) to 2014's Godzilla.  While Toho is again working on building its own Godzilla universe once again, Hollywood is going the cinematic universe route with giant monsters in general, and completely rebooting the Kong story for his upcoming battle with Japan's giant aquatic menace.

It's 1973 and the Vietnam war is finally winding down.  Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his men are looking forward to going home, but their nation has one more job for them: Bill Randa (John Goodman) is part of an agency called Monarch, that researches cryptozoological threats around the world.  Satellite photos have revealed an uncharted, but rumored, island surrounded by a permanent storm system - the rumored Skull Island that has been isolated from the evolutionary path of the rest of the world.  He and his partner Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) convince the U.S. government to okay an expedition along with a military escort to make sure things go right.

Also along for the ride is expert jungle guide James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), brought along to make sure if things go wrong that they have an expert to help them survive, and photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to document what is found.  With the help of Packard's helicopters and pilots Randa plans to use explosive charges to sonically map the structure of the island.  The problem is that even Randa underestimates it's main inhabitant: Kong, the last survivor of a race of giant, upright-walking apes that populated the island.  Kong is not happy with explosions and a bunch of annoying things with propellers buzzing him, and takes matters into his own hands - literally - and destroys Packard's entire troop, killing most outright and leaving the survivors to fend for themselves as they try to cross the island to a rendezvous point.

Monitoring the results, Houston discovers that a theory Randa had, that many thought was crazy, is true.  The island is largely hollow, with an extensive cave network, many extending beyond the island itself.  Turns out that the network is a provides a way for large creatures to move around the world undetected. 

While attempting to guide his group of survivors to the rendezvous point, Conrad runs across a tribe of humans on the island, largely silent, called the Iwi.  The person he finds living with them, and not largely silent, is World War II pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), who crashed on the island along with his Japanese counterpart, Gunpei Ikari (Miyavi).  They encountered Kong while trying their best to kill themselves, and instead became close friends as they depended on each other, and the Iwi, for survival on the island.  He is also aware of Kong's place - not as a monster, but as the last of his kind, and the only reason the island hasn't been overrun by what he calls "skullcrawlers" - amphibious, tow-legged snake-like creatures with bony heads.  Kong himself is only an adolescent, his parents having been killed by the creatures.  He survived, grew, and is the only reason the largest of the creatures hasn't become dominant.

While Marlow and the others attempt to get a boat working that was jerry-rigged from the parts of Marlow's and Gunpei's airplanes, as well as the remains of a B-52, Packard tries leads his soldiers to gather survivors so that he can lure Kong into a trap and have his revenge.  Eventually, both parties meet up and, even knowing the truth, Packard's need for revenge overrides the truth that even his soldiers are beginning to realize - that Kong's survival is the only way they will make it off the hostile island alive.  Packard's vengeful behavior, of course, leads to the "Skull Devil" rising when it thinks Kong is down for the count, leading to an epic monster battle as the survivors await rescue - and hope that Kong is a bit more forgiving than Packard.

The problem with the 2014 Godzilla film is that, when you promise Godzilla, you better have something for him to do.  Yes, the battle with the Muto at the end was great, but they made a big mistake by making him a background character.  I understand that often happened with many of the Toho films, but that was often budget-related, and they made sure what time the monsters did get on the screen made you largely forget the mad scientists, aliens, mobsters and kids in short pants that took up the majority of the movies' time.

Kong: Skull Island doesn't waste time with buildup on the monster.  His name is in the title, and he shows up early while Marlow and Gunpei are having it out, and doesn't waste any time in popping up and taking down an entire fleet of helicopters when they start bombing his island.  He is also far from a dumb ape.  Despite being similar to a gorilla, he walks upright, uses tools and generally has an understanding of his place in the world, and shows an ability to distinguish between those humans that do him harm and those that appreciate his protection.  There was always some intelligence shown in past incarnations of Kong, but here he is presented as something, though oversized, that could easily fit on our evolutionary cycle.

The island itself has a huge variety (huge being the operating word) of megafauna, from varieties of water buffalo to overgrown cephalopods to flocks of pterodactyl-like "psycho vultures."  This is important, since in the best Kong movies it has not just been the big ape being the threat through a majority of the film, but rather millions of years of divergent and isolated evolution.  Sure, it is doubtful that such an ecosystem could survive in such a small space (don't even get me started on how such a permanent storm system on our planet would have to be artificially created in the first place), but I often find it tedious to scientifically break down giant monster movies anyway.  The important things is the movie delivering what it promises with the monsters, and for once we have a movie that delivers.

There are still the usual flaws.  The human characters are largely flat.  We have good performances all around, but they are character types.  As usual, Samuel L. Jackson stands out, portraying a man whose loyalty to his men and need for vengeance completely blinds him.  Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson make up their own plot through most of the film, and while he is believable as an experienced guide and somewhat shell-shocked veteran, there is not enough chemistry to make the semi-romantic subplot take flight.  Also, with the attempt to build a cinematic universe, there are a number of awkward attempts to tease future movies in the series - although it would be nice to see Rodan get a chance once again to be something other than a sidekick.

What does take flight is John C. Reilly's portrayal of Hank Marlow, who until Randa showed up with Packard's men had resigned himself to spending the rest of his life on the island.  Typically, he's the one with the most experience surviving there, and his advice is ignored by everyone, even as he attempts to get himself and everyone else back to civilization.  Reilly, when restrained from mugging for the camera like he does too often in his own comedy films, truly is a good actor with the timing needed to insert real humor into the proceedings.

It was interesting to see a Kong movie placed in this era, and direct Jordan Vogt-Roberts doesn't miss any opportunity to make reference to Apocalypse Now, from playing music from the helicopters to piling on the references to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  Despite the references, it never gets bogged down in being overly dour or dramatic.  Where the emphasis in Francis Ford Coppola's movie was an exploration of the darker parts of the human soul, Vogt-Roberts remembers he is making a monster movie and keeps the emphasis on the action. 

Normally I would be complaining about a dull CGI-fest, but except for a couple bad parts (the death of the prissy scientist by psychovultures, for instance) where things go to the cartoon side with the effects, they are well-done.  Rarely do I look at a movie like this and get a feeling of anything more than someone creating a video game environment.  This is one of the few times in recent years where they made the creatures look like living, breathing animals, right down to Kong having scratches on his palms from where the helicopter blades would have cut him.  It was always something I admired Ray Harryhausen and the original King Kong animator, Wesley Willis, for doing so well with stop motion.  They would both be proud with what was done here.

Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Time: 118 minutes
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts


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