Sunday, March 19, 2017

Films of 2017: "Kong: Skull Island"


When it comes to movie monsters, King Kong is the quintessential example that comes to mind, up there with Godzilla. (Heck, I'd even vouch for the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghost Busters.)

In recent years, cinema has seen its share of onscreen creatures, from the giant beast in Cloverfield (2008) to the Kraken in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) to the 50-foot Kaiju in Pacific Rim (2013). Three years ago, Warner Brothers began a so-called cinematic "Monster-Verse" with Godzilla (2014), an impressive (not to mention grounded) update of Japanese company Toho's giant lizard, directed by a pre-Rogue One Gareth Edwards.

This franchise's sophomoric effort, Kong: Skull Island, is something of a reimagining of the mythological figure, who is brought from an unknown island to New York City, where he meets his match atop the iconic Empire State Building. Only this film is set during the Vietnam days of the early-1970s as various soldiers (headed by who else but Samuel L. Jackson), scientists, and crew members including an expert navigator (Tom Hiddleston), an antiwar photographer (Brie Larson), and a persistent explorer (the versatile John Goodman) embark to a mysterious island of uncharted territory. What they encounter, even before they land, is a giant gorilla and a host of other enormous creatures in a fight for survival. They even encounter an ancient tribe, as well as a lost WWII hero (a scene-stealing John C. Reilly) who's been on the island since the 1940s.

John C. Reilly
John Goodman
Samuel L. Jackson and Toby Kebbell
Exceeding the mind-numbing CGI action and mayhem that the trailers suggested, the movie itself is an exciting and nostalgic throwback to the days when adventure films like Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park had quality. In other words, they were films with substance and not just action and tension. More specifically, this film is a throwback to what makes an adventure pick exciting: an opportunity to explore, to be astounded, and to be terrified by a world unseen and unheard of. (Although, anybody who's seen the 1933 black-and-white original, and Peter Jackson's 2005 remake, will recognize this fictional location.)

What sets this film apart from the conventional creature feature (and this is something Godzilla did real well) is how it showcases characters that are as interesting and compelling as Kong and the other mysterious and dangerous creatures that roam the island. (Even the great character actors and film icons Jackson and Goodman have at least one great on-screen moment together.) Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (who's only other feature film effort was the 2013 coming-of-age drama The King's of Summer) even shot at real locations, including Hawaii and (for reportedly the first time in Hollywood history) Vietnam. As for the creatures, Kong is incredibly big, while the "Skull Crawlers" (amphibious monsters with two limbs and long tails), water buffaloes and insects are intricately detailed and massive.

If the film has a weakness, it's that it wastes no time showing it's title character from the first sequence, rather than showing a big reveal halfway through (a la Jaws or Jurassic Park). This is something the trailers (save for the one that debuted at the San Diego ComiCon last year) unfortunately ruined as well, and what makes the trailers and film of Godzilla that much more nerve-wracking and exciting.

Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston
In spite of this, it's thematically amazing that, amidst the Vietnam-era setting, the Creedence Clearwater Revival soundtrack, and cast of characters, Kong (who appears villainous and menacing) is not the real villain here, but the protector and defender of the island. And he's a pretty awesome one at that. It's enough to set him apart from the tragic "Beauty-killed-the-Beast" conclusions of the original story. This Kong aims for full-blown popcorn thrills and vibes on the same par as Apocalypse Now (1979).

Stay through the credits on this one, for as every cinephile knows, "Kong is not the only king."

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