Count me as a fan of Peter Jackson’s 2005 love letter to one of his inspirations, King Kong. It was self-indulgent, way too long and entirely dated – but I found much of it inspired. Jackson could never capture the poetry of the 1933 original but his homage was admirable (not to mention the state of the art effects that brought Kong to life.) Every few decades the King returns, for better or worse to wreak havoc on unsuspecting humanoids. We misunderstand only to see the beasts compassion before it’s too late. It’s a simple environmental parable told through the eyes of each generation.
Because Hollywood has a mandate to only develop one-three original ideas per year it makes sense that we see the King return in 2017. Kong: Skull Island is the ape’s 8th silver screen appearance and he has truly never looked better or more menacing. As amazing as Jackson’s motion capture work was in 2005, Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and the magicians at ILM have taken their animation game to another level. Kong is massive, seemingly 150-feet tall and moves with a fluidity that is truly beautiful. Vogt-Roberts layers on a 70’s-Vietnam color palette to boot, if you see Kong it should be on the big screen.
Alas, not all is well on the idyllic-looking Skull Island. Early in the film, John Goodman arrives (characters have names in this film but trust me you won’t remember them) hellbent on getting funding from the government to search a newly discovered island off the coast of Vietnam. The war is just ending and the sitting congress have very little patience for such trifles but Goodman and his sidekick Corey Hawkins stare really hard at a Senator until he caves and approves the funding complete with a military convoy.
Before the group can depart however they must pick up a famed “tracker” – which is the most movie job ever created – played by Tom Hiddleston. They find him in a sweaty Vietnamese bar being very suave and convince him with a lot of money to help them navigate the island. Rounding out the motley crew is a group of faceless grunts fresh off the battlefield, Samuel L. Jackson as Colonel Packard – slowly losing his mind, and Academy-Award winner Brie Larson as a war photographer (you know that because she has a camera around her neck and talks about pictures.)
The setup is mind numbing, “create the squad” silliness because we all desperately want them to get to Skull Island. And when they do, Vogt-Roberts delivers. As the convoy approaches by helicopter he shamelessly borrows from Apocalypse Now, giving us the slow-motion rotation of the rotors against a bright orange sun-soaked horizon. It’s when Kong shows up almost immediately that the true spectacle begins. The first action scene is frenetic and inspired as the camera whips around, through and above the choppers while Kong disposes of them one-by-one, dispersing our heroes across the landscape (and squishing a few others.) The scale is perfectly realized.
What comes next is the biggest problem with Kong: Skull Island. This is a group of archetypes, none of which have believable arcs or interesting personalities. They are purely there as fodder for the beasts to chase and squish. It had me quickly reflecting on the best monster movies of the past several decades. We remember the T-Rex in Jurassic Park but we also remember Ian Malcolm, Dr. Grant and Ellie Sattler. Jaws had a scary shark but the human drama grounded the 3-men on the tiny ship Orca. Kong employs the, “you know who John C. Reilly is” form of character and our favorite step brother can’t save this by himself (he tries admirably though.) Vogt-Roberts seems to be aiming for a similar affect but never slows the momentum long enough before the next giant monster smashes through the canopy.
That’s not to say if you go in with the right mindset that there isn’t fun to be had on Skull Island. Vogt-Roberts swift pace might neuter any of the stakes but at least it delivers the monster smashing action. Kong is the true star and receives more screen time than I was anticipating – which is a very good thing. Still, when the King squares off on screen in a couple years with a very familiar foe we will all be there frothing at the mouth with nostalgia, leaving disappointed they didn’t learn from the past.