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REVIEW: “Kong: Skull Island” proves you can teach old ape new tricks

Samuel Jackson stars as Preston Packard in the new movie, “Kong: Skull Island.” PHOTO COURTESY LARRY FONG

While the action genre is currently dominated by superheroes and comic franchises, other sub-genres have surprisingly dug their niches over the last few years, with the “giant monster” genre making a renaissance of sorts with films like “Pacific Rim” and Legendary Entertainment’s take on “Godzilla.” It comes as no surprise then that Legendary would attempt to tackle another major movie monster, maybe to try and cash in further on this resurgence, and that’s where “Kong: Skull Island” comes in. But how can a classic, if not an outdated monster like King Kong compete for attention with the spectacularly over-the-top Kaiju of “Pacific Rim,” or even with Godzilla? The answer would be by completely revitalizing Kong from the ground up.

The plot, as most versions of the Kong story go, focuses first on the people that end up finding him. This time around, it’s 1973 and the Vietnam War has just ended. Scientists Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) have just discovered a mysterious island in the Pacific that has hitherto never been set foot on by man, but they need a military escort to get there. They manage to get the help of Col. Preston Packard (Samuel Jackson) and former British Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and are followed by “anti-war” photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), along with several other scientists and U.S. soldiers into the depths of Skull Island.

But what seems to be a simple geographical scouting mission completely changes when the real reason Randa and his crew travel to Skull Island is revealed: the 60-foot titan gorilla known simply as “Kong.” Now stranded on Skull Island, Randa’s team must now fend against the island’s assortment of monsters while also dealing with Kong, days before a helicopter escort can provide their escape.

The most notable difference between “Kong: Skull Island” and its predecessors is that it’s completely different plot-wise. Gone is the idea that Kong has to be captured and taken to New York: this new Kong film is all Skull Island, all the time, with the film giving special focus to the island’s other megafauna, such as giant water buffalo, monstrous spiders and the especially evil Skullcrawlers. “Kong: Skull Island” also differs from other Kong films in terms of its overall tone, and that is in part due to its setting.

By placing the Kong story at the tail end of the Vietnam War, “Skull Island” brings about “Apocalypse Now”-like vibes in its soundtrack, visuals and, surprisingly, themes. The film’s use of sunsets makes for amazing visuals outside of all the monster-fighting action (especially considering all the times Kong poses in front of a setting sun), and thematically the film brings back the idea of enemies, both actual and created: is Kong really a villain? Do the humans of the movie really have to fight him?

This brings us to the star of the film, the eponymous Kong. His design this time around isn’t a “man in a suit” type monster like in 1933, or an actual gorilla (except bigger) like in 2005, but a mix of both, standing upright at all times and smashing and fighting with an almost human style. This Kong isn’t just a really big gorilla. As the film points out often, he is a sort of primordial force, reasonably revered as a god by Skull Island’s natives. In every scene he is imposing, if not frightening, not only through his sheer size but also by his fury to defend Skull Island, making this Kong the first Kong to be truly scared of in a while. Not only that, but the film actually gives Kong a caring, quieter side, something that’s been explored with some movie monsters but has never been outright done as it has here. In short, while he may be a giant, hulking ape, you’ll eventually care for — and even root for — Kong as he crashes and bashes his way through the film.

In terms of Kong’s humans, the casting couldn’t have been better. Goodman and Hawkins are great as scientists Randa and Brooks, acting as the scientific muscle and the heart of the team. Hiddleston’s Conrad seems a bit too bland and a bit out of place, acting as the secondary action hero of the group. Larson’s Weaver is thankfully not a damsel in distress, though she doesn’t partake in the action herself for the most part — perhaps the best way to describe Weaver is as a glorified bystander. The absolute breakthrough, though, is Jackson’s Packard.

Packard is easily the most complex and multi-layered character of the whole cast. He’s a disillusioned colonel who feels purposeless after the end of the Vietnam War, who then finds a new purpose in chasing down and killing Kong. While it’d be easy to just say he’s one of the film’s antagonists — which he is, definitely — Packard also cares for his men and for the rest of the expedition crew, even if he is progressively more blinded by his anger against Kong as the film progresses. On top of that, Packard is a much more subdued role than we’re used to seeing Jackson play as Packard’s is a quiet fury, one audiences will love to see through up until the film’s conclusion.

Is Kong a perfect film? Definitely not. While it goes against several of the clichés we’d expect of a Kong movie, it also gleefully embraces some of the more awkward action film tropes. It’s quite awkward to have the (mostly) white cast be the voice of reason against Packard’s obsession with Kong, and it’s especially awkward to have an entire tribe of natives not only be completely mute but to also have their only interpreter be a crazed, shipwrecked John Reilly. Also, while Kong doesn’t fall in love with Larson’s character, there’s a sort of connection between them that is weird, to say the least.

Yet despite all this, “Kong: Skull Island” makes for a very good action movie and quite possibly the best version of Kong yet. It’ll be interesting to see him face off against Godzilla in a movie announced for 2020 — because everything has to have a shared universe these days — but until then, Kong will remain the king of monster movies.

2 Comments

  1. LOVED IT! ONLY issue if there is one to have is how the Hell did he get tangled up the way he did in those chains so fast from falling and what were they made of that he couldn’t readily break them with his AWESOME strength? OTHER than that, LOVED it!
    Meanwhile, I was talking to a guy beside me in the theatre about the OLD monsters and I was naming them. As the CREDITS were still rolling, ALL the names I said were on the Screen! MY EYES GOT WIDE!!!!!!!!!!!! I KNEW I was right to wait for after the credits!!!!! Oh Happy DAY!!!!!! We going OLDSCHOOL!!!!! lol

  2. How old is KONG….damn. The man said he was still growing….then who was that the beginning of the movie in 1944…kongs father…mother…etc….?