Here’s a rarity–a blockbuster, tent-pole picture that doesn’t play dumb and is satisfying on almost every level. It also has a King Kong that doesn’t have a thing for white women, removing the racist stigma of three previous American Kong films.
Set in 1973, Kong: Skull Island is sort of a mash-up between Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Apocalypse Now (lest we miss that connection, there is a character named Conrad, after the author of Heart of Darkness, and another named Marlow, who was the protagonist of that novel). John Goodman plays a scientist who works for a government agency that searches for monsters, which is a stretch of the imagination, and he has satellite photos of an uncharted island. Along with a few other scientists, he is able to wrangle an Army escort.
This brings Samuel L. Jackson into the picture, as a the colonel of a helicopter squad just about ready to go home after the peace treaty (when you’re in a movie, never do anything dangerous when you’re about to retire or be sent home). Jackson, with his dead-eyed stare, is very good, less of the parody of himself that he has become (he doesn’t say motherfucker, but he does emit a “Bitch, please!” Also on the ride are a professional tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and a photojournalist (Brie Larson).
What’s unique about Kong: Skull Island is there is no teasing. In many monster movies, such as the first King Kong, which is a great picture, you don’t see the creature until well into the movie. That is not true here. As the helicopters fly in, Kong is there, swatting them out of the sky. Since the soundtrack is a boomer playlist, instead of Wagner playing as the copters go in, it’s Black Sabbath.
Many men of his men are killed and Jackson wants revenge. But, as the party is split into two, the civilians (Hiddleston, Larson, and Goodman et. al.) discover an inhabitant on the island, John C. Reilly, who crash-landed during World War II. He’s the Colonel Kurtz of the story (though he is named Marlow), who lives with an indigenous tribe and tells them all about Kong. “He’s like a God here,” he says, and the protector of the tribe from underground dwelling lizard-like creatures.
That’s a lot stuff, but it keeps things moving. There are some great action scenes. Kong will, of course, eventually tee off against the “big one,” and it’s a great fight. A few characters are surprisingly killed off, and there is a real sense of danger.
But what I most appreciated was Larson was not set up as the Fay Wray/Jessica Lange/Naomi Watts character. She’s a woman in man’s field, no nonsense about her job. Kong does not become enamored with her (Hiddleston does, sort of), so we lose the fear-of-miscegenation angle that the previous films have unfortunately displayed (see the scene in Inglorious Basterds where the original King Kong is discussed as a metaphor for American slaves).
The film was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose only previous feature was a Sundance film, The Kings of Summer. Unlike some indie directors, like Josh Trank, Vogt-Roberts seems right at home in big-budget land. I also liked the cinematography of Larry Fong, who gives Skull Island unearthly light that makes a viewer feel just a bit uncomfortable. Fong has shot many of Zack Snyder’s films, that you can hardly see at all, so it’s nice to see Fong out from under Snyder’s untalented thumb.
Kong will be back, and if you stick through the credits you’ll see the connection to Godzilla. I already feel like that the climactic fight in Kong: Skull Island was a fight with a giant lizard, so the upcoming film may be overkill. But I’ll buy a ticket.