Reeling it in: Kong proves he’s still king

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows a scene from, “Kong: Skull Island.” (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

“Kong: Skull Island”

Warner Bros.

1 hour, 58 minutes

After more than a dozen different film versions, you’d think there wouldn’t be much new that you could do with the story of a gigantic gorilla with a penchant for blondes. But director Jordan Vogt-Roberts proves this week that, even if the story itself isn’t particularly unique, a new take on the style is enough to give an old tale a fresh feel.

Much as did 2014’s “Godzilla,” which takes place in the same universe as “Kong,” the opening credits serve as a history lesson of sorts. Starting in 1944 with the creation of Monarch, a mysterious government agency, we move up to the 1970s, to the end of the Vietnam war. Col. Preston Packard, Samuel L. Jackson, has been instructed to rotate back to the states, along with his squad of air cavalry. But the way they’re leaving and the response back home has him troubled, to say the least. So when the word comes from on high that he has one more mission, the colonel snaps at the chance.

He and his troops are to escort a team of geographers and a small crew of Monarch employees to a recently discovered island, one that has been shrouded in mystery for its entire existence. Along for the ride are a professional tracker, ex-British Secret Service operative James Conrad, played by Tom Hiddleston, and peacenik photojournalist Mason Weaver, played by Brie Larson. Rounding it all out is Bill Randa (John Goodman) of Monarch, who has a hidden agenda of his own.

The mission is made more complicated by the fact that the island, dubbed “Skull Island” is surrounded by a dense and perpetual storm preventing any but the most unlucky from ever landing there. After making their way through the storm, Packard and co. proceed to drop a series of seismic bombs on the island, in an attempt to map the underground structures. Very quickly, however, the soldiers are shown the error of their ways. Kong is king on Skull Island, and he doesn’t take kindly to rowdy visitors.

One thing that sets this film apart from others in its genre is the convention of the long, slow reveal of the creature in question. With Godzilla, I suppose that makes sense. He always looks a little different in each movie and there’s always a controversy over that final design, so the filmmakers want to tease it out.

Kong, on the other hand, always looks pretty much the same. He’s a giant gorilla. Sometimes he’s bigger than others, but his basic look is pretty well set. Vogt-Roberts and crew waste no time teasing this character — rather they introduce him in the opening scene flashback. One of the results of this decision is that the movie has very few slow spots. Some have listed this as a detriment, but I don’t know. Sure, there could be more character development, but I think that, at the very least, my giant monster movies should be exciting.

Much as been made of this, and the trailer and the advertising materials certainly suggest it, but a lot of “Skull Island” feels like an homage to Francis Ford Coppola’s classic Vietnam anti-war pic “Apocalypse Now.” I had sort of figured that was purely a marketing tactic, because what studio would green light a giant monster version of that crazy nightmare of a film?

Well, I was partly right. “Skull Island” is in no way a remake of “Apocalypse Now,” but it does match it stylistically in a lot of ways, and there are plot elements in comparison. It’s very cool, and I found myself wondering what exactly this crew was doing that other big blockbusters can’t seen to match.

I have read some pretty poor reviews of this film, complaints that the characters are thinly drawn and that the movie is dull, but I can’t figure out what film those reviewers were watching. I was completely drawn in by this story, these characters, and the world they create. I liked the 70s-era setting, thought the action was well-done and even, at times, surprising.

Hiddleston and Larson make for entertaining leads and the film never asks us to buy into an unbelievable love story. Sure, this being a giant monster movie, there are a few places where the bounds of plausibility are stretched, but that’s a pretty thin complaint considering the lead is a 100-foot tall ape.

I will say this, however. The film would not have worked nearly as well with out the addition of John C. Reilly as Hank Marlow, a WWII pilot who crash-landed on the island after a dogfight in 1944. Marlow provides not only exposition, but comic relief, sorely needed amid all the monster fighting seriousness.

Samuel Jackson, doing his best Ahab, is perfect for this film, not necessarily doing his best acting, but certainly not phoning it in, either.

I’ve been somewhat disappointed by many of the big budget genre films that have come out in the last few months. “Rogue One” wasn’t as compelling as I’d hoped (talk about thinly drawn characters) and “Logan,” though amazing in many ways, was a real downer.

“Kong” on the other hand, is a blast and, considering that Legendary is planning to bring films pairing Kong and Godzilla, as well as classic monsters Rodan, Mothra, and Ghidra to the screen, an encouraging sign of good times to come.

Grade: A

“Kong: Skull Island” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, at times gruesome, and brief language.

Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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