erik lundegaard

Movie Review: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

From the trailer, not to mention early reviews, it looked fast, furious and entertaining—and it was. It’s a roller-coaster movie and I wasn’t bored. That doesn’t happen often. I’d take this movie 100 times over any of the “Fast & Furious” or “Transformers” crapfests.

How did they make it work? First, they didn’t call it “King Kong.” That removes some of the weight of cinematic history. Allows you to be light and loose and less ponderous. Allows you to let John C. Reilly improvise.

Kong: Skull IslandMore importantly, the filmmakers got rid of some of the baggage of the traditional King Kong narrative, which hasn’t aged well over the years, particularly:

  • The capture of the white girl by the black natives, then offering her up to Kong as sacrifice.
  • Kong’s sexual infatuation with the girl. No playing with boobies here.  
  • Bringing Kong back to NYC. Seriously, c’mon.
  • “Twas beauty killed the beast.”

This beast lives. Sequels, yo. More than that. As Marvel has its Marvel-verse, so Warner Bros. will have its Monster-verse: Godzilla, Kong, et al. It’s leading up to the big 2020 confrontation “Godzilla vs. Kong.” Directed by Zack Snyder, since he did so well with “Batman v. Superman.”

Kidding. About Snyder. But the monster-verse, yes, that’s happening.

The Kongs of Summer
Are passports required when indie film people wind up in big-budget Hollywood tentpole films? If so, a lot of passports must have been issued for this one.

  • Its director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who looks like reclusive Joaquin Phoenix, has only one feature film under his belt: the coming-of-age flick “The Kings of Summer,” which grossed a total of $1.3 million in the summer of 2013. Probably cost a fraction of that. This one was budgeted for $185 million. Talk about zero to 60.
  • Remember Brie Larson, the troubled counselor in “Short Term 12”? Now she’s in Kong Kong’s palm. She’ll be Captain Marvel next year.
  • The “me” in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (2015), Thomas Mann, is one of Sam Jackson’s soldiers. He gets off some good lines. He’s the one who keeps reminding everyone that what’s happening is crazy. 
  • Easy E and Dr. Dre from “Straight Outta Compton” have strong supporting roles.

The mistake of the recent “Godzilla” was to hide Godzilla for most of the movie, as if it were the thing we feared, like the shark in “Jaws,” rather than the hero. “Kong” doesn’t make that mistake. “Kong” knows we want immensity and gives it to us right away.

We start in 1944. Two planes are shot down, one American and one Japanese, and the soldiers square off, ineptly; then the Japanese guy chases the American guy with a hari-kari sword through the jungle. They’re wrestling near a cliff when Kong emerges and stuns our soldiers—as well as us. He’s about four times the size we’re used to. 100 feet tall? More? Oddly, I flashed onto “Lord of the Flies” during this scene. Just as the battle of the kids on the island isn’t the real battle (they’re eventually picked up by soldiers), so our soldiers think they’re enemies but Skull Island swiftly disabuses them of the notion.

During the opening credits we get years of news reports until we land, surprisingly, in 1973. It’s surprising because nobody looks like they live in 1973: hair, fashions, all wrong, at least for the non-military personnel. As for the military, well, they’re kind of listening to “Vietnam war movie” songs: “Time Has Come Today” by the Chambers Brothers and “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. Both are from 1967. That’s old shit by ’73. Why not “Brand New Key” by Melanie or “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast” by Wayne Newton? It was a relief when “Ziggy Stardust” made an appearance.

John Goodman plays Bill Randa, who works for an organization called Monarch that’s trying to prove monsters exists. But it’s only when Randa’s assistant (Corey Hawkins), argues that this shrouded island in the South Pacific may be scientifically useful during the Cold War that the mission is funded.

Others have other motivations for the journey. The tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), former MIG, is paid well. The photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), senses a story. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) is adrift with the Vietnam war ending. He wants another war, and he gets one, becoming Ahab to Kong’s white whale.

John C. Reilly steals all of his scenes as Hank Marlow, that American pilot still living/surviving on the island 28 years later, but some of the small roles stand out, too. Chopper pilot Toby Kebbell has a good line reading when they first spot Kong (“Is that a monkey?”) and I like the calm in his voice after he’s swatted from the sky and he’s radioing his position. Shea Whigham, Nucky’s screw-up brother in “Boardwalk Empire,” has a great misreading of the Androcles myth (he thinks Androcles killed the lion with the thorn), and the actor still has that great defeatist heaviness about him. He knows shit is fucked. Even his great sacrifice goes for naught.

And the Oscar goes to...
But the best actor in the movie is probably Kong. The computer graphics are amazing, and the movie never lets us forget his immensity. He also makes the most of his close-up. When Brie Larson strokes his face, you see, in his eyes, how lonely he is. He’s king, but the last of his kind. He rules, but he has no one. It’s a touching scene. I don’t know how they did the eyes so well.

Kong is also our hero, forever acting as Kong ex machina to save the puny humans from “Skull crawlers,” which live beneath ground, and which are huge lizardy things with bare heads. They’re the least interesting part of the movie. If the filmmakers really wanted to freak us out, a nest of giant ants would’ve sufficed.

We get echoes of/homages to “Apocalypse Now” (in the poster no less) but mostly “Kong” is just a ride. I don’t know if it’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys, but it has it all over giant fucking robots.

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Posted at 11:41 AM on Sat. Mar 11, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2017  

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