By HARRY FISHER
The one and only King Kong has made a glorious return to cinema in the new film “Kong: Skull Island.” Rather than being a remake of the original 1933 “King Kong,” this new epic seeks to bring Kong into the universe of the 2014 “Godzilla” film. For now, “Skull Island” is being met with a pretty warm reception.
Although the film is far from perfect, I find that it is brilliant in how it brings Kong and Skull Island back into modern cinema, and how it revives a certain type of film that has not existed for quite some time.
The film is set in 1973, just after the Vietnam War. A group of scientists, accompanied by a military escort, a skilled tracker and a photojournalist, go on an expedition to explore an uncharted land known as Skull Island. Upon arriving on the island via helicopter, they begin dropping bombs to map the island. This little “science experiment” does not go over well with Kong, a massive gorilla who rules over the island. After Kong swats down all their helicopters like flies, the protagonists find themselves stranded on an island full of monsters, with only a matter of days to escape before their ship leaves them behind.
Kong truly is the king of this movie, both literally and figuratively. Every time he appears, he totally dominates the screen. In addition to Kong, the protagonists must deal with other massive monsters such as a giant squid, a creepy giant spider, and the lizard-like “Skull Crawlers,” Kong’s rivals in the film. The special effects used for Kong and the other monsters are spectacular, and I could never look away whenever they were on screen.
Moviegoers will also recognize a number of highly praised actors who star in the film, including John Goodman, who plays Bill Randa, the government agent who organizes the expedition. There’s also Tom Hiddleston as James Conrad, the highly skilled tracker who leads the group, and Brie Larson as Mason Weaver, the photojournalist who serves as the film’s female lead. John C. Reilly plays Hank Marlow, a World War II fighter pilot who was shot down and stranded on the island in 1944, and has been living among a tribe of primitive humans who inhabit the island ever since. He attempts to help the other protagonists escape. And of course, it would be a crime to forget about Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Preston Packard, the leader of the helicopter squadron that escorts the other characters onto the island. Packard develops a personal rivalry with Kong after witnessing the titanic ape kill half of his men. Although all of these actors play their parts well, I can’t help but feel that some of their characters are a little generic and stereotypical. This wouldn’t be so bad if there wasn’t a big chunk of time in the middle of the movie where there’s hardly any action, just a lot of focus on the human characters without much focus on Kong or the other monsters. It’s times like these when we realize just how boring and generic some of the characters really are.
Once again, Kong and the monsters are the true stars of the movie. Whenever Kong was brawling with a giant squid or a Skull Crawler, I couldn’t help but be reminded of his glory days when he would beat up on dinosaurs. This is where I believe the film’s true genius lies- it reminds me of all the old-school giant monster movies that I grew up with. Much like “Godzilla” did in 2014, “Kong: Skull Island” takes the classic idea of having two giant monsters battling one another and brings it into the modern age, getting modern audiences ready for the epic throw-down that will surely come when these two movie icons finally come face to face once again.
I think the film is also brilliant in how it revives a genre of film that I thought was lost to time- the giant monster adventure movie. This, among many other things, is what the original “King Kong” was- an action-adventure flick in which a group of explorers must survive in a land full of huge prehistoric monsters that want to kill them. Similar examples include such films as “The Lost World” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” This type of film is one which I thought was long dead, but “Skull Island” has proven me wrong. The whole movie feels like a throwback to the good old days of monster movies, when stop motion and hand puppets were the dominant form of special effects. The film serves as a modern version of these kinds of movies, with high quality special effects that modern audiences will appreciate.
Adding to this sense of nostalgia is all the throwbacks to older monster movies. The giant spider is reminiscent of Kumonga, the giant spider form the Godzilla series. Samuel L. Jackson’s standoff with Kong towards the end of the film is very similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face off with the Predator at the end of “Predator.” Even Kong’s first full scene in the film, in which he swats down the squadron of helicopters, is clearly a homage to his battle with the airplanes at the end of the original “King Kong.” Of course, the fact that Kong actually wins this time just shows how much bigger and more threatening he is in this new universe. Even the rather stereotypical archetypes that each character in the movie seems to represent serve to add that sort of old-school, B-movie flavor that I believe the filmmakers sought to achieve.
“Kong: Skull Island” overall is an excellent reintroduction of King Kong into modern cinema, and a real treat for fans of old-school monster movies. If you go into this movie wanting to sit down and enjoy some good, old-fashioned monster action, you’ll be more than satisfied. Also plans are already in place for a crossover in which Godzilla and Kong will throw down in a classic giant monster brawl, sometime after Godzilla gets his turn in the spotlight once again in an upcoming 2019 film.