Kong: Skull Island ✮✮✮1/2
by Glenn Lovell
For an “uncharted” atoll, Skull Island gets an uncommon amount of foot traffic.
This South Pacific outcrop of stone and jungle first emerged from a fog bank in 1933, allowing Carl Denham, the Frank “Bring ’em Back Alive” Buck-styled promoter, and his crew to wade ashore and net a giant ape called Kong. Skull Island reappeared nine months later in “Son of Kong” and again for Peter Jackson’s 2005 expedition, when Denham, played by Jack Black, captured “the eighth wonder of the world.” (The less said about producer Dino de Laurentiis’s 1976 visit, led by Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin, the better.)
We return yet again to the movies’ most trampled lost island in “Kong: Skull Island,” directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts and starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Reilly and “Room” Oscar-winner Brie Larson. Since this is the third reboot of arguably the greatest of all fantasy adventures, we approached cautiously, expecting stock heroics and schlock-y, underwhelming effects.
Boy, were we surprised. The new Kong is not only the most exhilarating e-ticket ride since George Miller’s “Mad Max Fury Road,” it’s almost as much fun as the RKO original thanks to perfectly paced cliff-hanger moments and a slew of the scariest CG beasties since those deadly (but somehow endearing) raptors in the kitchen in the first “Jurassic Park.”
The best new touches: setting the adventure during the last days of the Vietnam War — and thereby recasting it as anti-war allegory (backed by Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Black Sabbath) — and getting character actor Reilly to play Marlow, an old coot castaway. A significantly younger Marlow (named for the character in “Heart of Darkness”?) is introduced in the prologue. Following a dogfight that leaves two planes in flames, he and an enemy pilot parachute into what they think is Eden on Earth. The furry colossus observing from the brush quickly abuses them of the notion.
From here we flash forward to 1973, as a conspiracy buff-Lost World theorist (John Goodman) successfully lobbies Washington to underwrite his latest wild-goose chase. Recruited to chaperon Goodman and company: a battle-addicted lieutenant colonel (Jackson) and his gung-ho helicopter squadron, a special forces officer-turned-world famous tracker (Hiddleston), and an award-winning photo-journalist (Larson) who references a My Lai-like massacre and occupies the opposite end of the political spectrum from Jackson, who, at one point, reminds the peaceniks in his midst, “We didn’t lose the war, we abandoned it.” The sweaty suit (John Ortiz) sent to oversee the expedition, which may be more about blowing things up than collecting data, occupies the same place in the food chain as the Jurassic Park publicist hiding in the outhouse.
“Skull Island,” you’ll be glad to hear, is front, middle and back loaded. The assault on the island by helicopter armada — blasting Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” — is a real rush. Not surprisingly, it was inspired by Coppola’s Wagner-backed air cavalry raid in “Apocalypse Now.” It brings immediate retaliation by the Big Guy (Terry Notary and, for facial expressions, Toby Kebbell, rigged for motion-capture), who, striding into battle, bats the gunships, one after another, from the sky like rubber band-propelled toys. The contest may be lopsided but the pyrotechnics are spectacular. (Vogt-Roberts also channels Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” with “We Will Meet Again” farewell.)
With the group split up and attempting to reunite for a prearranged pickup, “Skull Island” is in danger of succumbing to the midstream languor that settled over “Star Trek Beyond.” That it doesn’t is testimony both to Vogt-Roberts’ visual storytelling — finally, someone who knows how to frame for widescreen Panavision — and the production’s first-rate digital effects, to say nothing of its strong second unit. As we cross-cut between the increasingly riled Jackson and what’s left of his platoon and incipient lovers Hiddleston and Larson, we’re treated to a fun array of digital beasties, including gargantuan water buffalo, spider and octopus, the latter pounded into sushi by master chef Kong.
Marlow warns the worst is yet to come, i.e. the crater-dwelling skullcrawlers, which look like the spawn of crocodile and pterodactyl. What do you bet the survivors’ ranks will be further thinned when, ignoring Marlow’s advice, they take a shortcut through a bone- and skull-strewn “burial ground”? It’s here that Vogt-Roberts stages the action highlight, an extended, hilariously sadistic (in the style of “Anaconda”) battle between humans and mutant reptiles that climaxes with Hiddleston, armed with samurai sword and shrouded in poisonous green gas, whacking dino-vultures from the sky. The sequence is so stylish and absurd we wonder if Tarantino might have had a hand in an early draft of the script.
Of course, Jackson’s Vietnam vet and the majestic, less anthropomorphized Kong are the real antagonists. Jackson’s character takes out his anger over being abandoned on the battlefield by protestors at home by vowing to topple this jungle threat. “This is one war we’re not going to lose,” he sneers, reaching for the napalm. To hammer home the human-beast connection, the director cuts from one scowling visage to the other. In the ’70s, many would have found this juxtaposition offensive, racist. That it now goes all but ignored by critics as well as Jackson, means either we’ve outgrown this debate or we’re oblivious to it. I would argue the latter.
Larson’s portrayal of the intrepid war photographer is certainly an improvement on earlier Skull Island scream queens, including Fay Wray and Jessica Lange, who were basically sexy monkey bait. Even Kong is now more politically correct: He’s curious about “beauty” rather than sexually fixated on her. In the inevitable battle royal, she’s potential collateral damage rather than an itch that can’t be scratched.
Given the open-ended fadeout and popularity of this fantasy adventure, look for sequels, as well as that promised Godzilla-Kong matchup. I for one am looking forward to a return visit to Skull Island, if only for the giant ants that sound like birds. They’re mentioned but never shown, probably because they didn’t fit into a budget that had already swelled to just south of $200 million.
KONG: SKULL ISLAND ✮✮✮1/2 With Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, John Ortiz. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts; scripted by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connelly. 118 min. Rated PG-13 (for slight profanity, somewhat grisly attacks by digital-effects beasties; will be too intense for some children under 12).