By Joe Hammerschmidt
It took only 22 years for this writer to finally absorb the majesty of the original King Kong last summer, Merian C. Cooper’s Golden Age era masterpiece which ushered in a brand-new impetus for cinema, in combining revolutionary visuals with solid acting and an emotional human-like friendship; what still rookie-ish director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) is doing with “Kong: Skull Island” is what we had assumed as the impossible, on three counts: (1. allow the king of all apes (and all inhabitants around a 10+ mile radius) an convincing argument for staying on the island, not quite escaping (yet); (2. Give the elusive island a wider mythos by comparison to its predecessors; (3. Prove a winning parallel universe can stand its own ground right next to the original source material. Yes, there may not be a Fay Wray-style admiration towards the ape, though the sum of the separate parts, all self-standing, make up an exciting cinematic experience to which the “creature feature” of old is safely reestablished in the public conscience.
The journey merely starts as a social experiment/observation trip for wise old crackpot government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) on a trek to survey the last uncharted island on any existing map. As the Vietnam War ends, another battle looms in the back corner as Randa’s vision leads a group of capable, though never completely reliable group of misfits, none of whom could ever be qualified to hold their own amidst the flora/fauna of the island. Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson, in another role of shrewd yet subtle badassery), an aging army vet who looks like he had seen too much in his professional life, is the most scared of the creature and most hell-bent on eliminating the threat before it actually poses one to the rest of the world (unlikely); Captain Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a retired British airmen who’d played in the playground of Vietnam has a far more humanistic understanding of war and its effect on nature, though is at odds when it comes to moral conflict; Mason (Brie Larson) has the creative eye, as a rogue antiwar photojournalist dually keen on exposing the island and the government’s near-criminal actions; aspiring geologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) makes for the curious one, an ever-excitable seismology major working directly for the top-secret government operation, yet still scared beyond his limits.
Expectedly, because of their explosive personalities, none of them completely get along; for as much of a war they as humans are with their immediate area, they are all at war with each other; Packard with Bill over the realism of their objective; Conrad with Randa over the well-being of the creature; the collective versus the natives, along with rascally dinosaur-like creatures, and with, astonishingly enough, another human who had been stranded on the island after a crash landing during WW2, the eccentric pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), to whom becomes the point of rescue/escape, by any means necessary, all framed with a great deal of hiking, in a tightly brisk 2-hour runtime.
The gut elements, representative of the CGI primate, when pieced together, are just enough to both trounce over either of the Kong remakes, and step up to the front of the line, leaving smooches to the original stop-motion creation to whom film scholars owe their thanks. Vogt-Roberts easily accomplishes this by keeping Kong ON Skull Island for the duration, where we have more of an opportunity to step into his shoes, the difficulties of ruling an elusive kingdom, seeing over ordinary subjects and unexpected visitors. We, as viewers, are therefore treated to a tale from the non-human’s POV as well as from the opposite, both ends struggling to coexist in a land of fright and fight. Without the need for old-school New York as a crutch, the title lives up to its promise that we’re invited to step into the treachery and mystery of Skull Island; the more time spent around every corner, the better for expanding a burgeoning universe to which few people had been rightly aware of.
Yes, this is officially the immediate follow-up to 2014’s Godzilla, and the second in Warner/Legendary’s rightly new “MonsterVerse” series of films. In the wider scope, how this Kong falls with its counterpart and potential others who could share their weight around, he succinctly shadows the ‘Zilla in presence and will likely be the winner in the eventual team-up. However, without a damsel to protect, he’s left to his own devices and a bit confused about the idealism of humanity, still a troubled soul but lost in convincing meaning. While this story draws in its own buoyancy by maintaining the human vs animal struggle, and showing off a side of Kong that hadn’t been properly exposed on film, a bit of the soul is chopped away in the grand moneymaking scheme. Still, for what it is all worth, the result with everything tied together, is that there is potential to be found in “Kong: Skull Island”, with all the big-budget summer tentpole eye candy one could handle until a ravenous viewing public forces the universe to stretch it far too thin. One shouldn’t be discouraged to take this trek head-on, preferably in IMAX, with the beefiest sound system available; purists, however, be the most prepared to have your beliefs in the original Kong persistently challenged. (B+)
“Kong: Skull Island” opens Friday at most area theaters; rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language; 118 minutes