2017 heralds the return of one of Hollywood’s all-time biggest (hee hee) movie stars, the fictional giant ape ‘King Kong’. After receiving a few retellings of his classic story and several other strange off-shoots, we now have a major new Kong movie that reboots his story in a way that honors its history, but also sets itself apart boldly and distinctly. It stumbles here and there, but overall “Kong: Skull Island” is loads of fun and a great new start for this iconic character.
1933’s original “King Kong” is a true cinematic landmark. RKO Pictures, under the guidance of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, brought an original story based on the classic beauty and the beast dynamic to life in a way not seen before on film. A thrilling story, full musical score from Max Steiner, and uniquely innovative effects from Willis O’Brien brought this adventurous feat of imagination to life for audiences to adore for ages.
Over the next several decades, King Kong would see a handful of other movies and incarnations, but would always remain an enduring pop culture icon. He received sequels, spinoffs, Toho-produced Japanese films that famously crossed over with Godzilla, and several retellings of the original 1933 tale. These subsequent entries had varying degrees of success, yet no remake has yet lived up to the groundbreaking original.
With “Kong: Skull Island”, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and company set out to not only do something fresh and fun with King Kong, but also to fit into Legendary Pictures’ new “MonsterVerse”, the shared universe that includes Gareth Edwards’ 2014 “Godzilla”. While “Godzilla” was more tense and gradual with its atmosphere, “Kong: Skull Island” is a more fast-paced adventure.
This new reboot avoids retelling the story of people discovering Skull Island, finding the mighty Kong and capturing it for their own gain which results in destruction and Kong’s own death. This time an assemblage of soldiers, scientists and others go to Skull Island in 1973 for the secret purpose of finding undiscovered monsters. And rather than the story being an tragic allegory for man’s hubris, humanity versus nature, beauty and beast or anything like that, it’s more so a straight-up monster movie that honors many attributes of the titular monster’s history while letting loose from the character’s dramatic cinematic origins.
King Kong himself is given very good justice in this movie, despite not being quite as fleshed out as in other versions. The Kong from Peter Jackson’s remake is perhaps the most well-developed of all, due to the motion capture performance of Andy Serkis and the daunting 3-hour runtime giving the character plenty of room to breathe. But this film does a fine job re-establishing the character through personality and exhibiting small character moments, while still leaving plenty of time to have fun and tell a complete story. Also, Kong is greatly scaled up in the movie compared to previous versions. In 1933 Kong was 30-40 feet tall, but this time around he’s around 100 feet tall (and will grow even taller, per the film’s dialogue). This not only adequately prepares him for his eventual match-up against Godzilla, but also conveys him as more of a mythical beast or demigod than a mere giant ape. Peter Jackson’s Kong was well-developed but looked and acted very much like an actual silverback gorilla. He felt more real, but also less wondrous. This new version takes more inspiration from the 1933 design, presenting a kind of creature that doesn’t resemble any real animal as much. I admire Roberts’ version since he inspires a certain kind of awe, and indicates a kind of over-the-top escapism this film carries.
The various other monsters present on the iconic island are interesting and imaginative, and an interesting change of pace from the dinosaur-centric bestiary of Skull Island commonly found in previous movies. The main opposition, “Skull Crawlers”, work better as villain creatures than the Mutos did in Godzilla, and feel like a creative alteration of the classic T-Rex villain from other Kong movies.
The human cast, while played by a large ensemble of favorites, don’t fare quite as well as the monsters do. From the main cast featuring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, and Samuel L. Jackson to the supporting players of Toby Kebbell, Shea Wigham, Marc Evan Jackson and more, “Kong: Skull Island” has a very appealing and likeable cast. They do a great job despite the script not being too strong and the pacing moving along too quickly for adequate character development, particularly in the first act. John C. Reilly’s character perhaps gets the best treatment, whose interesting and endearing path through this movie is compelling and satisfying.
Also the divergent emotional paths the different groups of characters take is interesting and climactic, and even borders on a kind of political commentary. But overall the pacing and building of human characters is where this movie falls somewhat short. Even with that however, the effects, aesthetic, music and action more than make up for it.
Roberts clearly received great inspiration from Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” as well as other Vietnam-based media to inform the post-war look and sound of the film. Imagery of monsters against the harsh, colorful environment evoke powerful images that are also striking homages to 1970s-era war films. Many sequences also establish a backdrop of a kind of beautiful, hazy warzone that make great use of post-Vietnam cinematic inspiration.
The soundtrack is another clear reference to the time, using a large slew of classic rock from the period like Black Sabbath, The Hollies, Jefferson Airplane and Creedence Clearwater Revival to great effect throughout the movie, as well as some great score by Henry Jackman as well.
2014’s “Godzilla” had an approach toward revealing monsters and displaying action that was very much a slow build which, though many people disliked, I found compelling. “Kong: Skull Island” has some buildup but overall aims to address audience complaints over the slow-burn of “Godzilla”. As a result, the movie never feels dull, even though certain character motivations and plot points are rushed through too quickly. The movie isn’t trying to be the 2014 “Godzilla”, or even the 1933 “King Kong”, but instead take the legend of the colossal ape from an uncharted island and put him on an exciting path he’s never been on before. And with that, Jordan Vogt-Roberts and company succeed.
NOTE: There’s also a fantastic post-credits scene that establishes future MonsterVerse goings-on, so be sure not to miss it!
A fun, fresh, visually dynamic reboot to the character of King Kong and his perilous world. Character, plot development and pacing are partially sacrificed to serve the beasts of Skull Island, the environment they inhabit, and the dramatic flair with which they’re presented. It has its flaws, but “Kong: Skull Island” is undeniably and consistently an absolute blast, reimagining the beautiful-but-lethal titular island, and building the mighty Kong up for new possibilities as America’s original giant monster. I can’t wait to see him go up against Japan’s own iconic, prehistoric anti-hero in 2020.
+ An exciting new version of King Kong leads a great set of fresh and interesting monsters
+ Incredible effects bring the island dangers and thrilling fight scenes to life
+ Striking style and visual flair
+ Great use of popular period music
+ A continually-exciting and fun adventure
– Human cast is underdeveloped, despite being played by industry favorites
– Plot clips along at too-quick of a pace, particularly early on
What did you think of Kong: Skull Island? How did it compare to previous versions of the monster? Let us know in the comments!
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Seth Zielinski is a content and video producer for The Geekiverse, who bought a long wool coat in 2005 because of Jack Driscoll’s in Peter Jackson’s “King Kong”, and who will definitely be rooting for the big ape in 2020 when he faces Godzilla.
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