The 1933 film King Kong is pretty much an undisputed classic, but it’s also one that can be easy to take for granted. That might be because it doesn’t really fit too cleanly into any of the other trends of 1930s cinema. It has little to do with the horror films being made by Universal at the time, its stop-motion effects were largely relegated to B-movies after it came out, and its director Merian C. Cooper never directed another movie and relegated himself to roles further behind the scenes after he made Kong. It wasn’t really until a new generation of filmmakers who grew up on Kong came to prominence that its influence really became known, and this has led to a number of highly reverent remakes which have tried to recapture what they see as the importance of the original film. There was of course the 1976 version, which seems kind of corny in retrospect but it is clear that Dino De Laurentiis was trying to make it an event blockbuster in the mold of Jaws and he really wanted to make audiences cry when the gorilla kicked the bucket. But the movie that really showed the reverence that a new generation of filmmakers had for that first movie was Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong, which worked really hard to remake the first movie into a prestige epic that audiences would take as seriously as he took the original. I was on board for that, but I think Jackson’s zeal turned out to be rather off-putting to general audiences that didn’t share his reverence for the material just wanted to see a giant monkey smash things and move on with their lives. That movie was also probably not what the studio was looking for as it, like every other version of the story, ended with Kong dying which doesn’t leave room for much of a franchise. With the new film Kong: Skull Island filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts has taken a different approach and decided to make a King Kong movie that fits more into the mold of a modern summer blockbuster that takes the series in a more populist B-movie direction.
For this iteration of the Kong story the setting has been moved to 1973 at the tail end of the Vietnam War. With Nixon negotiating and end to the war a scientist named William Randa (John Goodman) and his colleague Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) believe they may be seeing their last opportunity to explore an uncharted island that has been the cause of many missing ships and airplanes. After convincing a senator (Richard Jenkins) that they need to explore this mysterious island before the Soviets do he’s allowed to mount an expedition. Because he knows this could be trouble he brings along a military escort led by a colonel named Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who’s bitter about the end of the war and eager to do one last mission. They also bring along an experienced Jungle tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and a war photographer named Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) as well as a whole bunch of other scientists and soldiers. Once they get there however, they quickly find that the weather is hardly and most frightening thing about Skull Island and that they are once again in for the fight of their lives.
Previous films in the Kong franchise and movies of the Kaiju genre in general really tend to play the Jaws approach of delaying the appearance of their titular monster as much as possible so as to make its really satisfying when said creature finally makes its entrance. Kong: Skull Island doesn’t really play that game. Instead the military and the expedition members encounter Kong almost immediately after they get to the island and before they’ve even seen the rest of the monsters on Skull Island. People who were disappointed by the relative lack of Godzilla from Gareth Edwards’ recent Godzilla will probably not feel the same way about this film. This Kong walks fairly upright and as such more closely resembles the original Kong than the one in Peter Jackson’s movie, which more closely resembled the look of a real Gorilla. Vogt-Roberts is very willing to give Kong close-ups and seems particularly fascinated by his teeth. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the effects work here and it won’t amaze people the way that the effects in the 1933 film and even the 1976 and 2005 versions did to some extent but the CGI here is strong and confident just the same and watching Kong and the various monsters do what they do is definitely fun to watch with the emphasis being on action rather than raw spectacle.
One of the first thing you notice about the film is that it has a surprisingly large cast of characters played by a variety of fairly recognizable characters and it quickly becomes clear that this is because the movie is absolutely ruthless about killing people off and is kind of shockingly violent for the sort of lighthearted blockbuster that this is. This was perhaps also true of the 1933 film, in which dozens upon dozens of nameless sailors are killed by various monsters and the Peter Jackson movie also killed off a whole lot of people but there was usually a certain gravity given to the scenes where the characters you’ve come to recognize were dispatched. This movie on the other hand kind of revels in building up characters just enough so that you make some connection to them before it proceeds to kill them in fairly flippant ways. I wasn’t exactly disturbed or offended by this but it did seem rather tonally odd, and this movie generally is not very precious about tone. The movie invokes the novel “Heart of Darkness” by naming characters Conrad and Marlow (yet somehow has the restraint not to name Samuel L. Jackson’s character Kurtz), which was reference that didn’t make a lot of thematic sense when Peter Jackson made it before but at least the jungle adventure in that movie was appropriately dark, here it makes even less sense as the tone doesn’t resemble that book in the slightest and it has none of its themes about colonialism or psychology.
I suppose those references were included because of its association with Apocalypse Now which is definitely a movie this movie wants to be, except without all the darkness and politics. There is pretty clearly some Vietnam allegory with the Samuel L. Jackson character once again stubbornly trying to win an unwinnable war, but it doesn’t have anything to profound to say about that conflict in general. It also has an incredibly lazy soundtrack that hits seemingly every cliché of the “Vietnam movie.” I mean, if you’re making a movie with Vietnam in the background and you think “Run Through the Jungle” by Creedence Clearwater Revival is a creative choice you should go back to the drawing board. You also shouldn’t invoke “We’ll Meet Again” unless you want your audience thinking about nuclear war, and it’s probably just generally a mistake for any movie to use “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by The Hollies for any reason, as that is seemingly in every movie set in the early 70s. In general, the film’s period setting does not add a lot to the movie at all and mostly just seems to be flavoring, but not necessarily bad flavoring and probably does give it a certain something a film set in 2017 wouldn’t have had.
This thing is coming out in early March but at the end of the day its best described as a movie that follows the template of what audiences expect out of an early 21st Century blockbuster for better or worse. Its characters are fairly stock action movie types, it has a lot of CGI driven action scenes, it has the balance of drama and comedy that people have come to expect from these movies. Jordan Vogt-Roberts isn’t a completely bland director and he does bring some interesting visual ideas to the film (looking at you Richard Nixon bobble-head) but he also doesn’t have a wildly bold vision either. This is a very lightweight monster movie action movie and it will probably please most audiences and will subvert very few expectations. People looking for a silly little monster movie to watch will probably not be disappointed: the monster fights are cool, the human parts are amusing, and the scenery is nice… it does pretty much everything it advertises. People looking for more than that or for something that’s more of the lineage of the classic film that this takes its name from might be a little disappointed. It’s an inelegant and kind of messy movie but it gets the job done and it has some very cool moments at times.