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Kong Proves He Still Has The Star Power To Carry A Movie

Skull Island’ delivers a powerful beast and a weak script

The magnificent beast, Kong surveys the humans intruding on his turf in the

Credit: Warner Brothers

Above: The magnificent beast, Kong surveys the humans intruding on his turf in the "Apocalypse Now"-like confrontation in the jungles of "Kong: Skull Island."

Companion viewing

"King Kong" (1933)

"King Kong Vs. Godzilla" (1962)

"Godzilla" (2014)

King Kong made his screen debut back in 1933, and this week he is poised to make a comeback as “Kong: Skull Island” hits screens.

King Kong made his screen debut back in 1933, and this week, he is poised to make a comeback as “Kong: Skull Island” hits screens.

King Kong was my first movie crush. My dad introduced me to the creation of Merian C. Cooper (writer-director) and Willis O’Brien (stop-motion effects wizard) when I was little, and I remember crying when he died at the end of the 1933 film. In fact, it is one of the few films that can still make me cry. And I never forgave Fay Wray for not trying to save the big ape’s life.

Over the past eight decades, Kong has had many pop culture appearances in films (sequels, remakes, rip-offs), TV shows, books, comics, video games and even a stage play. But Kong makes a major push this week to establish himself as a viable franchise with “Kong: Skull Island.”

Previous remakes either kept Kong in his original setting (Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake) or modernized him to the present day (the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis disaster). “Skull Island” decides to place the story at the close of the Vietnam War and invent a new storyline involving a team of scientists, soldiers and adventurers in search of a mythical, uncharted island in the Pacific.

Bill Randa (John Goodman) spearheads the mission and convinces the U.S. government to provide a military escort headed by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Randa also enlists James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a tracker, and Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photographer to round out his crew.

The team finds the mystery Skull Island at the center of a perpetual storm and discovers a hidden tribe of silent people, a pilot named Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), who crash-landed during World War II, and a host of magnificent and terrifying creatures including the king of the island, Kong.

The film wastes no time introducing us to its titular star. In the opening moments, we get to meet Kong face to face, and he is an impressive beast. We step off the island for a while to establish the meager trappings of the plot, and when we return, Kong announces his presence on the island with a brutal display of his prowess. He swats helicopters out of the sky like flies and crushes people like ants under his feet.

He is definitely the badass king of his domain. We are told he is of an ancient species and the last of his kind, and while he proves menacing and lethal he also has a soul. The film does not waste any time on an interspecies infatuation, but Kong and a few of the humans do make a connection, and Kong proves he is not an unthinking monster. He is the protector of his island and battles the subterranean skull-crawlers that threaten the savage Eden above.

“Skull Island” is, first and foremost, the setup film for the convergence of the Kong and Godzilla monster franchises. The film’s producers and some key creative talent are the folks behind the 2014 American “Godzilla.” What that means is “Skull Island’s” primary concern is to reaffirm Kong’s star quality and his ability to carry a franchise. The side effects of that are that the humans and plot are totally expendable.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Kong takes on the U.S. military in "Kong Skull Island."

It is not that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writers Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly do not make an effort. Vogt-Roberts assembles a cast of talented actors to make this a classy expedition, and the idea of making Kong some kind of Kurtz in the heart of darkness that is Skull Island is ambitious. Hiddleston’s character bears the same last name as “Heart of Darkness” author Joseph Conrad while Reilly’s character takes the name of the book’s protagonist, Marlow, and the journey does take them downriver into something very primal. But the problem is that the “Heart of Darkness”/ ”Apocalypse Now” reference is not really thought through all the way, so it falls flat.

And since the original Kong narrative is left behind, there is no Carl Denim character energetically driving the plot and no Fay Wray love interest for Kong to pursue. The motivation for the expedition is pretty thin while the antagonism between Packard and Kong is forced almost as much as Conrad and Weaver’s sudden empathy for the primordial demigod is. The humans are just less interesting than Kong and are so thinly developed that we barely notice when most of them die.

Plus the film cannot find its tone. Hiddleston and Larson try to have some jokey one-liners, but they are painfully lame. They seem uncertain about how seriously they should be taking all this, and they just never seem to have any fun. Then when Larson tries to be serious, as when she comes across the skeletons of Kong’s family and says she’s seen enough mass graves to know one when she sees it, we feel more like laughing than at the comic lines. Even Goodman is underwhelming. He could have made such a great Denim character igniting excitement about the expedition. But his character ends up more like a bureaucrat trying to use the system to his advantage.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Packard (Samuel Jackson) advocates trying to kill Kong while Marlow (John C. Reilly) and Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) argue against that in "Kong: Skull Island."

Reilly's over the top performance proves a godsend as everyone else, even Jackson, seems so low key. At least his attempts at comedy score some laughs.

The film has an uneasy relationship with its Vietnam setting — not sure how political to get and not sure why it chose it outside of being able to have a cool soundtrack (did “Guardians of the Galaxy” inspire that choice?)

The reason I am being a bit hard on the film for its weak script is that I love the character of Kong and want to see a film worthy of his iconic stature. There is potential to be mined here, but no one seems to know how to do it. The film's success, though, is in giving us a Kong that is mighty impressive. He looks great on screen, is a force of nature (making him a good rival or comrade for Godzilla) and displays a personality that engages us. He is not the Kong that I fell in love with as a child, but he has got charisma, and I want another film with him.

Kudos to the effects team that have brought him to life and endowed him with ferocious power as well as soulful emotions. Although he dispatches with the American military threat with ease, he does seem perplexed by these things that fly through the air and cut his hands as he grabs their blades.

But my disappointment in "Skull Island" is simply that the film as a whole does not match Kong’s stature.

“Kong: Skull Island” (rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language) is first and foremost a monster movie, and if you are going just for the monster, then “Skull Island” delivers the goods. If you wait past the lengthy end credits there is a kicker that teases another Kong outing in which famous kaiju-like Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah and more will make an appearance. But the ending is open enough that Kong could be facing off against the ancient species of Japan or possibly siding with them against mankind.

I would kind of prefer all the monsters working together on something. But until that film is made, just go to “Skull Island” and see it on any biggest screen you can find so you can look up in awe at Kong because he is magnificent.

As part of the Film Geeks SD's Famous Firsts film series that I co-host at the Museum of Photographic Arts, we will be screening the original "King Kong" on July 7.

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