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Film Review: Monster Fun in KONG: SKULL ISLAND

Film Review: Monster Fun in KONG: SKULL ISLAND

As far as remakes go, living up to the majesty of the 1930s masterpiece King Kong seems a taller task than climbing the Empire State Building. But reaching the hill of the remakes is not as steep an ask, and the latest attempt, Kong: Skull Island, is surprisingly the best of this bunch.

For one, the new movie by The Kings of Summer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, is well aware that its primary role is to entertain and awe viewers with the impressive images of the King himself, rather than take itself too seriously. That is the fatal mistake of, for example, the previous reincarnation, the excessively soapy, incredibly tedious adaptation by Peter Jackson.

It is the error that many of revisits make, such as Jurassic World with its injection of dull and trite human element into the relationship between the characters, their nephews, their loves, when the audience is only there to see the monsters munching on an innocent victim and Bryce Dallas Howard running hysterically in heels. In Kong: Skull Island, by contrast, character depth is discarded quickly for destruction and mayhem, and self-mockery rules the day, courtesy mostly of two actors who are masters at this art, Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly.

The story wastes no time and looks for little excuse to send a gaggle of unsuspecting, soon to be lunch soldiers into the titular destination, with a paranoid conspiracy theorist (John Goodman) convincing the government to funnel funds into the exploration of a Bermuda Triangle-like area in the South Pacific. The setting is the 1970s, and a disillusioned America is reeling from an unexpected and humiliating defeat in Vietnam. Soldiers eager to exorcise those demons are sent along with the looney old man, as well as with a pacifist photographer played by Brie Larson and a scientist brought to life by Tom Hiddleston.

And while this backdrop as the jumping point for the various characters’ differing motivations is definitely suspect, it is still surprising to see the ultimate message the movie has to offer. It is not only that humans are messing with nature to their peril (as was the point of the original stories), but that nature itself may be humanity’s only hope against itself. It connects nicely with the message of the much-maligned Godzilla remake of recent years.

For trouble is brewing in paradise, or at least in Skull Island, and the imposing beast is the least of them. As fans of these tales know, it is giant animals of all flavors—spiders, octopuses, and really mean lizards included that are the true threat. Kong is King because he is the master of this dominion, and the puny, machine-gun clad dumplings are no match for him or the other horrors. They’re just along for the ride, or the meal, like the audience is.

The best part of Kong: Skull Island is undoubtedly the depiction of the King himself, a monstrous and regal presence that dominates and intimidates while somehow showing a sympathetic side. The movie is at its best when it laughs at the entire concept, including itself, and at its worse in the (thankfully few) moments it tries to venture into originality.

Even better, it portends a good sign for fans of the MonsterVerse, particularly with the very exciting end credits scene, of which we first reported here. (End credit spoilers:) The potential appearance of Mothra, Rodan, and others in future movies is promising both for Warner Bros. and moviegoers alike, if they know how to ride that fine line between complete absurdity and excessive seriousness.

One goes in to Skull Island with overly heightened expectations. This is one of the great screen classic monsters of all type. The movie in no way lives up to that standard, but it never tries. Instead, it reinvents itself for modern times, as an unabashed blockbuster that knows its audience and aims to satisfy them just enough. In that sense, Kong will reign supreme once more.


Grade: B+

About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film 'The Lost Weekend' is pure coincidence

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