King Ape

Only two King Kong films never leave the comfort of the island setting: One, 1933’s quickie sequel, Son of Kong, the other, Kong: Skull Island.

Skull Island is the better film. It has ants. Sort of.

It also features a titanic Kong, towering enough to bat away the Vietnam-era helicopters taking puny potshots at him. If this seems familiar, settle in. Period correct helicopters took Kong down in the droning 1976 remake, and it’s not the only thing calling back.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts directs a Vietnam war film with limited pretense. Apocalypse Now this is not, although the themes and shattered mental status of Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard indicate otherwise. Skull Island wants that thematic heft. It’s odd for a breezy monster mash, heady insofar it can be, utterly routine (but enjoyably fun) in everything else.

The anti-war motif only stretches so far, the somber touches leading into an (as expected) enormous body count. Extracting a period protest piece from a film enamored with the cinematic icon of its title feels disingenuous on the surface, let alone in execution. Further still, those war allusions stretch into a number of jungle-based battle scenes, that disorientation of the environment not without real world (or cinematic) precedent. Consider too the dissonance with the paired Godzilla (2014), a frightfully pro-military escapade.

… lifted by its voluminous energy, meeting childhood wonder and glorified adult violence.

Nearly each iteration of King Kong stood by something. King Kong ‘76 was laced with the oil crisis; Son of Kong felt hunger for Depression-era wealth; King Kong vs Godzilla trotted out the influx of American-style capitalism on Japan; and King Kong ‘33, the fairest of escapism for an audience needing that fantasy outlet.

It’s a shame a generation is robbed of a Kong of their own, given instead an inset piece to a grander scaled monster adventure. This Kong falls into its ‘Nam era by necessity of the Warner Bros. “Monsterverse.” A bevy of giant creatures are yet to come, and Kong nestles into this period because of convenience.

But it’s a stellar blockbuster all the same.

Monsters – not only Kong but also slithering underground beasties, sizable spiders, and airborne chompers – make for a crowded monster party, not one terribly concerned if action is necessary or not. If audiences were let down by Godzilla’s restraint, there’s a monster-a-minute in this one. Dialog drifts by, undercut in the effort to keep the digital Kong rolling on screen. He shows up to drink water and wrestle an octopus, mostly because the technology driving the special effects says he can.

Vogt-Roberts lays on the cinematography, at times breathtaking in situating Kong to scale, elsewhere poking around in hokey “internet cool” territory. James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) charging through poisonous gas with a Japanese katana, cutting apart flying carnivores is a bit much, even in this context. But then there’s the other screen decoration, Kong toe-to-toe, face-to-face with… everything, selling this ape as hero and foe. It’s grand, callow spectacle, the type that drove Kong (and his legacy) through every decade since his inception.

Throwaway the Vietnam misfire; what’s here is a genuine creature thriller, dopey yes, but hopped up on the fury and inoffensive mindlessness that propels the best blockbusters. It’s difficult to disrespect something willing to blow $200 million dollars to let an improbably sized monkey come to blows with Samuel L. Jackson.

Skull Island is a hungry film, arguably trying too hard at times, but lifted by its voluminous energy, meeting childhood wonder and glorified adult violence. People die in overly theatrical, spectacular ways in this movie. Each kill is memorable, unlike the brick-walls-that-speak characters (John C. Reily’s empathetic comic relief aside), showing that Skull Island knows why it exists, and it has no apologies for this existence.

Kong: Skull Island
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Hardly perfect, Kong: Skull Island isn’t isolated or original, yet it has a wildly captivating sense of action to keep things moving.

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