It’s 1973, and the U.S. has commenced withdrawing troops from Vietnam.
This doesn’t sit well with Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who feels his country didn’t lose the war so much as abandon it.
Packard gets his chance for one last overseas mission when recruited to provide security for an expedition to an uncharted island in the South Pacific. But he confronts an opponent far more threatening than the Viet Cong. He faces King Kong.
“Kong: Skull Island” becomes the latest reboot of the 1933 fantasy franchise that revolutionized special effects. The enjoyable action pic doesn’t radically reinvent the giant-monster movie formula. But it does introduce new details and devise a greater context in which the familiar plot can unfold.
A metaphor for America’s involvement in foreign wars? A contrast between the majesty of nature and the limitations of man? An argument that big is indeed better?
Mostly, “Skull Island” offers an excuse to pit armed humans against mammoth versions of predatory creatures — CGI interpretations of spiders, insects, birds, mollusks and reptiles that prove quite yucky and alarming.
On the human side, Packard commands a formidable collection of soldiers, researchers and civilians. These include a British mercenary tracker (Tom Hiddleston), a shadowy bureaucrat (John Goodman) who predicts the island will be a “place where myth and science meet” and a photojournalist (Oscar winner Brie Larson) who doesn’t like being called a war photographer — she prefers the term anti-war photographer.
Combat veteran Packard eyes her suspiciously, commenting, “A camera is way more dangerous than a gun.”
They’re ostensibly on a geological excursion, but that endeavor quickly goes awry thanks to a certain 328-foot-tall gorilla, leaving the survivors split into three groups. They need to head to the north side of the island to meet the rescue ship. But getting there appears to be a doomed task.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts somehow landed this blockbuster gig having only the coming-of-age feature “The Kings of Summer” to his credit. Clearly the picture’s producers saw some latent skills in the young filmmaker.
Teamed with savvy writers Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”), Max Borenstein (2014’s “Godzilla”), Derek Connolly (“Jurassic World”) and John Gatins (“Flight”), Vogt-Roberts first concocts a distinctive environment for Kong to stomp around in. This ominous tropical setting — shot in Vietnam, Australia and Hawaii — presents a much richer palette than the stagey California locations of previous films. One can practically sip the humidity.
Vogt-Roberts keeps the imagery bold, from close-ups of the brooding ape itself to the colorful, cakey makeup design on the island’s native inhabitants. Perhaps the most memorable shot in the entire piece is of a Richard Nixon bobblehead perched on the dashboard of a helicopter. First it’s nodding assuredly. Soon after a clash with the mighty Kong, it’s shaking uncontrollably.
The director seems reasonably comfortable with the headliners in his cast, particularly the stalwart Jackson, who wrings what he can out of this Capt. Ahab stand-in. The rest of the bloated ensemble suffers by comparison, forced into undefined roles and murky motivations. (Although it does make the “who lives or dies?” guessing game rather challenging.)
Least effective is the music, a painfully predictable batch of throwback rock tracks nearly as lazy as the “Suicide Squad” soundtrack. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” and “Bad Moon Rising” supply a double dose of on-the-nose commentary. Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” accompanies a rah-rah military maneuver. And Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” gets partnered with images of … yep, a trippy drug bar.
However, the filmmakers should also be praised for what they don’t include. Namely, they don’t cart Kong back to New York. With the action restricted to the titular island, the story functions purely on its own self-contained logic.
For now, anyway.
“Skull Island” drops more than just hints that it shares real estate with a larger universe of big-name monsters (here introduced as the “hollow Earth theory”). No wonder the next Kong movie contains a “vs.” in its title.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
‘Kong: Skull Island’
Rated PG-13. Time: 1:58.
3-D or not 3-D?
Some scattered moments stick out because of the 3-D, particularly an energetic opening sequence set during World War II. Otherwise, the effect isn’t prevalent enough to warrant the higher ticket fee.
“Kong: Skull Island” is the first King Kong movie we’ve seen in awhile, but it’s actually the second installment in a giant film franchise.
The first was 2014’s “Godzilla” reboot starring Bryan Cranston. Filmmakers were still polishing the special effects when the studio announced the launch of a series built around classic giant movie monsters. The next Godzilla, “King of Monsters,” starring Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga, is now filming and due in theaters March 2019. “Godzilla vs. Kong” is under development, with a release aimed for 2020.
Sharon Hoffmann, email@example.com