Saturday, March 11, 2017

Going Ape for Kong: Skull Island

Minor spoilers follow for Kong: Skull Island

The original King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, 1933) was a masterpiece of fantasy, adventure, imagination and romance; it remains the standard for films of its genre, and indeed ranks highly in the western canon of film, genre or otherwise. While Kong: Skull Island (Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017) does not reach the lofty heights of the original, it is nonetheless a thrilling, rollicking adventure of the type we see all too rarely these days. Simply put, it's an old-fashioned tale of man vs. nature, told with modern-day flourishes and a refreshing lack of irony.

In the closing days of the Vietnam War, a the men and women of shadowy U.S. government program called Monarch seek to prove the existence of colossal monsters around the planet. With new evidence from cutting-edge (for the time) satellite imagery, Monach is given the go-ahead to investigate the mysterious Skull Island, one of the last unexplored places on Earth, a rocky archipelago surrounded by a continuous storm system. The expedition goes awry almost immediately as the explorers encounter an enraged King Kong, who swats their helicopters from the sky like they're toys.

Most of the survivors realize that the mission is a wash and escape from Skull Island is now the top priority. But Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) wants revenge and vows to kill Kong even though his plan threatens the survival of the entire team. Which of the dozen or so expeditionary survivors will live through the onslaught of giant spiders, insects, octopi and Kong himself? And how will Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly in a scene-stealing comic relief performance), a pilot shot down over Skull Island in 1944, help or hinder them?

The best adventure films give you a set of protagonists to root for, set against formidable challenges in an exotic environment. Kong: Skull Island uses those tropes with skill and authority. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson (as a British commando and a photojournalist, respectively) make an engaging, sympathetic and platonic screen couple. Supporting players make up a mix of Vietnam veterans and Monarch scientists, led ably by the always entertaining John Goodman. The film does not fall prey to the so-called "idiot plot;" each character's actions is believable in the context of their situation, and even Jackson's character is given ample motivation for his choices; he's not insane, he's simply in error. And it's easy to feel that many in his position would have made the same mistakes.

Kong: Skull Island isn't a classic in the vein of the original - who could ever match that ending? - but it is a worthwhile, well-made action-adventure monster movie. Three and a half skulls out of five! 

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