It’s not a remake or a sequel or a prequel. It’s something new that comes from something old.
Let’s pretend that back in the early 1930s, before “King Kong” made its 1933 debut, a roomful of storytellers sat around, tossing off ideas for a tale about a really big, prehistoric, gorilla-like creature living on an isolated island, surviving each day by battling his way through hordes of other prehistoric creatures.
The island is a mythic place, but since myths often come from real stories that have been blown out of proportion, word gets out that it actually exists, and soon brave men make their way there to see what they can see.
One idea in that imaginary room turned into “King Kong,” complete with a damsel in distress and a trip from the island to New York City. Another idea, in that imaginary room filled with imaginary storytellers, could have resulted in “Kong: Skull Island.”
Of course, that’s not what happened. In fact, the initial script for “Skull Island,” written just a few years ago, set the story in 1917, went in many different directions than what we’ve got here, and was more of a remake.
This re-written one opens with a brief WWII interlude featuring two pilots — an American and a Japanese — shoot each other out of the skies, has both men parachuting down and ending up in hand-to-hand combat on an isolated island where, toward the end of that interlude, they first set their astonished eyes on Kong.
And this is one big Kong.
This is a 100-freakin’-foot-tall Kong, more than twice the size of any others portrayed in previous films. But we only get to think about that for a moment before the film zips forward to 1973, and the end of a different war: The last days of the “police action” in Vietnam, when American forces pulled out, and military men didn’t know what they were going to do next.
That, along with the discovery of the mysterious, uncharted Skull Island, a place permanently surrounded by storm systems, leads to a “survey job,” headed up by all-business ’Nam veteran Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and ex-British Special Forces anti-hero James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston).
For good measure, there’s also beautiful award-winning photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) along for the ride. The whole operation was put together by adventurer Bill Randa (John Goodman), a man who wants to get this island mapped.
The consensus is that the best way to begin is to drop small bombs all over the place, but you’d have to ask a cartographer if that’s really the best approach.
In this case, it’s not, because certain residents don’t like that idea. Take that Kong fellow. I’d get pretty angry, too, if someone started blowing up my property, and if I stood at his height, I’d probably do more in retaliation than just bat a few choppers out of the sky (and gobble down a couple of soldiers inside them).
You want action? This film give you plenty of it, especially when other creatures on the island are made aware that there are some new additions to the food chain present.
The CGI effects are very good (but not groundbreaking), and the acting and reacting remains believable from start to finish. But it’s the dramatic side of the film, carefully woven into the script, that makes this stand taller than previous Kong films.
Col. Packard shifts into revenge mode when his men start going down, making it a study of unhinged determination, while Conrad and Weaver develop a different mindset toward Kong, who they realize is not just trying to protect himself from interlopers, but also to keep those other, more vicious creatures at bay.
“Skull Island” falls under the great big, good old-fashioned adventure movie category, with a number of shout-out-loud horrifying moments.
But it’s nicely tempered with some comedy relief, courtesy of Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a character initially met early on in the film, and by a surprisingly sweet ending that wonderfully and warmly turns into a celebration of home movies.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for GateHouse Media.