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By now, you’ve most likely seen Jordan Vogt-Roberts‘ King Kong film, the latest reboot of the franchise that has history all the way back to 1933. And based on the reviews and box office success, you probably liked it, maybe even loved it (we did). It sure has a lot of thrills and some great visual effects, not to mention a pretty cool story and some solid performances. It’s an easy film to like, but are you looking for more reasons why? Here’s 7 Things Great about Kong: Skull Island.
The original theatrical release poster for Kong: Skull Island is something of a minor masterpiece, a piece of art that is both inviting and terrifying, something that by design has you second guessing what you’re seeing while also tickling that little movie memory button in the back of your mind. Why is it so darned satisfying while looking oh so familiar? Well, the first part is because it combines colors and symmetry in ways that subliminally trigger happiness in your brain and the second is because it homages the posters for Stanley Kubrick‘s award-winning Apocalypse Now (1979), images that were haunting and even a little mystical already. With silhouetted helicopters and the iconic Sun in the background of both, Kong looks like it could be a sequel to the famous anti-war war film.
Let’s face it, Kong is a tough sell, a creature that has made many on-screen appearances and in this stage of the game, has become hopelessly derivative, even if a few films have made creative use of him. Much like superhero movies that endlessly churn out origin stories, seeing another standard Kong movie is destined for yawns. Maybe. But with Skull Island, while many of the standards are in place, it diverts enough away from the ‘beauty killed the beast’ themes to make for a remarkably compelling tale on its own, mixing politics, culture, history and lots of carnage while stripping away much of the tropes of the original story. Sure, it’s a setup for a another film, but there was no skimping on this one in terms of keeping it less about the ape and more about the people in its shadow. That’s great writing.
A lot of movies have tried to build themselves around a popular video game mechanic or story, including first-person perspective and gun play. While Skull Island is not (currently) a video game, it has a lot about it that makes you think it does, and even more surprising, like you’re watching one being played. There’s a reason for that. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has admitted that games from his childhood were influences and populated the film with all kind of nods and easter eggs, including some of those aforementioned perspectives and even a few moments that outright pay homage to favorite gaming moments. But even still, the pacing, the action, the way it builds as if the characters are working their way through increasingly more challenging levels … well, you get the point. If you’re a gamer, this is like a shot of adrenaline that makes your thumbs ache to play.
Way back in the original 1933 King Kong, one of the more exciting and terrifying sequences was when the might Kong traps a group of men at a ravine as they try to cross on a fallen tree. During that fight, one man escapes into a shallow cave only to be beset upon by a wild-looking two-legged lizard thingy that makes things doubly nasty and in turn became an influence 84 years later in the creation of the Skullcrawlers in this film. These monsters are bigger, meaner, and give Kong one heck of a fight and while some found them distracting they are anything but, a group of fiercely territorial beasts that give Kong a reason to exist. They perfectly illustrate the great difference between what we define as monsters, with Kong initially thought of as a beast to be destroyed but revealed to be a creature of great humanity, even altruism, in comparison with the Skullcrawlers. Without them, Kong is merely a giant ape the humans must fight. With them, he is a beast of immense dignity and is completely redefined in our eyes. Nice going, Skullcrawlers.
There is nothing in movie more exciting than when the monster makes its entrance. If this isn’t done right, well, forget it, the movie is already a loss. If there is one thing the King Kong franchise has done almost consistently well, it’s introducing the audience to the great ape, with the 1976 reboot probably the best ever made. Period. Still, this moment in Skull Island is ridiculously good and without a single word sets up and establishes everything we need to know about what is happening, why, and how it will impact what is coming. Making it about survival between two enemies rather than Kong himself, we become so engaged in the conflict between an American pilot (Will Brittain) and a Japanese pilot (Miyavi) who crash land on the island after a dogfight, we almost (almost) forget where they are. It’s a devastatingly effective opener and creates a tone that the film never wavers from once. It’s an epic opening.
There’s something limbic about our fear of spiders, they themselves being source to a host of films that tap into that baser, evolutionary fear, so when one like this in Skull Island shows up standing taller than a grove of fully grown bamboo, its legs camouflaged to look just like them, well, that is the stuff of nightmares. What makes this short but terrifying moment so good is Vogt-Roberts’ excellent direction, which has us going up and down through the trees, but more so the sheer terror of the men who are beside themselves with confusion and horror. The claustrophobia of the thick patch of trees, making it impossible to know which is a trunk and with is a spider leg is a brilliant bit of filmmaking, and while Vogt-Roberts wisely keeps this short so as to whittle away at some of the fodder, er … cast, this is one of those great water cooler moments in movies that makes going to the theater so darned fun.
Call off the dogs. Put a fork in it. Throw away the key. You want the best reason why Skull Island is great? Here he is. When the first trailer for Skull Island debuted, there was a lot of focus on Kong of course, but as characters were introduced in the following trailers, one stuck out like a complete misfit, that of Hank Marlow, played by John C. Reilly. Reilly has built a career mostly out of comedies (off far off center) and to see him pop up in the cast was a little, well, disappointing, not because we don’t love Reilly (‘cuz we really, really do), but because his presence suggested the movie might have a lighter tone than the first trailer hinted at. Seriously, when you think Kong, Reilly isn’t anywhere near the top of the list for co-stars (but then again … Jack Black?). Thankfully, Reilly, who replaced an already attached Michael Keaton who had to drop out, comes through and single-handedly steals the entire show. When you walk out of a King Kong movie thinking more about a World War II vet than the giant ape, well, you’ve done something special. Thanks, John C. Reilly.