All the film versions of the iconic KING KONG, from the first, in 1933 (starring director Merian C. Cooper’s stop-motion creature and actress Fay Wray), to the latest, KONG: SKULL ISLAND, in theaters now, have one theme in common: Something exists that is greater, older and more mysterious than humankind. We disrespect it with grave consequences; we exploit it at our peril; and we try to destroy it only to bring devastation upon ourselves.
The original film, in black-and-white with the rough soundtrack of the early talkie era, illustrated these lessons within the framework of a world still bound by colonialism and overt racism. The “savages” on Skull Island worshipped the huge ape they named “Kong” as a god. Indeed, they feared him enough to think it necessary to erect a huge wall against him and sacrifice a virgin to him on a regular basis. (The whole virgin sacrifice thing, of course, is what got poor Fay Wray in such famous trouble.)
Our intrepid (white) heroes, on the other hand, paid little attention to such backward superstition (at least until a 50-foot ape showed up at the bamboo gates). Even then, they were not deterred, but thought only of the profit to be made by capturing the beast and putting him on display to the masses in New York City. Their own sacrifices were thus made to the gods of greed and arrogance, as men were lost in the pursuit and eventual capture of Kong. And you can probably guess the rest, even if you haven’t seen this film classic. The NYC trip didn’t end well for anyone.
In its day, the film’s special effects both enthralled and horrified its audience. People screamed, fainted and left the theater, which only encouraged longer lines at the next showing. Box office records were broken, and KING KONG single-handedly saved the almost-bankrupt RKO film company.
Not so the two modern remakes of this vaunted film. Producer Dino DeLaurentis tried in 1976. Even LORD OF THE RINGS’ Peter Jackson tried in 2005. They barely covered their enormous costs, despite big name stars (Jessica Lange in the first case; Jack Black in the second.) At least give Jackson credit for his attempt to pay homage to the original in both tone and plot.
Now comes KONG: SKULL ISLAND, and we can be forgiven, perhaps, for wondering why we need yet another go at this great concept. But, what the heck? I’m a true sucker for Kong, have been since the first time I thrilled to those flickering torches and corny native drums in the original. This version boasts actors Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hiddleston and the benefit of CGI. So, I thought, it must be worth a look.
Boy, was it ever! Trust me, you want to scrape your nickels and dimes together and get yourself to the multiplex ASAP to see this movie. It was the most fun I’ve had at the theater in a long time. Rip-roaring action! A hero you can root for (Kong, of course)! Interesting subplots! Special effects that leap off the screen at you! And don’t cheat yourself. This one needs a big screen to do it justice. I didn’t even spring for the 3-D glasses and it was spectacular.
|The soulful hero of KONG: SKULL ISLAND|
Best of all, this rendition offers a new twist on KONG’s core concept, which improves almost everything about the film. KONG: SKULL ISLAND is set in 1973, shortly before the end of the Vietnam War. The significance of this will be mostly lost on many in today’s audience, for whom history is not a strong point. But it allows for a couple of interesting plot twists. First, Sam Jackson’s character is an Army colonel whose unit is packing up to leave ’Nam when he’s asked to escort John Goodman’s scientific “mapping” expedition to the nearby uncharted Skull Island. (More about that later.)
The timeframe is close enough to World War II that the expedition can encounter John C. Reilly’s character, a U.S. Navy pilot who crash landed on the island during the war. He’s a valuable source of information, even if he seems a little crazy at times.
Fay Wray’s damsel-in-distress has been replaced (thank God) by a much more able combat photographer (Brie Larson), who figures out right away there’s a story to be had and hitches a ride from Da Nang with the colonel’s helicopter squad.
And Hiddleston’s character, the “jungle guide” tapped by Goodman’s scientific crew to take them into the unknown hinterland, is found in a sleazy bar in wartime Bangkok. It’s hinted that he’s a mercenary/spy. Or something. Lots of local color there!
All of this is to the good, but the best is yet to come. The island’s “savages” are smarter than they seem. They worship Kong because he protects them from giant reptiles that are much worse. Kong himself has reasons for hating those creatures. And Kong, well, he is soulful. Powerful. Magnificent.
Don’t tell Jackson’s colonel that, though. He’s of the belief that man is king. (He loudly proclaims some other arrogant and misguided notions, too, like, “We’re not losing Vietnam. We’re abandoning Vietnam!”) But then, pride goes before a fall, which is a lesson he learns the hard way before the end of the film.
After all, on Skull Island, Kong is king.
Oh, yeah. KONG: SKULL ISLAND is a definite GO, GO, GO!