What does one expect when one traverses to a movie theatre to see a film about King Kong? I'll admit, my expectations are almost always rather low, but with the cast in "Kong: Skull Island" including Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, the always delightful John C. Reilly and a Kong that is out of this world, how can one can not expect greatness --- or, at least, goodness?
It is 1973, the end of the Vietnam War and the American troops are beginning to return home. Bill Randa (Goodman) has been searching for Skull Island for 30 years. He convinces Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins --- a perennial favorite of ours) to allow his group to accompany a LANDSAT mission headed for that part of the South Pacific to gather geological information.
But Randa is convinced of the existence of MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), so his interest in Skull Island is much more sinister. Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson) and his team are assigned by the army to accompany this motley crew to Skull Island.
Randa has also hired a former SAS black ops officer, Captain James Conrad (Hiddleston), as the tracker. The last outsider to join the expedition is Mason Weaver (Larson), a freelance photographer who suspects there is more to this mission than what the others are expecting.
Once on the island, after surviving a harrowing hurricane-like storm surrounding it, the helicopter unit encounters an enraged monster --- something no one has ever seen before --- a gargantuan ape known by the natives as Kong --- King Kong. Following successive encounters with various giant beasts and insects, only a few of the group remain.
Their goal is to reach the other side of the island in three days to be rescued --- a task that seems beyond formidable. Along the way, Conrad and Weaver encounter a WWII fighter pilot, Hank Marlow (Reilly), who crash-landed on the island 28 years earlier. They convince Marlow they're going to take him home to Chicago.
Kong, the ape, is spectacular! A team at the Industrial Light & Magic numbering almost 300 artists, animators and technicians based in three separate facilities worked on Kong for over a year and a half. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, a long-time King Kong enthusiast, requested that his Kong resemble and be as impactful as the classic Kong from the 1933 film "King Kong". And this version is huge. At 100 feet tall, his size matters --- and he towers over everything else on the island.
So this is what makes "Kong: Skull Island" so entertaining. It's not the weak script --- which is, at times, wretched --- it is Kong himself! And the other creatures the humans encounter and must survive.
The final battle scene between Kong and his mortal nemesis, the Skullcrawler, is magnificent. It is as exciting and nail-biting as anything I've seen on screen. It is beautifully choreographed and ultimately satisfying without being too long --- for once!
Not everyone is going to appreciate "Kong: Skull Island". Our adult nephew, who accompanied us to our screening, loathed it. But, let's remember, it's not necessarily for us. It's really aimed at the 12-year-old boys sitting behind my girlfriend watching the trailer before "Rogue One" --- they were ecstatic --- and couldn't wait!
Opinion: See It Now! (if you like this sort of thing)
"Kong: Skull Island" is not your typical King Kong film. You may wonder why a remake of the big ape now, when we "just" had a multiple Academy Award-winning King Kong movie in 2005?
The answer is that this version has a few twists and surprises. Normally we expect someone in the expedition to capture Kong, transport him back to New York City, and place him on display. Not with this 100-foot behemoth, and I'll leave it at that.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts keeps the action flowing, based on a script partially written by Dan Gilroy, recently Academy Award-nominated for the Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle "Nightcrawler". Gilroy is not quite up to the level of his Oscar work, though.
The "Kong: Skull Island" script suffers from a cliched character played by Samuel L. Jackson. He's Preston Packard, the gung-ho army leader who witnesses a number of his troops dying at the hands of Kong, and wants revenge! But everybody else in the world knows the big guy was only defending himself. This time around, King Kong is as likeable and sympathetic as any of his predecessors. And his battles with the island's predators are spectacularly staged.
John Goodman is Bill Randa, the instigator of this latest trip to an uncharted island in the Pacific. He convinces Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins) that this is a necessary venture, backed by military support. Goodman's role is not a meaty one for the slimmed-down actor, unlike his superlative performance in "10 Cloverfield Lane" last year. But he does get to show off his new physique, slender by his standards.
Tom Hiddleston's mercenary hunter/tracker (James Conrad) and Brie Larson's photographer (Mason Weaver) are routine enough, although Larson flashes welcome signs of humanity, as when she smiles broadly while shooting (with her camera) a group of taciturn natives.
But the real human star of the show is John C. Reilly, playing Hank Marlow, an American living on the island who shows up unexpectedly. He is over-the-top initially, but settles in with a goofy/humorous/heroic turn that provides some comic relief.
Of course, the visual effects are spectacular, and sound is well utilized. We meet some strange creatures never before seen, my personal favorites being the gargantuan water buffaloes. The man-eating sequences dwarf those from any past film, including those created by the legendary Ray Harryhausen in "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" (1958), where the one-eyed giant Polyphemus eats several of Sinbad's sailors --- terrifying at the time. In fairness, the vast digital crew of "Kong: Skull Island" had the advantage of 60 years advanced technology.
With an estimated budget of $190,000,000, "Kong: Skull Island" has a lot of ground to make up to turn a profit. But younger moviegoers should flock to this film, and theater owners should be happy as popcorn sales go up dramatically. Our screening was in 2D, but if you choose to see "Kong: Skull Island" on the big screen, I recommend IMAX.
Opinion: See It Now!