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Will You Go Ape for Kong: Skull Island?

March 11, 2017

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Expectations are funny things. I went into Kong: Skull Island with the lowest of them. I’ve never been a fan of the franchise — I walked out of Peter Jackson’s overlong 2005 reboot, skipped the ’70s version despite Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, and was underwhelmed by the original’s primitive special effects. Yet the latest incarnation proves to be something entirely unexpected: a witty, well-acted and genuinely scary commentary on the Vietnam War, and by extension contemporary politics.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts made an impressive small-scale debut with the little-seen coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer a few years ago, but nothing prepared me for the scale of what he’s put on screen here. Set in 1973, just as the U.S. is pulling out of Vietnam, the story follows a team of military men (led by a scary-good Samuel L. Jackson) and scientists, along with a tracker (Tom Hiddleston, the film’s weak link—he constantly looks like he’s posing for a perfume ad) and an “anti-war photographer” (Brie Larson, an actress of preternatural gravitas). They travel to an uncharted island, ostensibly to map it, but it turns out to be part of a plot by a seeming crackpot (John Goodman) to prove the existence of monsters.

Upon arrival, the squad starts dropping bombs for bogus research purposes and awaken the sleeping giant, thus setting off a round of guerrilla — er, gorilla — warfare. A contrast is drawn between the no-win-situation Vietnam conflict (“We didn’t lose: We abandoned the war,” Jackson’s career soldier insists) and World War II via the discovery of a Pacific Theater vet (John C. Reilly, a welcome blast of comic relief) who’s been living in the jungles since 1945. “Did we win the war?” he asks, to which he’s answered, “Which one?” “Figures,” he says sardonically.

The real war turns out not to be between Kong and the humans but soldiers, who just want to blow the big guy away, and scientists, who realize he’s protecting the island’s native inhabitants from even worse monsters, including a truly terrifying species nicknamed “skull crawlers.” This conflict takes Kong: Skull Island from an evocative ’70s period piece, with sweeping visuals and a Creedence-heavy soundtrack reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, and turns it into a timely social satire. “It’s never been worse in Washington, D.C.” Goodman cracks in the opening scene, as Nixon resigns in the background. It’s a knowing joke that would be even funnier were it not for the real monster currently inhabiting the White House.

Vogt-Roberts populates his cast with top-notch actors, including Straight Outta Compton vets Jason Mitchell (as an endearing grunt) and Corey Hawkins (as a brainy scientist), Boardwalk Empire‘s consistently brilliant Shea Whigham, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘s winningly off-kilter Thomas Mann, and The Job‘s expertly understated John Ortiz. Plus, the peerless Richard Jenkins makes an uncredited cameo as a world-weary U.S. Senator. The screenplay, co-written by Dan Gilroy, writer-director of the equally eerie media satire Nightcrawler, doles out clever dialogue to everyone, and only Hiddleston fumbles his lines.

Kong: Skull Island would be worth seeing for the locations alone; shot by ex-Lost cinematographer Larry Fong in Hawaii, Australia and Vietnam, it’s one of the most beautifully photographed films in recent memory. And it’s worth staying until the very end; for once, a post-credits scene actually provides valuable information pertaining to where the franchise is headed, should it continue. I hope it does. These filmmakers are up to much more than monkey business.

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