Hollywood’s current fascination is with “shared universes” in which multiple characters can carry their own franchise and team up for the occasional “special event” film. This trend is especially evident with superhero films, but the monsters are coming. Universal is currently developing new remakes of their classic monster movies, like The Mummy and Bride of Frankenstein, with an eye toward crossovers. Warner Brothers and Legendary Entertainment already rebooted Godzilla two years ago, and this Friday unleash Kong: Skull Island, the second phase of their buildup to a remake of Toho’s 1967 monster mash King Kong vs. Godzilla. A theme park attraction, “Skull Island: Reign of Kong,” opened at Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure in Orlando over a year ago. The new picture, which owes much to wrestling, operates much like a theme park ride, with dazzling special effects delivered at a breathless pace and high decibel level.
The original 1933 King Kong, still the greatest giant monster movie ever produced, made moviegoers wait until the final five minutes to see the oversize ape, perched atop the Empire State Building, send a menacing bi-plane spinning to its destruction. In this new film, the equivalent burst of cathartic rage—amplified to 11—occurs approximately one-quarter of the way into the two-hour running time, when Kong spectacularly makes short work of a fleet of US Army helicopters invading his home turf, one of those mysterious uncharted islands peppering the South Pacific. Borrowing heavily from Coppola’sApocalypse Now arsenal, the sequence is a CG extravaganza and the film’s highlight. The remaining adventure follows the separated survivors of that attack as they attempt to reunite and escape the island, their efforts hampered by a hungry populace of giant creatures which also serve as Kong’s sparring partners, and a commanding officer (Samuel L. Jackson) determined to win a war of his own making. Soldiers and scientists are stomped, skewered, hurled, eaten and dismembered in mid-air, all to the accompaniment of a 1970s rock soundtrack reminding us the story is set at the close of the Vietnam War (just three years before Dino DeLaurentiis’s 1976 version).
As leading man, Tom Hiddleston isn’t given anything to do beyond battle slimy monsters, and because the filmmakers abandoned the Beauty and the Beast allusions, Brie Larson’s “anti-war” photojournalist primarily gets to record him in action. John Goodman is the professional monster hunter with a secret agenda, and John C. Reilly earns laughs as a World War II pilot marooned decades earlier. Jackson’s furious anti-environment/indigenous life ideology provides Kong with a sense of righteous indignation. In the end, this film exists for Kong to prove who’s king, and the motion-capture effects are top-notch and superior to those in Peter Jackson’s more ambitious but bloated remake a dozen years ago. A post-end credits sequence (a staple of shared universe films) leaves no question as to where this is all heading.