Kong, giant ape and eighth wonder of the world, might as well be a stand-in for the whole enterprise known as blockbuster filmmaking. He’s a six-foot gorilla blown up to gigantic proportions; for Kong, the life-sized is spectacle. And on the practical end, he seems to pop up onscreen around forward leaps in special effects. After his introduction via the still-impressive matte paintings and stop-motion wizardry of the 1933 original, he was a guy in a rubber suit stomping miniature cities in chintzy Japanese co-productions. Animatronic gadgets gave the beast a new tactility in 1976 before he was reduced to weightless CGI in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. He’s the Forrest Gump of the movies themselves.
And like Gump, he’s more id than IQ. The ’33 version was always regressive and tasteless exoticism, while his ‘60s and ’70s incarnations were firmly rooted in anti-establishment, pro-environmental slogans. (Despite all its ornamentation, the 2005 remake still seems the dumbest.)
The newest take, Kong: Skull Island, is outwardly superfluous. The Jackson version is still fresh in the memory, and this one doesn’t herald the arrival of some nifty new effect; and while its subtext is just as loud as Kong ’76, its message is decades too late. The former, made at the peak of the Golden Age of American business, found its villain in rapacious corporations; this one is so clearly about American military intervention that it may as well be titled Viet Kong. (Have you seen the poster?)
But director Jordan Vogt-Roberts seems to understand the redundancy, and in a savvy move, he takes on reference culture as a whole. Like a mad scientist, he assembles his reboot/remake/prequel from the spare parts of the Kong franchise and whatever else pops into his whirring head. He manages to both revere the ape god—there are nods to almost every take on the Kong mythos—and desecrate the stupid monkey. If monster movies and war flicks both run on exploitation, why not swap engines? Rogue One tried the same trick and bungled it. Unburdened by expectation, Skull Island pulls it off, streamlining scuzzy pop iconography into a post-modern theme-park ride. It’s the kind of movie where John C. Reilly plays a character who looks like Lee Marvin in Hell in the Pacific, behaves like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now, and is named after the protagonist in Heart of Darkness. (And in case you miss that one, the hero’s name is “Conrad.”)
There’s an obvious recklessness to this sort of thing, and Skull Island never bothers with its subject’s weight. Vietnam, here, is a retro movie-nerd playground, all clacking analog hardware and an opportunity to recast Samuel L. Jackson as Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz. That’s OK; movies about war were once as trashy as those about monsters. Still, there’s a slickness to Skull Island that undercuts some of its junkier aspirations. Reilly, for example, never gets to let loose like Hopper; on Skull Island, the pose is good enough.
And with a stylist as gifted as Vogt-Roberts, that’s fine too. You get the sense that his monsters are contractual obligations, ones he gets around by conjuring new ways to shoot them; you feel his giddiness with every dutch angle. He even steals Kong’s big entrance, a show-stopper straight out of Apocalypse Now that substitutes the Stooges for Wagner; shot from inside the Hueys, our vision careens whenever Kong knocks one of the choppers out of the sky.
Produced by the same team behind the (bafflingly) successful 2014 version of Godzilla, this was a movie conceived as a hasty post-Marvel vehicle that’ll eventually pit the great ape against the great lizard. High-concept movies this big and dumb rarely hold up to scrutiny—the seams begin to show, especially when it’s something made entirely of spare parts. But Kong: Skull Island doesn’t hobble like Frankenstein’s monster; it zooms like a hot rod. That’s the real invention here. Or is it reinvention? Reboot? Whatever it is, it may not be the eighth wonder of the world, but it’s unhinged, rampaging entertainment.
Kong: Skull Island. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Written by Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, and Brie Larson. Opens in Kansas City March 10, 2017.