A bigger Kong hits the smaller screen
By Jim Bray
The good news is that Kong: Skull Island isn't as bad as I had feared it would be. The bad news is that it isn't as good as it could have been. However you slice it, however, it's an excellent example of how good home video can look and sound in 1080p HD.
Warner Brothers' latest take on the giant ape theme comes courtesy of some of the folks who made the last Godzilla remake, so if nothing else it shows they have a history of remaking "classics" for better or worse. Yet this Kong has very little to do with the "Kings Kong" that preceded it, which was one of the things that had me more than a tad scared going into this review (I thought they'd be painting a moustache onto the Mona Lisa).
I love King Kong. I have the 1933 original and Peter Jackson's exquisite remake/homage in my Blu-ray library (both are part of my "desert island disc" collection), and I'm possibly one of the few people who didn't hate most of the 1970's version with Jeff Bridges.
The story of King Kong is basically an action-packed thriller leavened liberally with the romance between the big ape (Kong, not Jack Driscoll) and Ann Darrow (Faye Wray and Naomi Watts, respectively) - a Beauty and the Beast-type of classic story. And while Kong was big and ferocious, he wasn't a villain; he was just a big guy defending his turf, then ripped from his home and plunked down where he didn't belong - kind of like the Ymir in Ray Harryhausen's 20 Million Miles to Earth.
Kong: Skull Island is far more of a standard action/adventure film and that's really too bad because it could have been so much more. But I guess when you're spending all that cash on actors and special effects people there may not be enough left over to hire a writer. And instead of making this a King Kong movie, the producers decided they wanted to make King Kong meets Apocalypse Now - not necessarily a bad thing, of course, depending how they pull it off.
And pull it off they did, mostly. It could have been lots worse.
The film opens during World War II, with an American and a Japanese pilot landing on an island we'll find out soon enough is Skull Island. They're still mortal enemies, so they start having at it again in a battle to see which one of them survives. Then along comes some big hairy ape…
Jump forward to the Vietnam war era and we meet a hybrid bunch of scientists, soldiers and adventurers. Female lead Brie Larson is a left wing photographer whose apparent mandate - er, persondate - is to use her photos to change peoples' minds (rather than just showing them the truth and letting them decide for themselves, of course). Samuel L. Jackson brings his single facial expression and delivery to the role of army Lt. Colonel Preston Packard, while Tom Hiddleston (a former British officer who's now a skilled tracker - though how much skill is required when the tracks are big enough to fall into?) proves he can act despite being Loki. Meanwhile, John Goodman and John C. Reilly bring their prodigious talents to their roles, going above and beyond simply earning a paycheque in a popcorn flick.
Jackson's Packard and Goodman's Bill Randa are supposed to be leading an expedition across the previously unknown Skull Island, but of course they're soon out of their leagues thanks to the abundance of gigantic, CGI critters that inhabit the place - some of which look almost as if they were inspired by creatures in old Tim Burton movies like Beetlejuice and Nightmare before Christmas. Larson seems to be there mostly for decorative purposes and to rub practically everyone else the wrong way. Her Mason Weaver is definitely no Ann Darrow!
Much of the rest of the cast is there to be monster fodder, which I guess is why we watch the movie in the first place. Night was well have issued them red Star Fleet shirts!
There are homages to other genre films spread throughout Kong: Skull Island, which seems to be to show how much director Jordan Vogt-Roberts loves creature features, and while they're often pretty obvious (the helicopter battle from Apocalypse Now is particularly noticeable) they're also pretty cool in their own right and contribute to the kind a movie that's fun to watch if not particularly stimulating to the grey matter.
Kong: Skull Island, therefore, isn't a classic like the Cooper/Schoedsack and Jackson versions and probably won't be looked upon as such decades from now, if it's remembered at all. But not every picture has to be a masterpiece and, for what it is, K:SI is a pretty entertaining romp in the home theatre.
Making it an even better romp is outstanding audio and video. Warner Home Video sent the Blu-ray as part of a two-disc combo pack with a DVD and an UltraViolet Digital Copy included in the price. There's also a 4K version, but they didn't send that one so I had to watch it up converted to 4K on my Panasonic 4K TV via Oppo's UDP-205 player. I also watched parts of it at the native resolution, to ensure this review is as fair as I can make it.
The 2.40:1 picture quality is fantastic, even in 1080p, with vibrant colors and deep blacks and an image that nearly jumps off the TV and lands in your lap. There's plenty of opportunity for video goodness, from lush landscapes to gigantic fake beasts, right down to dirt-speckled faces. Up convert it to 4K on equipment that excels at such tasks and it's even better.
Likewise, Kong's roars (as well as those of other beasties) are given wonderful life thanks to a dynamic and powerful sound track that starts pumping up the noise right off the bat with the second world war fighter scene. The helicopters' rotors in the "Apocalypse Now attack" scene sound fantastic as well, as do the various howls and screams from the sound designers (er, I mean monsters and cast members). It's very nice!
Extras include an audio commentary from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and it's pretty good, if a tad dry. "Creating a King" is a pair of featurettes with cast and crew opining on the design of the bigger than ever Kong and talking about the various film versions that have been made and the way this newest version is different from the rest (or you could just watch the movie and see for yourself).
There are a few other featurettes, too, including Tom Hiddleston taking us on a tour of the shooting locations, one of which (Vietnam) also gets its own featurette. "Through the Lens" is a shorty about Brie Larson's character and her photographs. Warner has also included some deleted scenes.
While it's no "King" Kong, Kong: Skull Island manages to be a fun movie with action galore, some humour, and excellent production values. It feels more like a Saturday afternoon B movie from my youth than the masterpieces of the 1933 and 2005 versions, but there isn't necessarily anything wrong with that - that's where Star Wars and Indiana Jones came from as well, though K:SI isn't up to those standards.
But put it on, crank up the audio, turn off your brain and have a good time with this lightweight movie about some heavyweight beasts.
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.