Cody watches King Kong rampage through the decades.
KING KONG (2005)
When the executives at Universal heard that RKO, Paramount, and producer Dino De Laurentiis were teaming up to remake the 1933 classic King Kong in the mid-1970s, they felt somewhat betrayed. They thought they had made an agreement with RKO to remake King Kong. To thwart Paramount, Universal put their own Kong film, to be titled The Legend of King Kong, on the fast track. They hired Bo Goldman, who was about to win an Academy Award for co-writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, to write the screenplay, sticking close to the original story so the writing would go faster. Joseph Sargent, who worked primarily in television but also dabbled in features - like the 1973 Burt Reynolds vehicle White Lightning - was attached to direct. The film was in active development and racing Paramount's Kong to the starting line - filming on Paramount's version ended up starting on January 15th of 1976, Universal had announced that their movie would start filming ten days earlier. Of course, Universal's Kong didn't end up getting made, there were not two Kong movies released in 1976. A judge ruled that Paramount had the right to remake King Kong, Universal did not.
What Universal did get out of this whole deal was the rights to the characters from the original film, rights which were sold to them by the son of Merian C. Cooper, the producer and co-director of King Kong, who came up with the initial idea. This explains why the characters were tweaked and re-named for the '76 remake.
Twenty years later, Universal finally decided to put those character rights to use and hired an up and coming filmmaker named Peter Jackson to helm a new version of King Kong. It was a perfect match of director and subject matter, as the original King Kong was Jackson's favorite film.
Unfortunately, the timing was off - with Roland Emmerich's American Godzilla film and a remake of Mighty Joe Young in the works, Universal decided to cancel the Kong project. Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh had written a script for the film before the cancellation, their version sticking close to the original but making some alterations to the characters. Ann Darrow was an archaeologist instead of a struggling actress, Jack Driscoll was given a World War I fighter pilot back story.
It's no surprise that Universal went back to the idea of making King Kong with Jackson after he had his immense success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Fresh off the Oscar wins for the final Rings film, Jackson dove right into bringing Kong back to the screen. Not happy with the script he and Walsh had written nearly ten years earlier, Jackson scrapped those ideas and wrote a fresh script with Walsh and their Rings co-writer Philippa Boyens.
The film that resulted from Jackson's endeavors is essentially King Kong '33 all over again, but bigger and longer. It's way too long, in fact. The original film came in at around 100 minutes, a good running time. The 1976 remake was 134 minutes... that's pushing it, but still in the range of what you'd expect for this sort of movie. Jackson's Kong runs 187 minutes. Yes, over three hours. It's an absolutely ridiculous, overly indulgent running time for a movie about a giant gorilla, and this thing desperately needed to be trimmed down.
Everything is basically the same as you remember it from the '33 movie, we just see more of it. The setting is 1933. Carl Denham (Jack Black) is still a director of adventure pictures who intends to have a romantic angle in his new film, and this time we see him having a disastrous meeting with his investors about the film that ends with him having to steal the footage he has already shot from their clutches. Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is still a struggle actress, and we see more of her struggles as she tries to make ends meet while doing vaudeville performances in New York City.
The lead actress of Denham's film has left the project, so he is in need of a replacement who will fit into her wardrobe. The idea of casting Fay Wray crosses his mind, but she's busy working for a director named Cooper at RKO - of course, in 1933 Fay Wray was actually making King Kong with Merian C. Cooper.
Denham casts Ann after a chance meeting (he saves her from getting in trouble for stealing an apple), and soon they're boarding the steamer ship he has chartered to take him and his crew far out to sea, into waters where there isn't supposed to be anything for thousands of miles. A map Denham has acquired shows differently. This map claims that there's an island out there. A primitive world, a ruined civilization. There are rumored to be strange creatures on this island, but Denham disregards them. The original Denham actually intended to capture strange creatures on film, this one just wants to find the island.
The writer of Denham's movie is Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) - a character who was the first mate of the ship in '33 film. When Driscoll delivers only fifteen pages of script to him before the ship leaves, Denham tricks him into staying on board for the duration of the journey. This doesn't turn out to be so bad for Driscoll, as he proceeds to strike up an awkward romance with Ann, who is a fan of his work as a playwright.
Ann didn't have a co-star in the movie the '33 Denham was making, somehow Denham expected to film a romance with her and the ship's first mate, so it makes sense that Jackson added in a co-star for this Ann, Kyle Chandler as conceited actor Bruce Baxter.
Cooper's Kong may have had too few characters, but Jackson's has too many. The Jack Driscoll of the '33 movie is basically split into three different characters here. You have the writer who took his name, the actor to be in the movie with Ann, and the person who has his original job, Evan Parke as the ship's first mate Ben Hayes. We also get to know various other members of both the ship's crew and Denham's crew, and there is too much time dedicated to Jamie Bell as a character named Jimmy, a thieving stowaway who has been taken under Hayes' wing. Jimmy is a useless character, every moment we spend getting to know him could have been cut. He's just another crew member to see making his way around the ship and eventually the island, there's no need to know anything about him, and like so many of these characters he will disappear from the film. Some of them get killed by creatures on the island, some of them will survive the experience on the island, but the outcome is the same - they leave the movie. We can know his name, we can know some broad strokes, but Jimmy does not need to be a real character.
We also don't need to know that there's a warrant out for Denham's arrest after he stole the footage. It's useless information, and when a movie is threatening to be 187 minutes long you have to get ruthless with the cuts. Jackson did not get ruthless.
With all the extra character stuff, it takes almost an hour for the ship to reach the mysterious island, which King Kong fans know is called Skull Island. Since this Denham has different intentions than his '33 predecessor, it's easier for him to abandon the island after his crew is attacked by the natives. He's not determined to get Kong on film. This bunch of characters are ready to turn around and head back out to sea right away. It's when the natives invade the ship and abduct Ann so they can offer her up to Kong as a sacrifice that the decision is made to go back to the island. They need to rescue her.
The creature we've all been waiting to see, King Kong himself, finally appears on the screen 73 minutes into the movie. As I said when writing about King Kong '76, if you're going to remake a movie that had such impressive special effects as the stop-motion animation feature in King Kong '33, you have to do something impressive yourself. The "man in suit" technique used to bring Kong in '76 didn't cut it. Here, Kong is a CGI creation based on a motion capture performance provided by Andy Serkis, and this is impressive. Kong looks great and he is truly made a character with depth in this film, we definitely feel the emotions coming through the special effect.
However, there is an underwhelming side to this version of Kong as well. There's no question of what species this guy is, Jackson's Kong is simply a twenty-five foot tall gorilla. That would be a hell of thing to see, sure, but... it's sort of lackluster in comparison to the earlier Kongs, and especially when you see the prehistoric creatures he shares Skull Island with. What's so special about a twenty-five foot tall gorilla when you have herds of dinosaurs stamping through the jungle and mountainous terrain? The Kong that was brought to life through stop-motion animation by Willis O'Brien, I could see him as king of his domain. This Kong is overshadowed by the dinosaurs, even if he can beat up some descendants of the Tyrannosaurus rex.
Much like the overall film, the dinosaur adventures on Skull Island are overblown and go on for too long. You would hardly ever hear me say that there is too much action in something, but I feel that Jackson spent too much time on this dinosaur stuff. Cutting it down not only could have made the film flow faster, it also could have saved the studio some money. While watching the movie again just over eleven years later, I was surprised to see how poorly some of this CGI has aged. The seams are showing.
It's not just the action that is expanded during the Skull Island, but also the interaction between Kong and Ann. In all three versions of this story, the giant creature becomes enamored with the leading lady, and you can really see the gorilla falling for Ann in this one. Starting when she wins him over by showing him some of her vaudeville pratfalls. I would say that's the best of the new elements this film has to offer.
When Denham finally realizes that Kong does exist, he gets the dollar sign eyeballs going on and decides they need to capture this gorilla and take it back to New York City, show it off to audiences and profit off of it.
On opening night of the Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World Broadway show, a shackled Kong is brought out on stage. There's a mock sacrifice, a blonde woman offered up to the gorilla - and when Kong realizes the blonde isn't Ann, he breaks free of his chains and proceeds to rampage through the streets of New York in search of his lost love.
Kong and Ann find each other, she can calm the beast, but that doesn't stop the authorities from attacking him, leading to that tragic ending on around the Empire State Building.
I'm not saying Jackson's Kong is a bad movie, it's just too long. There are some good ideas in there, but things are so drawn out that King Kong '05 becomes very tough for me to sit through. This should not have been released at 187 minutes, it shouldn't even be close to that number, and some of the cuts that should have been made are so obvious that I can't understand why some of these scenes are in the movie. As if the running time weren't already unwieldy enough, there was an extended version released on home video that added back in 13 minutes that were likely rightfully cut in the first place. I've never see that 200 minute cut, but I can't imagine I would get more enjoyment out of it when I already think 187 was an absurd running time.
KONG: KING OF THE APES (2016)
An animated series produced for Netflix, this version of Kong has no connection to any previous incarnation of the character, giving its Kong his own unique origin story set in the not-too-distant future.
When the show begins, the outlook is dire for the future of wildlife, and a pair of poachers have captured what may be the last wild gorilla. A gorilla who will come to be known as Kong, and will grow larger than any ape in history. Little Kong escapes from the poachers when their plane crashes among the California Redwoods and is taken in by Doctor Leo Remy, an expert in bionics, and his young twin sons Lukas and Richard. The doctor and Lukas love animals and nature, in fact Leo got into bionic research in the hope of being able to help people and injured animals. Richard shares his father's interest in technology, but hates nature. So while Lukas and Kong form a deep bond, Richard takes an instant dislike to the animal that only grows more intense as time goes on.
The bulk of the story takes place in 2050, by which time Leo and Lukas have turned Alcatraz Island into the Remy Natural History and Marine Preserve, a.k.a. Kong Island. Not only does it house various endangered species, but to spruce the place up a bit it also has a bit of a tourist trap element: bionic dinosaurs built by Richard. At the insistence of state officials, Kong has to wear a control collar, and this collar plays into evils plans Richard has, which he puts into action after Leo passes away... You see, Richard is a petulant creep from the moment we meet him, but he has grown up to become a supervillain.
Manipulating the collar, Richard sends Kong on a rampage through the streets of San Francisco, ruining his reputation and getting the authorities out gunning for him. With the help of his friend Jonesy, veterinarian Amy, Amy's little brother Danny, family housekeeper Anita, and Anita's grandniece Franciska, Lukas goes into hiding with Kong.
Most of that is the set-up provided by the feature length first episode, which dedicates the majority of its 85 minute running time to back story stuff. They were really into telling this origin - it's an hour before we reach the rampage portion, before that we get a whole lot of animated family drama. The day the Remys found Kong, scenes showing Richard gradually getting worse, scenes about Kong's growth, Richard leaves, Richard comes back, the island preserve is established, Leo dies... This stuff was incredibly dull to me as a 33 year old adult, I can't imagine a little kid with a short attention span trying to sit through it.
Thankfully, the remaining twelve episodes of the first season are just 22 minutes and they're action packed. Their entire purpose is to show off some sort of battle as Lukas and friends try to keep Kong out of the hands of the authorities while they thwart Richard's various schemes to take over the world and destroy nature, most of which involve his bionic creatures. Kong: King of the Apes becomes quite reminiscent of the Kong animated series from 2000 at this point.
In the 2000 series, the human hero could merge into Kong's body. That doesn't happen here, but Lukas is always at Kong's side, calling him "bro" just like the hero in the previous cartoon did. Similarly, the villain's henchmen in the 2000 series could merge with Kong's monstrous opponents. That doesn't happen here, but we do get henchmen riding on the backs of bionic dinosaurs and in one episode Richard puts the A.I. of his cyborg right hand woman Botila into a bionic Tyrannosaurus rex.
We're here for the fights, and King of the Apes delivers, having Kong (who is equipped with guantlets, a jet pack, and invisibility cloaking) tussle with the aforementioned Tyrannosaurus rex, pterodactyls, a squid, an anaconda, every fighter jet from a military base, and more. In one episode, Kong even gets shrunk and has to escape the villains while tiny.
The feature pilot was rough, but the 22 minute episodes were fun and I think the young target audience will get a kick out of them.
KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)
I wasn't a big fan of Legendary Pictures' 2014 Godzilla movie, but that doesn't mean that my hype levels didn't go through the roof when the production company announced that they intended to make that movie the first installment in a shared cinematic MonsterVerse that would include a new King Kong film and a Godzilla sequel, building up to the 2020 release of Godzilla vs. Kong, a rematch coming nearly sixty years after their first battle.
I would've been excited for a new Kong movie regardless, but the knowledge that this was building up to a fight with Godzilla made me even more excited for director Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kong: Skull Island. Add in the fact that this wasn't just another remake of the original King Kong story (two remakes is plenty) and that it's set in the Vietnam War era, taking some inspiration from Apocalypse Now, and Kong: Skull Island was one of my most highly anticipated films of 2017. And it didn't disappoint me.
Scripted by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly from a story by John Gatins, Kong: Skull Island pays homage to the Kong films that came before while being its own unique beast. This time around, the setting is 1973 and the location of the legendary Skull Island, a place shrouded within a perpetual storm system, has been discovered thanks to the Landsat satellite program that launched in 1972. (It was a satellite that found the island in King Kong '76 as well.) Desperate to join in on a Landsat expedition to this island is Bill Randa (John Goodman), a member of Monarch, the scientific organization introduced in Godzilla 2014. An organization that specializes in monsters.
Randa knows about Godzilla, he has had a nearly fatal run-in with a monster before, and he theorizes that there are even more monsters out there. While the creatures in Godzilla '14 had been hidden in the sea and/or had been dormant since prehistoric times before the actions of man disturbed them, Randa believes that there are many active monsters out there, living in a world beneath ours. He's hoping to prove his theory correct with a visit to Skull Island, "where myth and science meet". And just in case he's right, he also requests military escort.
That military escort is made up of men who have been fighting in Vietnam and led by Samuel L. Jackson as Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard, a man who is not happy that President Nixon has just announced that the war is coming to an end. Packard feels like the war is simply being "abandoned", and it's clear that he doesn't know what he's going to do with his life after this.
The mixture of Landsat representatives, Monarch scientists, and Army soldiers are accompanied by tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) on their journey to Skull Island, a journey that goes by very quickly in the film - a wise decision, especially in the wake of the long journey in the 2005 King Kong. Within the first 30 minutes of the film, the characters have flown helicopters through the storm system around Skull Island and arrived at the title location. And these humans immediately start making a mess of the place, dropping bombs - I mean "scientific instruments" called "seismic charges" - to cause vibrations that will help the scientists map the surface of the island. Yes, some of the island's wildlife gets caught in the explosions, and one of its native creatures is not happy about this disturbance.
Within moments of the team's arrival, the helicopters start getting knocked out of the air by a 100 foot tall gorilla-like creature called Kong. The Kong in this film isn't quite as tall as the 148 foot tall version of the beast that fought Godzilla in 1962, but he is substantially taller than the Kong of the King Kong solo films, where his height fluctuated between 18 and 60 feet. And he is a battle-scarred, badass protector of his island.
While most of the survivors can understand that Kong is an animal that was provoked into attacking them, Packard takes the attack very personally and sets out on a Captain Ahab sort of mission of revenge.
The storm system blocks any communication with the outside world, so the characters' only hope to get off Skull Island is to meet up with a refueling and extraction team that will be flying over the north end of the island in three days. The characters just happen to be stranded on the south end of the island, which means they're going to have to find a way to traverse the entirety of this strange place to get away from it. That's a nearly impossibly dangerous task, because Skull Island is crawling with monsters.
The dropping of the bombs proved Randa correct, there is a world beneath the ground where monsters live, and there are certain spots around the planet where they have access to the surface. Skull Island happens to be one of those spots where monsters crawl up from their home below - and those seismic charges opened up even more holes. That's part of why Kong got so upset. He fights to keep the monsters underground, and here people have come along and helped them escape. By fighting the monsters, Kong is provided a service to humanity that we weren't even aware of. Randa fears that someday a monster will rise to the surface that will cause a lot of trouble for the planet, and that very well may happen if Kong isn't around to fight it on Skull Island. If Packard is successful in his mission to kill Kong.
All of the exposition about Kong is provided by Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a fighter pilot who has been living on Skull Island ever since his plane was shot down and crashed on the island in 1944. Marlow's Japanese opponent also crashed on the island, and although the men continued trying to kill each other at first, they quickly realized there were bigger issues to deal with. The men lived among the island's natives, a people who don't speak very much and who worship Kong as a god for protecting them from the underground monsters, and spend years trying to figure out how to get off the island. The Japanese pilot was eventually killed by the underground monsters, but before that happened he and Marlow did manage to build a boat out of plane parts. The perfect way to get across the island in three days.
Spending nearly thirty years stuck on this island has had a very obvious effect on Marlow's mental state, and Reilly's endearing and amusing performance as this character is one of the best things about the film.
Unlike the versions of Skull Island seen in King Kong '33 and '05, there are no dinosaurs on this one, but there are plenty of unusual creatures, including a giant octopus that Kong fights (and chews on) in one scene - a nod to Kong fighting a giant octopus in King Kong vs. Godzilla. Kong's primary adversaries in the film, the underground monsters that Marlow has named "Skull Crawlers", are nasty lizard creatures that pulls themselves along on two legs - just like a monster that is seen in King Kong '33. They aren't the most interesting things, but they put up a good fight with Kong and munch a lot of people over the course of the film.
While the characters make their way around the island, Mason and Kong form a sort of bond when the island's protector realizes that Mason is a good person - he finds her trying to help one of the native creatures that has been trapped by helicopter wreckage. This isn't an infatuation like in other Kong films, there's nothing romantic or creepy here, these two just have a mutual respect.
The wreckage of the helicopters and the World War II planes aren't the only things from the outside world that has ended up on Skull Island, this place has been the site of many wrecks and disappearances over the years, and the natives live right beside the wreckage of an old ship called the Wanderer - which is what the expedition ship was called in the novelization of King Kong '33. (In the movie it was the SS Venture.)
Kong: Skull Island has a reverence for what came before, but the franchise's legacy didn't give filmmakers any pretentions when they set out to add their own entry into the cinematic saga. Legendary and Roberts were just out to give audiences a good time with a fast-moving movie that's packed with action, explosions, monster fights, terror, and laughs. They succeeded.
For me, Roberts took the best possible approach to the concept, which was to give the viewers what they want. We're at this movie to see Kong and to watch Kong smash things and fight creatures, and that's exactly what the movie gives us, no holding back. It's like Roberts watched Godzilla '14 with its "build anticipation" approach of blocking the monster action from our view until the very end and then decided to do exactly the opposite - which is my preference.
It was also Roberts' decision to set the film in 1973. The first script written for this project went further back into history than any other Kong movie and was set in 1917. That would have been much less interesting to me, and it would be tougher to connect with 1917 characters. 1973 is perfect as far as I'm concerned. Even though I was born in the '80s, I have always been fascinated by the '60s and '70s, so this setting made the film all the better in my eyes. The music of that era is my favorite music to listen, and Roberts filled his movie with an excellent soundtrack, featuring songs by the likes of The Chambers Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, The Hollies, The Stooges, Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and David Bowie. Having this music mixed into the same movie with Kong monster action was a blissful thing.
Kong: Skull Island was a blast. It was exactly what I wanted it to be. I can't wait to see this Kong again... especially since he'll be fighting Godzilla when he returns.