The History of King Kong, As He Roars Back to Cinemas

A look at the life of the iconic character and a review of “Kong: Skull Island.”

photo courtesy warner bros. pictures

Like Indiana Jones, Jaws and James Bond, King Kong is an indelible and permanent movie character. The giant ape, birthed in 1933 as the star attraction of his self-titled debut, is a purely cinematic creation — a presence whose power and pathos are visible in flickering light alone, in such a way that cannot be replicated in words or ink. This is a creature that must be seen, and — theme-park rides notwithstanding — can only truly be found inside a darkened movie theater.

And yet, the icon’s cinematic track record is spotty and limited. The new “Kong: Skull Island,” which appears in theaters today, is only the eighth big-screen appearance by Kong during the beast’s 84-year history.

As a point of comparison, Robert Downey Jr. will appear as Iron Man for an eighth time this summer. It took him nine years.

For most of that history, each new incarnation of the ancient ape would be followed by a forgettable sequel. “Son of Kong” hit theaters a mere nine months after the original, receiving little notice. Toho Studios had a hit in 1962 with the enduring monster mash “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” but its 1967 follow-up, “King Kong Escapes,” sent Kong back to Skull Island for another decade. The divisive ’70s version did pick up an Oscar, but that film’s little-seen sequel — “King Kong Lives” — bombed.

The previous 21st-century visit with Kong, and the first since the dawn of computer-generated imagery, was under the lens of Peter Jackson in 2005. That film — in which motion-capture specialist Andy Serkis played the beast — was a global hit and a critical success, scoring as an enjoyable popcorn flick in spite of a bloated running time.

There was no attempt at a sequel to Jackson’s film, however, making “Skull Island” the first appearance of the character in more than a decade. It also represents a fresh narrative for Kong. “Skull Island” takes us back to 1973, when the advent of satellite photography leads to the discovery of a heretofore-uncharted island in the South Pacific. The Monarch group — a fringe team of government researchers led by Bill Randa (John Goodman) — is determined to explore the island, though they’re keeping their true motivations concealed.

They’ll need help, though; fortunately, there’s a war ending nearby. That means a well-equipped military escort, led by Lt. Col Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), is easy to come by; a no-nonsense jungle guide (Tom Hiddleston) and fearless war photographer (Brie Larson) are close at hand as well.

Unfortunately, Randa fails to inform the group that their mission involves violently waking a gargantuan, ancient beast. And Packard tells no one that he’s desperate for more action, disgruntled and disillusioned by the end of military operations in Vietnam. And there are giant deadly beasts aplenty covering the mysterious island.

The cast is quite strong (although Hiddleston is a bit of a non-entity), particularly John C. Reilly as the comic relief. And despite some slightly desperate jumps to ward off plot holes, the story is simple and effective — arrive, notice monsters, try to get away from monsters.

But “Skull Island,” which is indeed quite worthy of the Kong name, is a success based on its visuals. Directed by “Kings of Summer” helmer Jordan Vogt-Roberts and shot by Larry Fong, the heat-soaked, vibrant look of the film is unforgettable; many individual shots and sequences are jaw-dropping, particularly the film’s initial action set piece (which shows up much earlier than you may be expecting). On the page, “Skull Island” is fine; in the camera, it’s great.

So what’s the pattern? Why are first chapters about Kong — the original, the ’70s version, Jackson’s film, this latest incarnation — uniformly successful, while follow-ups flop?

Perhaps it is because this character’s story is in his introduction. The development from fear to understanding in the humans who confront Kong, a primal symbol of both wildness and empathy, is the whole tale; when we, the audience, are made to see Kong not as the monster but rather as the hero, the tale is told.

Can that streak be broken? Will this latest ape be able to stomp into a sequel at full strength?

Check back in three years. “Godzilla vs. Kong” opens May 29, 2020.


Categories: Sean Collier’s Popcorn for Dinner