Brie Larson and ‘Kong: Skull Island’ give King Kong’s leading lady a much-needed upgrade

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Brie Larson plays photojournalist Mason Weaver in "Kong: Skull Island." Warner Bros. Pictures photo

Brie Larson plays photojournalist Mason Weaver in “Kong: Skull Island.” Warner Bros. Pictures photo

“Kong: Skull Island” emerged as king of the box office this weekend, debuting at No. 1 with $61 million according to studio estimates released today.

The Associated Press reports that the latest cinematic outing for the “eighth wonder of the world” exceeded expectations and easily beat out “Logan,” which is now in its second weekend.

This weekend, “Kong” topped international charts as well with $81.6 million from 66 territories.

As I noted in my “Kong: Skull Island” review, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ (“Nick Offerman: American Ham”) first foray into big-budged filmmaking balances established King Kong movie lore with a new take on the frequently filmed gargantuan, action-packed escapism with social and political allegory, and breathtakingly realistic computer-generated beasties with the heart-stopping natural beauty of Vietnam, Hawaii and Australia.

It’s also part of a planned MonsterVerse established by 2014’s great “Godzilla” reboot, which grossed $529.1 million worldwide. Setting up 2019’s “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and 2020’s “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Skull Island” hits some of the same storytelling beats as “Godzilla” without feeling like a monster-swapping retread.

Since we’re going to be dealing with this version of Kong for a while, it’s a good thing that the director and trio of screenwriters – Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”), Max Borenstein (“Godzilla”) and Derek Connolly (“Jurassic World”) – gave the female lead an overhaul nearly as dramatic as the supersizing of the gigantic gorilla. (He’s way too big to climb the Empire State Building now, since he’s got to be big enough to battle Godzilla later.)

In the three previous cinematic outings – and that’s just the actual King Kong movies, not the assorted cinematic variations on the oversized-ape theme — the leading lady has been Kong’s captive and obsession. In the 1933 version, Fay Wray was literally labeled the Beauty who killed the Beast, while Peter Jackson’s long and sappy 2005 remake not only repeated the line but lingered at length – at long length, as in so long, it actually becomes creepy rather than endearing – at Andy Serkis’ digitally rendered Kong and Naomi Watts making goo-goo eyes at each other.

An Oscar-nominated performer, Watts wasn’t just a scream queen in Jackson’s overindulgent lovefest. She had some emotional weight to pull, but she still wasn’t given much to do apart from letting Kong rescue her from T-rexes and other nasties, making shiny eyes at the giant gorilla, and entertaining her primate captor with a vaudevillian routine.

In “Skull Island,” which is set in 1973 at the end of the Vietnam War, Oscar winner and future cinematic superhero Brie Larson (2015’s “Room,” 2019’s “Captain Marvel,” respectively) plays Mason Weaver, a seasoned photojournalist who smells a story when the government’s shadowy Monarch project plans an expedition to an uncharted island just uncovered with new satellite technology.

In a BBC interview, Brie praised director Vogt-Roberts for “getting out of the clichés and into complication,” adding: “Getting to do that on a film of this size is pretty remarkable.”

Photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) fires a flare gun in "Kong: Skull Island." Warner Bros. Pictures photo

Photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) fires a flare gun in “Kong: Skull Island.” Warner Bros. Pictures photo

Thanks to her credentials – she’s a seasoned self-described “anti-war photographer” who has been embedded with various U.S. troops while chronicling the fighting in Vietnam — Mason gets herself hired as the Monarch expedition’s photographer. The fearless photographer doesn’t tote a gun, but Larson’s Mason helps the team out of a couple of harrowing encounters with the island’s myriad monsters. She also is the first to empathize with Kong and realize he may not be the mindless killing machine the soldiers and scientists believe him to be.

“She has a very specific role in this film, being the only one who doesn’t have a weapon, as the only one that’s not trying to tear this creature or any of the other creatures on this island down. And I think that’s a perspective we really need,” Larson told the BBC.

“Being compassionate can actually unite all of us much better than to dominate and control. I think that women innately have that in them.

“What’s interesting about playing her is that she is both things in her own way. She’s not afraid to speak up. She uses her voice and is willing to put her whole life on the line for what she believes in. But she also has that deep compassion and I think women do have that.”

“Skull Island” does boast a visual homage to Fay Wray. But Mason’s interactions with Kong are more about mutual respect than any sort of cross-species romance.

And the romance between Larson’s photographer and Tom Hiddleston’s mercenary British tracker also is handled adroitly: There’s definite interest and great chemistry, but no getting swept away (or getting sexed up) while everyone’s running for their lives from giant deadly lizards and spiders.

“I love that we’re seeing stronger women on the screen – but I don’t think that’s the end of this conversation,” Larson told the BBC.

“Because I think that we’re more than just being strong or just being mothering. I think there’s a whole lot that goes on in between for us to explore.”

The best way to get there, she said, is to have more women behind the movie cameras.

“I think the best place to start would be more female film directors – more female film-makers of every different type of race – and we need to get out of these binary ways of thinking,” she told the BBC.

“We need more intersectionality. We need more unique voices because what directing is, is saying: ‘This is how I view the world’, and I think the way we can connect and learn more is seeing the world through other people’s eyes.”

Larson, 27, will be among those women directors: She will star in, produce, and make her directorial debut on the independent comedy “Unicorn Store.”

According to The Wrap, “Unicorn Store,” written by Samantha McIntyre, centers on a woman who moves back in with her parents. She receives an invitation to a store that will test her ideas of what it really means to grow up.

Along with Larson, “Unicorn Store” will star Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford and Larson’s “Kong: Skull Island” castmate Samuel L. Jackson.

-BAM

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