Monday, March 13, 2017

Ape Watch: Kong - Skull Island (2017)

Box office numbers will give me the answer to the question "was anyone really wanting a new King Kong movie, let alone a re-imagined one?"  Because I really don't know.  Our theater was near sold out, but I had the distinct impression it was full of the kinds of movie goers who think picking what movie they'll see ahead of time is a waste of time - you just buy tickets for whatever is starting next.

King Kong, like Frankenstein, is one of those movie concepts that bled out into the pop culture to such a degree - it's just part of the cultural lexicon.  This in spite of the fact very few folks you talk to have actually sat through the original films.  But the imagery of both has become so iconic, the concepts both bizarre and yet easy to grasp and the metaphor so accessible... we all get it.  Giant apes and flesh golems tend to stick in the mind.

Weirdly, Kong: Skull Island (2017) arguably throws away all of that metaphor, telling a different story.  No more Ann Darrow, no John Driscoll, no showboating Carl Denham.  No more "'twas Beauty who killed The Beast."  This is a 1970's-era landing on Skull Island by a mix of government scientists and soon-to-be-done Army soldiers, rotating out of Vietnam and a whole lotta explosions.

The end result is also something altogether different, and that alone can take some getting used to.  You're in for two hours of fast-moving excitement, a razor thin script, name actors without much to do, and a Vietnam known only via high-profile filmic depictions.  All in all, Kong: Skull Island (2017) is maybe not what I was expecting, but it is visually stunning, entertaining, contains some pretty amazing FX and action sequences, and if you don't have a bunch of people talking behind you, is going to keep you glued to the screen for the run-time of the movie.

I don't remember any part of my life where I didn't know about King Kong, the giant ape who was hi-jacked from his home and caused a ruckus in NYC.  The first version of the movie I tried to watch was the 1976 version of King Kong starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange (and if you haven't seen it, it's really pretty good).  However, during that first viewing when I was about 5 or 6, somewhere in the "cause a ruckus in NYC" bit, Kong stepped on a guy and smushed him, and somehow that pushed me right over the ledge into freaking the hell out.  It was high school before I watched it all the way through.

About when I was 5 or 6, we had a storybook of the 1933 movie of which I have a distinct memory of my dad reading to me, and I thought it was just absolutely amazing.  High adventure.  Romance.  Giant apes.  Dinosaurs.  Air planes.  Of course a kid would love it.

In middle school, Jason and I went to see King Kong Lives (1986) and I think we were two of four people in the theater.  I got the feeling, despite Linda Hamilton's star turn, it didn't do all that well.

At some point in high school, American Movie Classics showed the 1933 version of King Kong, and I taped it.  I can't say I think I'd seen the movie previously, just bits here and there.  Suffice it to say, the movie worked for me,  and to this day the 1933 King Kong remains one of my favorite films.

But...  Not so much the 2005 remake which is one of the greatest arguments for not letting a director have final cut on a movie that I could possibly point to.

If you don't follow this sort of thing -  Kong: Skull Island was always pitched as part of a Marvel U-like connective world of giant monsters (stay for the post-credits sequence).  I won't say I was a huge fan of WB/ Legendary's 2014 Godzilla re-imagining, although I do think it has an absolutely phenomenal monster fight at the end.  I tried not to let that color my view of the movie, knowing a new director and actors were on hand, and they'd had a chance to right some of the problems with Godzilla (2014).

I'd argue that the studio certainly learned not to put a mediocre actor front and center (that they didn't see Cranston's character was *the* character to follow at the script stage is absolutely mind-boggling), and they knew that this go-round they should bring on some good name talent and tell a story that was relentlessly exciting enough to fill the runtime of the movie.

Monarch (or maybe M.O.N.A.R.C.H., it wasn't clear to me) is a federally funded organization founded after a giant monster attack in the closing days of WWII, intended to seek out these giant monsters.*  But after 30 years of turning up bupkis, funding may be running out at just the same time they've got a huge lead on a mysterious location in the Pacific known as Skull Island.  Surrounded by storm clouds, the island tends to hang onto any boats or planes that fly into the vortex, but some industrious grad student wants to explore the geology of the place before the Russians can get there.  Cold War = funding for any anti-commie b.s..

In the final days of the Vietnam War, Monarch's head (John Goodman) recruits a very handsome tracker/ mercenary (a buff Tom Hiddleston) and lands a military escort led by Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) to recreate Vietnam movie action sequences by dropping explosives in the jungle to map the Earth's crust below.  Yes, we've gone full Art Bell here and we're looking into Hollow Earth Theory.  And, yes, Brie Larson is in the movie as a photographer who's been embedded for the past two years.

Of course, dropping those bombs draws out a giant ape who does not take kindly to the intrusion and takes out all the helicopters and most of the poor jerks who were headed home had Monarch not pulled them in to their little venture.

Echoing the original film, the soldiers realize that there are incredible beasts living on the island, from mega-water buffalo to spiders as big as a circus tent.  And for the second time this week I saw a movie that suggested the wide-open is not where you want to be in the company of peckish pterodactyls.

The story and characters are strictly color-by-numbers.  There's no plot element or line of dialog that wasn't lifted from somewhere else, and if I heard from someone that the movie was written by one of those clever people who splice together existing movies to reverse engineer their story, I'd just shrug.  No one was here to tell a sweeping poem about nature and beauty (thanks, Peter Jackson) or do anything metatextual with a well known concept.

This movie clearly exists to do two things:  introduce King Kong as a furrier companion piece to Godzilla and push along the Kaiju-verse.  Which, btw, was *always* a weird fit for King Kong in the first place.

In seeking to move the film from a shabby B picture with great FX (and they are uniformly terrific), the movie is littered with award winners and beloved character actors in place of meaningful character development or arcs.  And that's maybe okay.  But it is weird to see Tom Hiddleston in such a bland role and Brie Larson as a tank-top with the only conscience on the island.  In fact, there's probably a pretty good thesis in there on Brie Larson's tank-top and depictions of womanhood in this film.  But compared to the import of the Ann Darrow character, she's basically a non-entity.

At some point the movie is more or less handed over to John C. Reilly as a WWII pilot from Chicago who's been on the island for decades living among the locals (shades of Hopper in Apocalypse Now), and he overtakes the whole damn movie.  That is not a complaint, but really weird with a powerhouse cast like this movie's got.

At some point I was struck by the movie's diverse cast during a shot of more than a dozen characters together.  That's something for a Hollywood movie.  It's certainly not tokenism by any stretch, what with a military-type cast and sciency types all thrown together.  You'd have to be looking for something racist to bitch about to take umbrage.

Speaking of racist - certainly the 1933 film was going for some "primitive" stereotypes common in adventure films of the day, and the 2005 film was weirdly non-specific about who the islanders were, but people sure wanted to find a bone to pick with their portrayal despite Jackson's attempts to circumvent the conversation.  Here, the islanders are recast as Asiatic islanders with a sort of mystic vibe, which seems it might be no less inviting as a racially charged target, but - man - I'm not sure how you do any of this in 2017 without inviting criticism.  But we can discuss American cultural imperialism at length some other time and without starting off in @#%$ing Vietnam.

Speaking of Vietnam...

From the posters to innumerable shots lifted directly from Apocalypse Now, there is a positively weird amount of referencing of what is a much better movie.  Hell, Hiddleston's character is named "Conrad" (please do not make me explain why that is relevant).  But it's hardly like the story or even themes of film are 1:1 with either Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now.  Yes, the movie is loosely tied to the Vietnam war, but...   I dunno.  It can't help your movie to keep reminding me of a better movie while I'm watching your movie, movie.

I sincerely think if they thought it wouldn't have been too much, we would have had Wagner blasting at they dropped the seismic charges.

But you came here for the Island of Monster Inflicted Death and Giant Ape v Those Lizard Things action.

I'll tell you what - that's some pretty good stuff.

Unlike, say, the absolute garbage "cinematography" of the Transformers franchise, Kong's action sequences are more than just a mason jar of spare Ikea hardware shaken around in front of the screen.  Some actual thought went into ensuring the audience could see and enjoy the visceral, vicarious experience of a gigantic ape tussling with an insanely gigantic squid.  If that was with the help of some pre-visualization or what, I can't say.  But the end result, much like Godzilla (2014) is a much better cinematic experience  - and that's what you paid for.

It's a bit violent for the wee ones.  You can't say it's bloodless violence even as much as a Godzilla picture, but Skull Island has always been a terrifying place.  There's a reason King Kong is often considered a horror movie, and that's because Skull Island is nothing but a hellscape full of murder beasts.  So, do expect some intense situations and PG-13 thrills and chills.

It's interesting to see a take where Kong is considered more of a protector than a god to be appeased with the sacrifice of the occasional stray blonde.  It certainly gives the tension on the island a different flavor.

I'm not entirely certain this is a better or worse take on Skull Island itself - it's not as dreamlike as the two major prior incarnations and seems mostly fit to serve a narrative Legendary Film is putting under the American-financed Godzilla movies.  And that's a weird thing to have to think about while we're talking about giant hellbeasts and swarms of pterodactyls.

But it is entertaining, if not downright fun to watch.


I'm not sure this is even a spoiler - but the movie never leaves Skull Island.  There is no Kong on Broadway bit, no climbing of skyscrapers.  Some may not miss this as the number of actual monsters really drops through the floor in the Manhattan sequences, but...


A movie doesn't have to have artistic aspirations, but given the nature of both the 1933 and 2005 efforts (and 1976 to some degree), it's odd to see on that works far more like a bit of media product to drive you to the next movie than a complete, stand-alone story.  And maybe that's just the world we're living in now - because I can make the same comment about Dr. Strange, Star Trek Beyond and any number of other large movies I took in this year.

Action sequences aside, it's hard to get the actual story or point of Kong: Skull Island.  It's more or less exactly what it is on the Legendary Pictures schedule - a slot to fill as we head toward monster movie cross-overs.  Maybe that's where we're at in the long curve of cinematic history.  But I'm unsure if there's enough *there* there for Kong who begins and ends his story in the same place.

Which is all very odd stuff to say about a movie I basically enjoyed while I was watching it, letting the escapist giant ape stuff just sort of overwhelm any critical viewing.  And, you know, it's a movie that set out to be that movie, and made no bones about not trying to be much more than that, and, hey, that worked out okay.

If nothing else, the movie doesn't fall into the trap of winding up *stupid* by virtue of trying to sound smart when it isn't, trying to be scientific when it's not, or any of the million and one pitfalls of so many dumb big budget actioners (say, Deep Blue Sea).  It may not have any pretensions of thoughtfulness, but it also doesn't make a jerk of itself by being much more than a movie about a very large gorilla.

*Just based on context, I checked and Monarch was also in Godzilla (2014).  I'd forgotten.  Yes, they're American-Toho's SHIELD.

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