Talk About Big Movie Stars…!
DIRECTED BY JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS/2017
In a world that’s become hardwired to take A-list effects driven potboilers seriously, Kong: Skull Island is a relatively satisfying mid-March meal of empty calories and well-rendered spectacle. It roars with the carefully calculated fury of a newfangled studio tentpole desperate to do its “world building” in the service of its “shared universe”, but not forgetting to be entertaining in the here and now. But, it’s also as hollow any giant monster creature feature of the 1950s, replacing the innovative charm of those models & man-in-suit affairs with that faux high-stakes self-seriousness so familiar in would-be fun blockbusters of today.
Remember 2014’s American Godzilla remake? This is is 2008’s The Incredible Hulk to that film’s Iron Man, but with the audience satisfaction levels flipped. Lest you be in the dark for what promises to be a pop culture-devouring mega-monster brawl many movies from now, you’d best not sit this one out! For good measure, the producers have stocked Skull Island with Marvel Studios veteran actors, the kind of familiar talent whom global audiences very much enjoy watching cash paychecks.
No longer a black & white twenty-four foot tall stop-motion armature, he is now a towering 100 feet. Why, that’s tall enough that he could conceivably one day fight Godzilla…!
Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly… all are on board, doing their due diligence to explain what’s going on, and/or get chased. Yet, even if they have their names above the title, they are still trying only there in service of the big guy who’s name leads the title: Kong.
Although this story reboots the Kong mythos, placing his discovery in immediately post-Vietnam 1973 (as evidenced by the military choppers equipped with Apocalypse Now reel to reel speaker systems and Richard Nixon bobbleheads), before he was ever captured and taken to New York City, it’s obvious our simian star has evolved. No longer a black & white twenty-four foot tall stop-motion armature, he is now a towering 100 feet. Why, that’s tall enough that he could conceivably one day fight Godzilla…!
How does the clearly limited ecosystem of the small Skull Island manage to feed the likes of enormous, hulking King Kong, not to mention assorted other oversized beasts? While it’s true that we’re witness to Kong’s impromptu meal of raw giant squid, there’s still not all that many other giant animals around. Meaning, it would seem that there’s no possible way these creatures could stay fed. Kong would be hungry all time. No wonder he’s so cranky in this film.
The film is a classic Lost World scenario: Explorers vying for survival on an unknown island that time forgot. No dinosaurs to speak of, but plenty of other super-sized beasts of burden. Although the story moves along briskly and the CGI creatures are impressive, Kong: Skull Island nonetheless manages to be a bloated affair, courtesy of its self-imposed weight and a raft-load of respectable movie stars, all of whom are relegated to playing second fiddle to the titular ape.
Of the famous faces amid the fray, Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly have the most to do, and therefore come out looking best. John Goodman is serviceable as the explorer hellbent on getting to the island. Having duped a busy senator into approving his exploratory expedition with an expository sales pitch (Is the raw condescension in his voice directed at the senator or the movie he’s in?), it becomes quickly clear that this is no ordinary surveying mission. He’s arranged for an airborne military escort, ensuring that there are plenty of army guys tagging along to get killed. Goodman’s explosive charges flush out Kong, resulting in a very immediate bodycount. It’s an impressive sequence courtesy of director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, devoted to demonstrating Kong’s mad chopper-swatting skills. Vogt-Roberts’ isolated visual flourishes are among the films strongest qualities.
Jackson gets to play the bloodthirsty General, a guy who becomes increasingly unhinged as the film plays out. Since it’s 1973, he’s fresh out of ‘Nam, and mad as hell that after a decade of fighting, the U.S.‘s “abandoned” the war. Although his unchecked aggression makes him a de facto villain, his motives are at least clearer than most. The fact that he’s the only one impacted by the deaths of his many men at the hands of the island doesn’t sit well with this critic. These were simply a bunch of relieved G.I.s about to finally go home from the just-called-off Vietnam war but, through sheer bad luck, got abruptly rerouted to this debacle. At one point, the film makes a cruel joke of one would-be valiant sacrifice.
John C. Reilly is an affable jungle loon who’s spent most of his life trapped on Skull Island after his plane crashed there during World War II. The burden of explaining that Kong is a good King, and means no harm really, as he was just trying to defend the island from Goodman’s shelling, is all on him. Also, he gets to frequently remind everyone that there are worse things out there… Big ones! Good thing he’s kept up his English speaking skills, seeing as he’s been living with a race of quiet austere natives who clearly spend hours a day getting their facial paint properly applied and crackled, just so. Then it’s another long day of silently appearing near Westerners and looking stern.
These are roles that both Jackson and Reilly can sleepwalk though, but opt to give slightly more. As for supposed leads Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson, they have no choice but to be anything other than cardboard. Here we have a Golden Globe winner and an Oscar winner (respectively) reduced to reacting to CGI mayhem and running around together. She’s a peacenik photographer looking to make the world a better place, and he’s a mercenary explorer who’s token “badass” action moment is as embarrassing as the actor’s recent Golden Globe speech. Good luck remembering either of them afterwards. This is, at the end of the day and the credits roll, a giant monster movie. (Stay through those long credits, by the way.)
I suppose that Kong: Skull Island is as respectable as any well-oiled machine is capable of being. It wears its soul on its sleeves and panders at every pre-visualized sharp turn, but it does it comparitively well by today’s standards. It slightly surpasses 2014’s American Godzilla, which itself surpassed 1998’s American Godzilla. But then again, none of that is saying much.
More to the point, my eleven year old son, who’s yet to see all that much of this sort of thing, was absolutely blown away by the movie. It danced right up to line of what he’s probably capable of digesting in terms of threat level and violence. Days later, he’s still talking about it. And that’s no monkey business.