Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, April 6, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

With the critical and financial success of the 2014 “Godzilla” reboot, it seemed inevitable that other classic monsters from Hollywood history would get new, big budget treatments. King Kong was destined to return to the theater screens. Fittingly, the same production company that brought Godzilla back would also handled Kong's revival. What was most exciting, for me anyway, about Legendary's “Kong: Skull Island” was that it was a new Kong story. This wouldn't be a remake of the same story portrayed in the 1933, 1976, and 2005 film versions. Instead, we'd get a new adventure revolving cinema's most iconic gorilla, devoted primarily to the giant ape tearing shit up in his kingdom.

The year is 1973 and the U.S. has just declared its ceasefire with Vietnam. A secret government program named Monarch is leading an expedition of an unexplored island in the South Pacific. Surrounded by an unending storm, the place is known in legends as Skull Island. A cynical former British Special Service officer, now working as a tracker, and a war photographer join the journey, led by a group of just decommissioned Vietnam soldiers. Once on the island, they discover a terrifying ecosystem, populated by massive and incredibly dangerous creatures. And ruling above it all is a massive gorilla: Kong, the King of Skull Island.

Interestingly, “Skull Island” doesn't approach the material with quite the typical monster movie aesthetic. Instead, “Skull Island” patterns itself after war movies. The film steeps itself in the Vietnam era. The hot, South Asian sun hangs heavy in the sky. Moreover, the script directly concerns itself with the weight of war. Among the human inhabitants of Skull Island is Hank, a soldier who crashed there during World War II. For decades, he has dreamed of returning home, assumed dead by his wife and a son he's never met. Meanwhile, the group of soldiers is led by Lieutenant Packard. Packard doesn't take the U.S pulling out of Vietnam well. He sees the trip to Skull Island as one last hurrah for his team. When Kong destroys most of his squadron, Packard becomes obsessed with killing the great ape. But not so much for revenge but because he's driven by a toxic, war-mongering mindset. This atmosphere – of men lost in pointless conflict, controlled by blood hungry commanding officers – characterizes the entire film.

But like every “King Kong” adaptation, “Skull Island” is also about how carelessly mankind treats the natural world. When the Monarch team first fly over the island, they drop bombs over the jungle. At first, the scientist claim this is to map the area. Later, we discover, this is to prove the island is full of monster-filled, underground tunnel. Either way, it's a needlessly destructive act. Kong's violent behavior is a direct reaction to the bombing. Being a different story, “Skull Island” skips the last act of the other “King Kongs.” The big ape doesn't get catered off to New York City and shot to death over a towering building. Yet there's still this sense in the film, that mankind is bumbling into a place where it doesn't belong, trying to force its dominance over an untamable land. Of the rape and exploitation of nature.

Despite these grasps at pretensions, “Kong: Skull Island” is ultimately a big B-movie, more about its crazy monsters and the way they can dismember the human fodder than anything else. Obviously, Kong himself is the film's biggest monster. While still about fifty feet shorter than Toho's version, this Kong is still the tallest he's ever been in an American film. He's a massive beast, standing at well over a hundred feet. He's covered with matted black hair, walking with a Bigfoot-like gait on two legs, and – in a likely nod to Peter Jackson's version – covered in scars. Despite being a towering CGI monstrosity, the filmmakers make sure this Kong still has a personality. He snorts, flares his nostrils, quietly eats his food, and has an inscrutable but seemingly passionate disposition towards the tiny people beneath him. Just as a special effect, this Kong is a marvel. Yet, I'll admit, he doesn't have as much personality as some of the other Kongs.

I was a bit bummed out to see this “Skull Island” isn't home to any traditional dinosaurs. Still, something must be said for the other beasties the filmmakers cook up. There's a massive spider, with bamboo stalk like legs. In the only homage to “Cannibal Holocaust” you're likely to see in a PG-13 movie, a soldier is impaled through the face with one of these legs. Creatures halfway between pelicans and pterodactyls fly through the skies. In another surprisingly graphic moment, they use their saw-like beaks to dismember an unlucky passenger. Yet the main antagonists are subterranean, lizard-like beings nicknamed Skull Crawlers. An especially effective moment has the Skull Crawlers leaping through a dusty valley, littered with bones, picking off about half the cast. (A clever bit involves the flash of a camera, still going off inside the monster's belly.) They are decent designs – though the two-legged bodies are an odd choice – and memorable monsters. There's also a pretty cool giant octopus and a tree sized stick bug.

Even more so than the creatures themselves, what we're really here to see are the monster fights. Those are cool too. The first major action sequence, of Kong decimating the military's helicopter fleet, is very intense and beautifully choreographed. The camera weaves inside the spinning helicopters and back out again, giving Kong and his victims' proper screen time. That fight with the huge, tentacled beast is nicely done. The big showdown with the giant Skull Crawler, the film's final boss battle, shows Kong cleverly using his environment. A huge boat propeller on a chain is used as both a Scorpion-style hook to yank the enemy closer and to give Kong's uppercut more edge. It's pretty neat, as far as kaiju wrasslin' goes.

As a monster movie and an action flick, “Skull Island” functions swimmingly. However, it's status as a big ol' B-movie is obvious a few times. The flow of the script is slightly fractured. Most of the movie's middle section splits screen time between three separate factions of characters. The heroes and scientists wander the island, eventually bumping into John C. Reily's survivor. Packard and his army, meanwhile, head out on a psychotic mission to destroy Kong. For a while, we're even following another lost soldier, who ends up being monster fodder. Sometimes, the film will even cut away to the giant monkey doing something else, seemingly unrelated to the actual plot. For such a big production, narrative oversights such as these probably should've been ironed out.

Considering the CGI behemoths are the real stars of “Skull Island,” it's impressive that Legendary has assembled such a high profile cast for the film. Some of the actors get more to work with than others. As Bill Randa, the head of Monarch's operation, John Goodman carries an aged sense of resignment in his mission without loosing the sense of wonder and horror the setting engineers in him. As Packard grows more unhinged, more demented in his pursuit of Kong, Samuel L. Jackson gets to go more over the top. As we all know, Jackson is pretty entertaining when acting like a crazy person. John C. Reily easily gets the part in the film, as the plane-wrecked WWII vet.  Years on the island have obviously affected the character's sanity and it's hard to tell just has unhinged he is. Reily plays the part up for goofball comic relief but still manages to make a lovable, personable impression.

Sadly, not all the cast does that well. The film's heroes are actually given less to work with. Tom Hiddleson, so charismatic and delightfully wicked as Loki, gets stuck in a boring, heroic part. Yeah, he gets to chop up giant bats with a samurai sword but Hiddleson is mostly forced to grimly stare ahead, leading other characters around attacking monsters. Brie Larson gets a little more to work with as the war photographer. When interacting with Reily or the island natives, Larson gets some good moments. Too often, she's forced to sit back and flee from the various beasties. Considering the obvious talent of both performers, it's a bit disappointing to see them underutilized in this way.

“Skull Island's' director is the spectacularly bearded Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Roberts' previous film, the coming-of-age story “The Kings of Summer,” doesn't seem to make him an obvious choice for a giant monster movie. Yet he acquits himself with the material decently. The production design of the film is awesome. The cramped human village and the wall that surrounds it are well constructed. Their sacred inner chamber, where paintings of Kong are held up, is especially clever. I really love the valley floor littered with giant animal bones. Roberts successfully pulls off the war movie aesthetic, bathing the film in humid oranges and yellows. Still, I question some of the stylistic decisions made. Slow-motion is utilized several times and, each time, it becomes more distracting.

Despite the monster-sized budget, “Kong's” goals are ultimately rather humble. This is an old school style lost world adventure, full of colorful crazy giant beasts beating the shit out of each other. It doesn't have the soul of previous “Kong” movies. The relationship between the gorilla and the film's heroine is a passing thought. Pathos is not the movie's goal. I was left wanting a little more – a little more alone time with Kong, to get into the ape's head – but I still had a really good time with this one. There's something to be said for an expertly executed monster mash and “Skull Island” does its job. As a prologue to Legendary's MonsterVerse, the first step leading towards “Godzilla vs. Kong,” it does even better. The post-credit teaser is probably the best such scene since Nick Fury showed up in “Iron Man.” It certainly got me pumped. I look forward to seeing more of this Kong. [7/10]

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