Thursday, January 04, 2018

"Kong: Skull Island": three-paragraph review

"Kong: Skull Island" is a 2017 monster-adventure film directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (utterly unknown to me) and starring a big-name ensemble cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, and Wreck-it Ralph himself, John C. Reilly. The movie begins with a flashback to World War II: two enemy pilots, Japanese and American, crash-land on an uncharted island. They begin a hand-to-hand fight to the death... which is interrupted when a gargantuan ape appears. Flash-forward to 1973: it's now the end of the Vietnam War, and US troops are soon to leave the badlands. Colonel Packard (Jackson) is tasked with one final mission: the surveying of an island in the South Pacific that is of interest to Monarch, a secretive US-government organization that is tracking, shall we say, anomalies that have appeared across the earth. Monarch's representative, Bill Randa (Goodman), is along for the ride; the rest of the mission includes ex-SAS Captain James Conrad (Hiddleston), peacenik journalist Mason Weaver (Larson), and a whole detachment of the Sky Devils, a sort of air-cav squadron tasked with flying the company through a storm and to the mysterious island. Upon reaching the island, the mission drops seismic charges to begin surveying the terrain, but this enrages the huge ape we met at the beginning of the movie, and he downs the entire mission in a near-repeat of the classic Empire State Building scene from the 1933 film. Now grounded, the mission must trudge across dangerous terrain filled with behemoth fauna (including one very nasty giant spider) to the exfil point many kilometers away. Colonel Packard, enraged by the loss of so many of his men, swears vengeance against Kong; Conrad and Weaver, meanwhile, figure out that Kong is actually a self-appointed protector of the island who was angered when the seismic charges awoke creatures called skull-crawlers. Along the way, we meet the Iwi people and their lone white guest: Hank Marlow (Reilly), the now-older American soldier from the beginning of the movie.

In movies like this, the main question is who is going to survive to the end. Because American monster and horror movies generally espouse a fairly conservative morality, you can bet that most or all of the assholes in the movie will be dead by the end while the more compassionate, Christ-like characters will survive. Just once, I'd like to see this formula overturned.* The movie starts off with several chopper-loads of characters, but the roster gets whittled down pretty quickly, which makes it easier to remember who's who. Samuel Jackson is his usual pissed-off self, and he dominates as the flinty-eyed Packard. The movie, in fact, does a great job of establishing the Packard-Kong conflict which, much later in the movie, comes to a rather abrupt resolution. Brie Larson is this film's incarnation of Fay Wray, but she brings a fairly convincing 70s-style feminism to the table. Several other characters occupy screen time but are little more than window dressing: the Chinese researcher San Lin (winsome Jing Tian) comes to mind as cute but fairly useless. The movie's CGI effects are top-notch; there's a titanic Kong/skull-crawler fight toward the end that is lavishly detailed and entertaining in an old-school, monster-movie kind of way. The plot, of course, is ridiculous garbage, a fact made obvious by the stupidity of the Sky Devil chopper pilots who allow their squadron to be so easily decimated by Kong. Can no one gauge Kong's reach and fly beyond that radius? Ah, well... then again, you don't watch a monster movie for the ironclad plot-logic; you watch it because you want to see giants pummel the shit out of each other. The movie includes a post-credits scene hinting that other islands with other monsters exist: we see cave paintings alluding to Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, et al.

Did I enjoy the film? Yeah, I guess. It was good, stupid fun—emphasis on stupid. On the other hand, the film never pretended to take itself seriously, so there's that. In the end, though, I think Peter Jackson's 2005 "King Kong" brought us a more soulful version of the great beast, not to mention a more engaging film.

*A few good characters bite it, and one decent fellow suffers an utterly useless death that I thought was a welcome change because it played against formula, but for the most part, the main good guys—the ones we're supposed to like—all survive.


Charles said...

"Upon reaching the island, the mission drops seismic charges to begin surveying the terrain...."

Wuh? Is this something that is actually done? Sounds suspiciously like a plot contrivance....

Kevin Kim said...

Maybe it's a movie thing. You'll recall that, in "Jurassic Park," there's a scene at the beginning in which an explosive(?) round is fired into the ground to produce vibrations that allow computers to pick up images, sonogram-style, of still-buried fossils. I think these seismic charges are distant cousins of that technique: their purpose is to produce vibrations that allow surveyors to map variations in ground density, etc.

The conceptual conceit of "Skull Island" is a notion called the "hollow-earth theory," which posits that megafauna may have evolved in gigantic underground spaces, in parallel with the planet's surface life. These giant creatures sometimes break out of their caves and come to the surface to interact with above-ground ecosystems. This makes no biological sense, of course, but that's the "scientific" theory that propels the movie's plot.