Kong: Skull Island (2017) Kong: Skull Island (2017) **Ĺ

     Do you remember, in Peter Jacksonís King Kong, the heavily belabored discussion of The Heart of Darkness with which First Officer Hayes and Jimmy the deckhand filled the seemingly endless voyage to Skull Island? Well, the makers of Kong: Skull Island certainly did. Indeed, they took the thematic implications of that chat and ran with them all the way to a mashup between King Kong and Apocalypse Now! I couldnít decide, when I saw the first trailer, whether that was a brilliant idea or a ridiculous one, and frankly Iím still not sure even now that Iíve seen the film itself. What I am sure of is that Kong: Skull Island is a compulsively entertaining but ultimately insubstantial movie, which scrupulously avoids the missteps of Jacksonís version, but at the cost of denying itself any opportunity to equal its triumphs (let alone those of the original). Tasty though it is in the moment, itís a huge pile of empty cinematic calories thatís apt to leave discerning monster fans vaguely resenting themselves for being taken in by it afterwards.

     1944; an uncharted island in the South Pacific. American fighter pilot Lieutenant Hank Marlow (Will Brittain) and his Japanese adversary, Gunpei Ikari (Takamasa ďMiyaviĒ Ishihara), shoot each other down and crash on the same stretch of deserted beach. Both pilots survive, and immediately set about trying to finish the job. They donít make very much headway, though, before they are interrupted by something that forces an immediate reordering of their priorities: a monstrously huge, gorilla-like primate, which looms up over the hundred-foot cliff atop which the men had been fighting. Weíll have to wait until the halfway point or so to learn what comes of that.

     Flash forward to 1973. Richard Nixon has just announced the termination of Americaís increasingly senseless involvement in the Vietnam War, precipitating men like Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson, from Sphere and the Star Wars prequels) into a funk that will last until Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait 27 years later. But weíll get back to Packard and his aggrieved honor in a bit. For now, the more interesting figures are Bill Randa (John Goodman, of 10 Cloverfield Lane and Arachnophobia) and his sidekick, Dr. Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins). These men work for the Monarch organization, definitively situating Kong: Skull Island within the same continuity as the Legendary Pictures Godzilla. That means theyíre monster hunters, which in turn makes them extremely irritating to respectable people like Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins, from The Cabin in the Woods and Bone Tomahawk). The reason Randa and Brooks are pestering Willis right now is because the newly launched Landsat geographical survey satellite has captured images of an island in the South Pacific which has hitherto been hidden by the curious storm system that rages perpetually around it. The island is in just the right place to account both for certain Polynesian legends and for a harrowing experience Randa himself had while he was in the navy during World War II. Consequently, he wants funding to investigate this hitherto unknown island for traces ofÖ well, whatever that thing was that bit off the bow of Randaís ship all those years ago. And he also wants a military escort for his survey team, just in case the big bastard is still alive. Willis is disinclined to go along until Brooks cannily suggests that the Russians have access to Landsat data, too.

     Inevitably, Colonel Packard gets the gig assembling the aforementioned escort, which he treats as an excuse to keep his old ĎNam unit from dispersing. Randa and Brooks will hold up the scientific end of the venture in person, together with a seismologist named San (Tian Jing, of The Great Wall and Anaconda Frightened). Landsat will be represented by Victor Nieves (Alien vs. Predator: Requiemís John Ortiz) and a subordinate named Steve (Marc Evan Johnson, from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). To document the voyage, Randa hires muckraking photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson)ó rather to the annoyance of the military types, no doubt. But the hire that really raises eyebrows is that of decommissioned SAS captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston, of Only Lovers Left Alive and Crimson Peak). Randa hasnít told anyone but Willis that heís hoping to find monsters on or around the island (even Conrad gets fobbed off with a cock-and-bull story about his expertise in jungle survival), but any fool can see that you donít bring along an ex-special forces mercenary unless youíre expecting to deal with some hairy shit.

     As we already know, the danger that Randa is courting on the island is hairy literally as well as figuratively. The mission plan is to sail a helicopter-carrying ship to the very margin of the neverending storm, and to fly from there through the aerial maelstrom to the tranquil pocket of low atmospheric pressure over the island proper. Then Packardís men will drop seismographic charges at key positions around the isle, which San and Brooks will use to determine its internal structure and composition. But what Randa and Brooks arenít saying is that the bombs have a second purpose. The men from Monarch are hoping the explosions will drive their secret quarry to the surface. Randa gets his wish, but at a far higher cost than he anticipated. The monster ape we saw earlier is the first creature to respond, and itís in a very bad mood when it does. Packardís whole helicopter fleet lies smashed in the jungle by the time the beastís tantrum runs its course. Incredibly, all the civilians survive the attack, but the soldiers are nowhere near as fortunate. When the smoke clears, Packard is left with just his right-hand man, Major Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell, from Wrath of the Titans and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), and the merest sprinkling of Expendable Meat. And whatís more, the survivors form up into two separate parties when they regroup, neither of which initially knows of the otherís existence.

     Packard leads his group in search of the wreck of their largest and most powerful helicopter, reasoning that its cargo hold contained weapons that might perform more satisfactorily against a creature that gets nothing worse than a booboo from an M60 machine gun fired at point-blank range. As that ought to imply, the apeís attack has the colonelís dander up, and he has no intention of leaving the island until the thing is dead. Meanwhile, the other group (effectively led by Conrad and Weaver in tandem) falls in with the natives, a tribe of body-art-loving telepaths called the Iwi. The Iwiís heavily fortified settlement has also been home these many years to Hank Marlow (now aged into John C. Reilly, of Dark Water and Cirque du Freak: The Vampireís Assistant)ó and up until recently to the late Gunpei Ikari as well. Hank is able to bring the newcomers up to speed on how things work around here. The big ape is Kong, the last survivor of a species the Iwi worship as gods. For reasons known only to himself, Kong protects the tribeís territory from incursions by the islandís many other monsters: giant insects and spiders, swarms of carnivorous pterosaurs, amphibious yaks the size of houses, colossal fresh-water squid. Most of all, he protects it from what Hank rather melodramatically calls the Skullcrawlers, weird reptilian things that dwell in a vast hollow underneath the island and the surrounding sea floor. If it werenít for Kong, the Skullcrawlers would have the run of the place, and every once in a while, they work up the gumption to surface en masse in spite of him. The last time they did that, they slew both of Kongís parents, which is how he became the last of his kind. Still, the average individual Skullcrawler is no match for Kong in a fair fight. There is one, thoughÖ Letís just say itís a good thing for everyone that it sleeps a lot. The point is, you can see now why Packardís vendetta is an even worse idea than it looks at first glance. Even if he gets what he wants, all heíll really have accomplished is to give the Skullcrawlers their best chance ever to overrun the island.

     If weíre being honest here, Kong: Skull Island was never intended to be a movie. No, this was always meant to be the start of a long-term, cross-platform synergistic marketing venture leveraging proven intellectual property assets, in which those and Christ knows how many other fashionable MBA buzzwords would form up to fellate each other with precision timing so as to cum money for Legendary Pictures at predictable yearly intervals. Itís a crassly obvious attempt to piggyback a Marvel-style franchise of franchises onto Godzilla, complete with a post-credits scene teasing what looks like a forthcoming remake of Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster. Hell, Kong: Skull Island even stars Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hiddleston, two familiar faces from the Marvel films, although their roles here are approximately reversed. The good news is, director John Vogt-Roberts and the several screenwriters have pretty much mastered the Marvel playbook. The bad news is also that they have the Marvel playbook pretty much mastered.

     To understand how that can be, it helps to have read Film Crit Hulkís article on the treatment of Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War, in which he develops a theory of audience placation. Basically, the idea is that if you can figure out what small, easy, superficial things the audience wants most, and exploit that knowledge to give them a dopamine hit every ten minutes or so, then you can get away with half-assingó or even ignoring outrightó a lot of harder stuff that ought to be more important by any normal assessment. To give you an example of how it works on me personally, Iíve enjoyed most of the Marvel movies, not only despite my longstanding disdain for superheroes (Iíll take a girlfriend who drags me to see The Avengers over one who drags me to see Titanic or Pretty Woman any day, thank you), but even though not one of them has had a memorable villain whose agenda makes a lick of sense. And why is that? Because they have a sharp, snarky wit; solid pacing even at vast length; and careful, consistent character writingó all of which I apparently value highly enough to forgive that I still have no clear idea what Loki hopes to accomplish, or why I should give the most infinitesimal fraction of a shit about the purple guy who canít be arsed to get out of his chair. I probably shouldnít be so ready to extend that forgiveness, but then along comes a bit like the USO number in Captain America: The First Avenger or the scene in Iron Man 3 where Tony Stark learns that there really is no Mandarin, and I canít stay annoyed anymore. Iíve been placated.

     Kong: Skull Island is the same way. I could not begin to tell you what Monarch actually does, even though the organization is much more central to this story than it was to Godzilla. The writers themselves as much as admit that they canít think of a reason for Kongís solicitous attitude toward the Iwi. Gunpei Ikariís entire existence as a character is wasted, since every second of his quarter-century Hell in the Pacific friendship with Hank Marlow occurs offscreen. Mason Weaver serves no purpose except to prevent the movie from being a total sausage-fest; she doesnít even function as a proper surrogate for Anne Darrow! And the soldiers add up to one giant exercise in ďtell, donít show.Ē But! Samuel L. Jackson makes a terrific Captain Ahab by way of Colonel Kurtz, obsessively seeking to avenge both the deaths of his men and his own humiliation over the withdrawal from Vietnam by destroying Kong. Skull Island presents a new kind of Lost World ecosystem, owing almost nothing to the Arthur Conan Doyle tradition of dinosaurs and cavemen. And holy shit, those monster fights! There are at least seven of them, artfully spaced throughout the film and varied enough that they never become repetitive or wear out their welcome. Kong: Skull Island even manages to drop in a reference or two to the Dino De Laurentiis King Kong without making me want to spit. Those selling points should mean less to me in aggregate than the several critical flaws running straight through the core of the fucking movie, and on a detached, intellectual level, I suppose they do. In the theater, though? Kong: Skull Island kept me sufficiently entertained throughout that I didnít recognize until the drive home how many of its basic narrative responsibilities it had shirked. As with the Marvel films, I was placated.

 

 

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