Kong is back, transformed into a ‘MonsteVerse’ colossus suitable for combat with Kaiju-sized foes. The key inspiration is video games but the day is saved by capable performers in mostly amusing roles. Even though the show treats its fantasy halfway seriously, it’s still an infantile guns ‘n’ monsters romp, embellished with impressive visual effects.
Kong: Skull Island 3D
3-D Blu-ray + Digital
Warner Home Video
2017 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 118 min. / Street Date July 18, 2017 / 44.95
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Thomas Mann, Brie Larson, Tian Jing .
Cinematography: Larry Fong
Film Editor: Richard Pearson
Original Music: Henry Jackman
Written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly, John Gatins
Produced by Mary Parent, Jon Jashni, Alex Garcia
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Much of genre filmmaking is now being corporatized into interrelated ‘shared universes.’ Universal is struggling to shape its horror icons into a Marvel-like gallery of interchangeable ‘fun’ adventure figures. Starting in the mid-1960’s Toho’s franchise ‘character’ Godzilla was re-invented a number of times, removing his original identity as an atomic nightmare. The celebrated loser (but still fun) 1998 Sony Godzilla pointedly laundered the concept so that France, not America, was the bomb-testing villain behind the curtain. The opening salvo of Warners’ and Legendary Pictures’ 2014 Godzilla ‘MonsteVerse’ reboot went even further to disassociate ‘Big G’ from its origins: Godzilla authority Steve Ryfle wrote an influential protest article about the misrepresentation of cultural history.
Now Legendary gives us a new origin story for the venerated old King Kong. He’s still meaner than a junkyard dog, but his origin has been completely fangdoodled. Sidestepping the fun but flabby Peter Jackson remake from 2005, Kong has been super-sized, clearly to enable him to ‘meet’ Godzilla in an upcoming monster rally. King Ghidorah (just plain Ghidrah to us ’60s kids), Mothra and Rodan are all teased in a post-credits scene, and Legendary has been upfront about the monsters appearing in the Godzilla sequel, revealing the fact as early as last year’s Comic-Con.
Back in 1962, the idea that someone would import a movie called King Kong versus Godzilla was a 10-year-old’s dream come true, even if it was something offered from a studio holding its nose, hoping nobody would crack wise about it. Now the potential pairing is considered mainstream entertainment.
The new Kong: Skull Island 3D is a massive CGI showcase assembled with considerable skill. Unlike some new franchise efforts, it’s been given a fine cast, all of whom enlarge their roles. The story and presentation reflect the same violent kiddie-play daydreams I had as a kid, but with graphic violence that just a few years ago would land a picture an ‘R’ rating.
The franchise has tapped some successful writing talent, enlisting scribes from both the Marvel cosmos and Spielberg’s dinosaur empire, and Dan Gilroy of the excellent Nightcrawler. Yet KSI comes across as yet another shared universe mash-up, with fantasy ideas tossed in by committee. There’s the ‘permanent storm system’ around the Isle of Skulls that also blocks off radio contact. Characters are named ‘Marlow’ and ‘Conrad,’ repeating a fumbled Heart of Darkness link from the Jackson film. This time out we also get the Hollow Earth theory, which provides an excuse for titanic monsters of any description to arrive at any moment:
Skull Isle Skull Isle such a wonderful town / the spiders are up and the lizards are down / and the skull crawlers come from a hole in the ground.
For bringing back the Hollow Earth gag, I really think the movie ought to be dedicated to the memory of Dr. Frank C. Baxter of The Mole People. He’s required viewing.
To the film’s credit, the dialogue is better than average, and the thin characterizations at least have snap. The ‘new’ thinned-down John Goodman, a born character actor, makes the ‘mystery monster’ Monarch chief Bill Randa a witty dispenser of needed exposition. Grudgingly allowed to investigate Skull Island (by a regulation brain-constipated elected official), Randa’s ride is a helicopter cavalry unit run by the stern officer Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Politically, the show has its cake and eats it too – it flexes hardnosed military attitudes while slipping in a full ration of eco-pacifist sentiments. Packard’s mission soon turns into an Ahab-like quest to kill Kong in retaliation for the loss of all his helicopters and most of his soldiers.
Samuel L. Jackson really bears down on the hard-ass behaviors, and nobody can give a camera a better deadeye stare. As his troops are fresh from the defeat in Vietnam, Packard seizes the opportunity to engage in a Battle of Skull Island, to serve as a last stand for military pride. Packard insists that the war in Vietnam wasn’t lost, but abandoned, which one segment of the KSI audience will like, even though Packard is borderline nuts. When the show later decides that Packard is wrong-headed on the issue, I doubt that junior warhawks will be bothered: they’ve already been given a non-stop CGI orgy of military versus monster combat. Here’s where I link to John Cleese’s apt A Fish Called Wanda retort to Packard’s statement, just to be obstinate.
Top-billed Tom Hiddleston keeps the leading-guy-in-a-monster-movie role from being thankless, thanks to a script that allows everyone the chance to behave in an intelligent manner. The presence of photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson of Free Fire) is a nice break from all the boy-gun romance in the film. She snaps photos of the odd local natives, the ones that don’t slow the picture down with unexciting talk. The islander content is ghettoized into little shutterbug photomontages. Brie is also tasked with steering the spirit of the mission away from Ahab-style vengeance seeking, to a more eco-friendly stance. Since this Kong is too big to hold Mason in his palm (his nostril would be a better fit) there’s not much Fay Wray romance content here. That’s unless one counts Kong’s decision, when he finally comes nose-to-toenail with Mason, not to simply step on her as he does everyone else. And yes, I guess he does rescue her at the finish. The current definition of chivalry is that your date doesn’t squash you like a bug.
Actress Tian Ling is part of the expedition but has only a handful of dialogue lines. Was she given a larger role to play in the Chinese release version? The soldiers are nicely differentiated, mainly so that we can tell them apart. Most of them are present to be massacred, which is a drag. So is the film’s bad habit of wiping out its most interesting characters. We’d much rather have some of them return in later franchise installments, or (God forbid) evolve or become multi-dimensional. I was wondering when I’d see the young actor Thomas Mann in another picture, after his great turn in the teen show Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Mann’s fate (haha) here is to portray the green kid in the platoon. There’s not much there for him to play, but I bet plenty of actors would consider a show like this to be a fun working vacation.
The most enjoyable personality on view is John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow, an AAC pilot from WW2 that has been stuck on Skull Island for thirty years. With the Marlow character KIS cashes in on a number of opportunities, starting with the current adoration of veterans. Reilly is funny, and is given plenty of quality zinger dialogue. He also has good Rip Van Winkle moments, marveling at modern developments. I thought I had a prime anachronism spotted when Marlow says ‘Goodnight Irene,’ but discovered that the phrase is far older than the late-’40s hit recorded by The Weavers. When Packard ignores Marlow’s argument that Kong actually protects the island by keeping other, worse Kaiju from coming up out of the Hollow Earth, Marlow just says something to the effect of, “Yeah, what do I know? I’m just the one who’s been on this island for decades.” Not so cool is the Yank-versus-Samurai BS of the opening, which the director describes as being like a Manga or a Sergio Leone movie. It and a brief poolroom fight seven minutes later are apparently there because audience research data proves we’re too far gone on the ADD scale to wait twenty minutes for action scenes.
So stop this character junk Savant, and bring on the monsters.
I was told that early viewers of Kong Skull Island complained that there was too much ‘story’ and not enough Kong action. I didn’t get that impression at all. The movie is PACKED with action, about a third of it military firepower over-kill, another third various crazoid monster attacks and the last third the showdowns with our title simian. If you haven’t yet heard, KSI does a lot of borrowing from Apocalypse Now’s helicopter and boat patrol scenes, right down to one loudmouthed character insisting that he’s “Not Going!” The Coppola borrowings are neither here nor there in a movie that only pretends to take its subject matter seriously, and ends up just a fun excuse for genre thrills. On the other hand, if anybody cares about filmmaking, KSI would seem destined for the cultural junk pile — even the original Toho King Kong versus Godzilla, with its rag-bag gorilla suit, knows what it is and has a meaningful place in genre film history.
The blockbuster mentality requires that very scene be a self-contained rollercoaster magilla. The soldiers could have come in on two attack ‘copters and a transport, but we instead get an armada of metal dragonflies. The helicopters could fly high above Kong’s reach and turn him into mincemeat with their guns and rockets, but instead get right down low where Kong can smash them with ease. It’s stupid, I tells ya, but it’s the norm now, and the faux-serious nature of action franchises means Never Having to Reconcile Events with Logic.
KIS is almost non-stop action, a lot of it visually arresting, with a number of startling monsters on display. The Skull Crawlers are unlikely biped lizards with no forearms and conical beaks. Their featureless pointed heads remind me of the ‘Spy vs. Spy’ cartoons from the old Mad Magazine, or one of the manifestations of Toho’s 1989 monster called Biollante. Like Kong, the enormous Lovecraftian lizard- things defy simple inertia. They whip their enormous bulk around like Kung-fu kick-boxers, without ripping themselves apart.
As pointed out by Savant correspondent Tom Stazer, the most original critter is a spindly spider whose daddy-long-long-long legs are first thought to be tree trunks, as in the old space picture The Angry Red Planet. A giant walking stick insect is also impressive, as is an octopus that Kong turns into instant sushi. Some enormous oxen-things are also unusual. Continuing with its habit of reheating content from older pictures, Skull Island gives us a Kong family bone-yard burial field, similar to Tarzan’s Lost Elephant Graveyard. A tunnel of rib bones sticking up from the ground would seem suggested by an art director’s idea from the 1960 The Lost World.
Adults may eventually tire of the explosions, machine gun bursts and endless monster bashings and wrestling matches. The way soldiers are killed is often cruel and gross, which feeds the infantile gore-hound hunger while making the film seem unconcerned with human life. A couple of key soldiers are given macho-bravado suicide scenes, as in Aliens. There’s also the recurring gag of people being instantly squashed by giant rocks, hurled monsters and a giant pounding gorilla fist. That part gets old quick, as do other surprise wipeouts visited upon the human cast. A typical exaggerated action moment depicts a soldier being swatted by a monster tail, flying half a mile through the air, and exploding on the side of a mountain. This is respect for our men in uniform?
One ‘now-you-see-’em, now they’re lizard food’ joke is followed by a quick replay of the famous “Charlie who?” scene from the old Only Angels Have Wings — dead guys need to be forgotten right away, just so the fun can continue.
I mentioned that the new Kong is less a gorilla than a titanic upright biped with simian characteristics. His facial expressions seem taken from the same digital blueprints as Jackson’s Kong, only this guy’s personality is lacking a lighter side. It’s impossible to accurately assign credit for the good things in this show, but if director Jordan Voght-Roberts is responsible for the consistent tone and the amiable characters, he gets a gracious pass as more than simply a project manager. If Voght-Roberts has a particular visual theme going, it’s an insistent use of ‘awesome’ silhouette shots, with monsters posed against sunsets or humans outlined by distant fireballs. Monster kids looking for two hours of mayhem can do a lot worse than this show, which has some fun characters and more action than you can shake a giant subterranean lizard monster at.
Warner Home Video’s 3-D Blu-ray + Digital of Kong: Skull Island 3D will be a treat for 3-D fans. On home setups, these precisely engineered CGI-fests yield a better depth experience than most theatrical presentations. I hear people saying that they don’t think 3-D adds much any more, and I suppose that’s true in the sense that shows are no longer being tailored to the gimmick. But KSI has plenty of handsome 3-D setups that are pleasing to the eye. Personally, I’m hoping that Cameron’s Avatar sequels will re-ignite the passion for 3-D movies.
The fairly extravagant extras are all located on the non- 3-D Blu-ray. Director Voght-Roberts’ commentary tells us that video games (like Shadow of the Colosssus) are his main inspiration. He says that it was his idea to pitch the film as taking place in 1973 during the Vietnam War. The glib director does the usual thing of describing all major contributors as geniuses. Do we really expect him to dish dirt about who was good and who was not? As in Lake Woebegone, all his technical experts are above average.
The expected making-of featurettes are quite lavish. The effects demos showing the digital construction of the monsters and their movements are fascinating, although nobody cops to the fact that Kong has been made enormous because he’ll one day have a date with a Japanese Godzilla. An ‘inside Monarch’ featurette profiles the organization fronted by John Goodman’s Landa, as if it really existed. Another piece looks at star Tom Hiddleston, and in yet another the director shows us Brie Larson’s photos taken on the set. Yes, she’s a genius too. Quite beautiful are the Hawaiian, Australian and Vietnamese locations. The actors seem genuinely delighted to ride in helicopters amid such dazzling scenery. Some deleted scenes round out the extras selection.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Kong: Skull Island 3-D Blu-ray + Digital rates:
Movie: Good +/-
Supplements: director commentary; featurettes on the actors, BTS effects, monster characterization, locations; and deleted scenes.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One 3-D Blu-ray and one standard Blu-ray with digital access code in keep case
Reviewed: June 20, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson