Thursday, March 23, 2017

Man vs. Nature – Kong: Skull Island

Tian Jing, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, and Thomas Mann in Kong: Skull Island.

I had one thought going into Kong: Skull Island, and it was a fervent hope that the film wouldn’t cleave to the story we’ve all already seen more times than we can count. I went in ready to condemn the film if any of the following were depicted: the big ape and the titular island become separate entities; the humans want to capture or control him in any way; his murderous rage is soothed by his fascination with a beautiful blonde ingenue. I’m pleased to report that Skull Island contains none of those story beats, and is distinct enough from all the other iterations of the King Kong story to justify its own existence.

But if it isn’t any of those things, then what the hell is Skull Island, exactly? This is a movie about King Kong, isn’t it?

Well . . . sort of. The marketing campaign for the film has strongly evoked the cinematic iconography of the Vietnam War era –Apocalypse Now, in particular – because Skull Island is set in 1973, and features a host of characters who travel to the island with a military escort fresh from Da Nang. One set of characters – John Goodman’s G-man, Bill Randa; Tom Hiddleston’s square-jawed tracker, James Conrad; Brie Larson’s peacenik photojournalist, Mason Weaver; and other perfunctory side players – is interested in uncovering the island’s scientific and anthropological wonders. The other set – Toby Kebbell as family-man soldier Chapman; Jason Mitchell as helicopter pilot Mills; Shea Whigham as the taciturn sergeant Cole; and Samuel L. Jackson as Packard, the warmongering Colonel who leads them – is purely interested in exacting their revenge upon Kong, after their arrival on the island upsets its simian protector and he kills a few of the soldiers. But Packard is driven by a white-hot rage that’s born less of a desire to avenge his fallen men, and more of the humiliation and emasculation he feels at his country’s failure in Vietnam. After the catastrophic arrival sequence, the film’s set-up is clear: half of these people want to blow up the giant ape, and the other half just want to get the hell off the island – because Kong isn’t the only thing out there that’s dangerous.

Kong vs. chopper in Kong: Skull Island.

On paper, the film plays off a fun premise (which chops the most exotic, action-packed parts of the original story and spins out an entire movie from them), but in execution, it’s the very definition of half-baked. Its characters are clearly established but don’t experience any real change. Its plot is simple and predictable to the point of banality. Its attempts at thematic messaging – which are certainly interesting, but are still a far cry from the subtext of the original King Kong material – are half-hearted at best. It painfully wastes the acting talent that occupies its lead roles – Tom Hiddleston’s considerable charms have never been less apparent onscreen – and sidelines its most interesting performances (even from actors in bit roles like Kebbell and Whigham). There are two characters who keep the film afloat (well, three, really, but we’ll get to that): the bloodthirsty Packard, and a WWII pilot named Marlow (John C. Reilly) who crash-lands on the island in the film’s opening sequence. Packard is a character who allows Jackson to flex, and the film is greatly enriched by it; it’s the kind of performance he nearly always brings to boilerplate material, elevating it by suggesting that there’s more going on with a character than is actually on the page. Marlow, by contrast, offers the humanity, pathos, and humour that Packard abjectly lacks, bringing not only some much-needed levity to the proceedings, but a sense of compassion as well. He’s the moral centre of a film that spends its run-time wallowing in ethical mud, and Reilly excels at drawing you in to his goofy, likeable character.

This is one way Skull Island proves that, despite its lapses in narrative execution, its spirit is strong and vibrant. Though it rarely takes the time to engage in character work, it visibly brightens whenever it does. It fumbles its attempts to capitalize on the political commentary native to the kaiju genre, but those attempts are worthy and interesting. In an early scene, Packard blurts to Weaver that the USA didn’t lose the war in Vietnam, they “abandoned it,” making his fervent desire to destroy Kong a strongly characterized motivation that speaks to a national attitude of shame and repression about the conflict. The arrival sequence, in which army helos (blasting rock music, of course) buzz the island, dropping bombs intended to survey its geology, is full of the same violent rah-rah jingoism as the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now – but it ends much more poorly for the American soldiers here. There’s no glory to be found on Skull Island, and the fruits of military conquest are nullified almost immediately when the island’s guardian shows up and furiously swats them all out of the sky. Packard’s ruthless quest against the force of nature that is Kong feels like he’s waging war against nature itself – it’s equally pointless, and equally destructive. This is a film that speaks to the way we create our enemies through our own fear, and how this will destroy us more surely than any external foe. That’s quite a thematic payload to try and wedge into a giant monster movie.

John C. Reilly in Kong: Skull Island.

Speaking of which: the only thing that consistently works, and works like gangbusters, is Kong himself. Terry Notary (late of the Apes franchise) provides the motion capture, and unlike Andy Serkis in Peter Jackson’s version, portrays the big monkey as a wandering sentinel, powerful and dangerous, rather than a vulnerable soul hiding under a fearsome exterior. There’s humanity in his depiction, of course, but it’s downplayed in favour of showing Kong as a fearsome fighting machine – a primitive but extremely effective defense system for the forgotten jewel of nature that is the island. He’s like an extension of the place itself, wild and deadly and awe-inspiring to behold, and he is placed front and centre in most of the film’s action sequences (which are nearly non-stop, meaning that – to my delight – there is a lot of Kong in this King Kong movie). His battles with the island’s reptilian “skullcrawlers,” who emerge from underground after the soldiers’ bombing run, and are up there in the coolest movie monster fights put on film, showcasing his propensity for improvised weaponry, his wrestler-like grappling tactics, and his awesome strength – all on a scale that shakes the cinema with every punch, roar, and chest-pound.

It’s worth noting that the film is a visual feast to boot, with too many gorgeously composed images to count. Some are jaw-dropping in their beauty – like Kong framed in silhouette against a dying sun, with helicopters buzzing around him like flies – and some are shocking in their narrative intent, like the explosions reflected in the aviator sunglasses of a madly grinning GI. It’s a film with a strikingly bold colour palette, that isn’t afraid to use its budget to produce imagery that sticks indelibly in the mind. Kong slurps up giant squid tentacles like spaghetti noodles. Hiddleston strides through a cloud of poison gas wielding a katana. Reilly has a boat made out of salvaged WWII airplane parts, like a madhouse version of The Flight of the Phoenix. Everything Skull Island lacks in story, it makes up for in spectacle – and then some.

In the end, that’s why I can say I really enjoyed the film. It lays the groundwork for a strong narrative that is never fully realized, but at its heart it never intends to be more than a monster movie, and in that purpose it resoundingly succeeds. Stacked alongside its true kin – that is, the countless Toho creature features whose primary draw will always be big nasties punching each other, and not the previous King Kong films – it can only be ranked as one of the very best. This DNA runs deeper than many filmgoers may be aware of, since Legendary Pictures was purchased last year by the Chinese corporate conglomerate Wanda Group – meaning that the planned “MonsterVerse” that will tie this film to Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (and its sequels), resulting in the inevitable clash between the two cinematic titans with Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020, will be filmed exclusively at Wanda’s Oriental Movie Metropolis in Qingdao. Make no mistake: China is already gearing up for its total domination of the global blockbuster film market, and the stomp 'n’ chomp genre that was previously the sole purview of the Japanese film industry will be one of their primary weapons (foreshadowed here in Skull Island by the pathetically transparent inclusion of a Chinese “heroine” character who barely speaks and has zero impact on the film). I just hope fun pictures like Skull Island aren’t completely forgotten in the dust kicked up by this conflict, the way its characters and message are in the wake of all the awesome ape-related destruction going on.

 – Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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