All Hail The King
I get a lot of flak for enjoying Gareth Edward’s Godzilla. Seriously, you’d be surprised how often I have to defend that film. I like that it mirrored the sense of the original (almost to a fault) and stepped away from the campy fights over model villages, restoring Godzilla as an agent of natural equilibrium. I also liked the idea of trying to highlight the desensitisation of people viewing life through screens and illustrating the scale by ensuring things were told from the ground up or with a human element somewhere in the shot. Sure, this didn’t always work but I was mostly pleased with the result. But this is a Kong review, why am I rambling about a Japanese lizard? For the simple fact that the only reason this film exists is to set up a character to be returned later in the franchise. That’s right, if you weren’t aware, this film is technically a prequel to Godzilla. It should also be stated that I love King Kong. Not the various sequels, spin-offs and remakes (although Peter Jackson’s one is pretty brilliant in my opinion) but the 1933 original. It’s an amazing adventure spectacle with a cautionary element about man venturing too far into a world it arrogantly believes it owns. While there are plenty of positive factors in the synopsis, this latest Kong film is, quite frankly, a fucking state.
Following an opening section set during World War II, we jump ahead to the end of the Vietnam War. America is pulling out its forces and Monarch scientists Bill Randa [Goodman] and Houston Brooks [Corey Hawkins] see this as the last opportunity to explore an uncharted island before the Russians get there. Narrowly gaining government approval, Randa enlists a military escort made up of a helicopter crew under the command of Colonel Packard [Jackson], a jungle survival guide in the form of former British military officer James Conrad [Hiddleston] and anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver [Larson] to document the expedition. Upon arrival on the island, the group map out a series of hollow underground passages but are confronted by an impossibly giant ape which proceeds to violently attack the bullet-spitting metal swarm. The survivors regroup and come across a fellow American, Hank Marlow [Reilly], who has been stuck on the island for the last thirty years and fills them on the identity of King Kong and the greater purpose he serves to the island.
Remaining upbeat for a moment, I will admit that moving the setting to a Vietnam War period is a stroke of genius. In that regard we’ve got enough of a technological limitation that would hinder a film set in the present day and exchanges one terrifying jungle of unknown threats for another. Poignant brilliance, love it. As with Godzilla, the score is rife with reminiscent harmonies that are both indicative of 1970s psychedelic guitars and late sixties sci-fi monster movies. I would also say that Henry Jackman’s themes also bear a curious similarity to Jerry Goldsmith’s accompaniment for The Mummy; another fun period action romp. I mean, we’ve still got every Vietnam-related rock tracks going too but we can set that to one side for a second. There’s also a great deal of creative direction and impressive comic book splash-panel imagery but as much as this works to liven up the proceedings it also detracts from the film when trying to come up with a logical narrative reasoning for why we’re seeing what we’re seeing.
The next thing to note is that this is an extraordinary cast, I genuinely don’t think there’s a single actor involved in this film that I don’t respect as an artist; each has produced a range of great roles in other releases and respectively proved themselves in the past. And yet every single one of them feels utterly wasted in this film. We have a combination of the most tropey cliché exchanges and character types of every war film going; from the jaded vet, the cocky chatty guy, the young rookie, the one waiting to get back to his wife and kids, the grizzled commander, everything. And that’s before we even get to the equally archetypal two dimensional scientists who believe the pursuit of discovery outweighs any cost.. or they’re awful cowards. The whole thing has a very Prometheus vibe, wherein these experienced, logical individuals abandon all sense and reason to further the plot – although there is one throwaway line about running sideways away from a falling object, so there’s been some effort to counter arguments there. I’m all for suspension of disbelief and a certain amount of silliness in a big ol’ monster movie but you only get a certain quota before you enter bad writing territory; it’s a very thin Pacific Rim line. In what could be considered the lead roles are Jackson, Hiddleston and Larson who all fulfill certain 1950’s roles but none of them shine or bring any believability beyond the group commander’s desire to win at least one battle and the saving grace that at least the roguish ex-SAS officer and the female anti-war photojournalist didn’t end up a romantic couple.
Twelve years ago, Peter Jackson turned Kong into a sympathetic love story, humanising the beast and embellishing (key word there) the run time to revel in the world as long as possible. Bombastic and touching, King Kong was an interesting standalone. What we have here is a very different creature. In an era of franchise-driven releases, this is merely an introduction to the monster that is Kong via this oddly soulless action/war film. In this regard, it is more a return to form, reviving its b-movie origins with the added concept of the giant ape as a lonely god and protector. Regrettably, the titular monster itself isn’t as pleasing as I would like. Films like Planet Of The Apes, Life Of Pi and The Jungle Book have created some of the most photo-realistic animals ever brought to life and yet I’m looking at Kong and I just don’t buy it. Everything is so obviously CGI and I can’t help but wonder how it’s just not working; it’s not like they lacked the budget, technology or skill. Furthermore, rather than an ecosystem of monsters, each new creature, as impressive as they are individually, boils down to little more than a series of one-shots which have their moment and then disappear. In truth, these are similar to the problems I had with Jurassic World or Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them which rotated an array of moderately realistic looking animals for the purpose of variety without a running thread of common sense. The thing that really irks me is that members of the crew have explained the designs were heavily influenced by anime that I really enjoy and by all rights, I should love these beasts. Arguably there are many interesting qualities to each of them but the lack of cohesion is just painfully annoying.
In all honesty, I started off enjoying Kong: Skull Island and it’s still hard to fault the general synopsis. The setting was great, the Monarch-driven voyage felt like a natural successor to the arrogant filmmaker mindset of shooting a crazy adventure picture and the immediate post-war highs and lows offer a great deal of potential emotional and character development. The execution, however, is shockingly poor: the action is great but the dialogue is god-awful, the sound is brilliant but the writing is abysmal. But you can have a middling film with these kinds of fumbles, the thing that acts as the final nail in the coffin is the sheer futility of the entire film and the favouring of moments over logical scenes. It would seem that almost every death is without weight and holds little meaning, partly for the heavy emphasis on playing up a comedic one-liner before being devoured or crushed underfoot. As such, nothing is achieved in this movie other than to survive and learn arguably nothing. On top of that, we have the growing trend of shots ideal for trailers that don’t gel well with a logical narrative flow. Case in point, there are more helicopters that attack Kong than leave the aircraft carrier. The problem with trying to have a huge amount of action sequences in a remote location is the difficulty of killing off fodder without sacrificing the prominent cast members; the way the film chooses to get around this is to simply add more stuff and hope the audience won’t notice. Which is so remarkably dumb because it’s not like you couldn’t just go back and add more vehicles into the earlier scene! Thus by the time we get to the mass graveyard in the Skullcrawler lizard territory, you realise how many shots are included to look cool rather than serve an actual functional purpose and it the scale of this unsalvageable mess begins to really sink in.
Or alternatively, you shrug it off as a film to be taken at face value, little more than surface level entertainment and enjoy the schlocky madness for what it is. Regrettably, in this instance, I cannot. Hopefully, when Kong is brought back for his skirmish with Godzilla in 2020’s Godzilla vs Kong we’ll have an infinitely stronger script.
10th March 2017
The Scene To Look Out For:
I really couldn’t get on with Brie Larson’s character. As a female war photographer, Mason Weaver is a very interesting individual. Talented, capable and offering a unique outlook on the actions of those simply surviving or following orders and that’s before we even get to any 70’s sexism. Yet none of this is fully explored and she is reduced to a naïve snap-happy caricature. This is probably highlighted best (as is my frustration with things happening for the sake of it) in a scene shortly after the soldiers encounter the island’s native human population. While roaming around documenting the tribe, Weaver steps through a gap in their mighty village wall and sees one of the giant buffalo creatures crushed under a downed helicopter. The scene is used to illustrate that Weaver is a good person (as if that was in question) and that Kong is more than just a wild animal, it is compassionate and just. Only the whole thing is bullshit. First of all, these helicopters, in their vastness, are seemingly everywhere. Of the few that went down, I don’t remember one that limped around before landing on a bovine beast. And even if that were the case, there are no human elements, nor are any mentioned, it’s just a scene that is birthed from an illogical place to further a point. Feeling sorry for the animal, Weaver tries to.. and I’m not kidding here.. lift the helicopter. I genuinely don’t know what to do with that. But all is not lost as Kong appears to remove the chopper and restore the balance before placidly leaving the photographer in peace as he plods back to the jungle. Now, it may sound petty but for the sake of jump-scares and deus ex moments, these impossibly huge monsters have an amazing ability to sneak around when they’re not thundering about. We go from Weaver seeing the downed helicopter, taking a moment to try and help and then suddenly Kong just shows up without announcement. Stuff like that, is what really makes this film dumb as hell.
One thing I haven’t addressed in the bulk of my review is the quantity and source of levity. This predominantly stems from John C. Reilly’s Ben Gunn-esque character, marooned on the island for decades. Some will see him as a touch over-the-top but I thought he offered the right amount of humour and lightheartedness to the proceedings. Admittedly, I feel the choice to kill the other pilot, Gunpei Ikari, was a poor one. The idea of an old married couple dynamic would have been great.
“Camera’s way more dangerous than a gun. And we didn’t lose the war, we abandoned it”
In A Few Words:
“While the concept and action set pieces have a certain quality to them, so many of the key components that would make this film a success simply aren’t present”