Movie review: “Kong: Skull Island” (2017)

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“You heard of the U.S.S. Lautmann? Neither did the public. Out of a thousand young men on that ship, I was the only survivor. They told my family she was sunk in battle, but I know what I saw. It had no conscience. No reasoning. It just…destroyed. I’ve spent the last thirty years trying to prove the truth of what I learned that day. This planet doesn’t belong to us.”

King Kong’s rugged origins as oversized simian emperor of the lush, forbidding, prehistoric death trap Skull Island constitute an archetypal adventure story that has rarely ever shared the screen to the degree it deserved, despite being a prominent aspect of almost all the big ape’s previous cinematic incarnations. It’s a straightforward though hydra-headed equation that can set forth with confidence in most any direction a fairly competent, fairly ambitious director might choose: Man against monster; monster against monster; man against the unknown; monster against monsters (squee!); man against the elements; man against nature (however unfairly extra-natural the island’s odds often seem); even man against man, assuming it doesn’t slow things up too much. Unsolicited but hardly unwelcome, the most recent movie iteration, the visceral, explosive, head-spinning Kong: Skull Island, chooses all of the above to almost uniformly thrilling effect, and seeks to rectify past inequities by banishing any thought of the vast attendant wealth and fame that could admittedly be garnered by parading an enslaved giant gorilla before the horrified but fascinated metropolitan throngs in favor of the pressing, prolonged, intensely personal matter of somehow escaping its onslaught alive…not even to Manhattan, necessarily, but to anywhere. Hell, a plank of wood floating in the ocean would do, though since it turns out that the very act of departing this tropical abattoir would likely be sufficient to kill you, Kong or no, maybe try to think carefully in addition to quickly.

kong skull posterA thousand times, yes; a thousand times, this. Skull Island is both how you render King Kong on film, and how you treat him…as a monster. A cunning creature to be sure, with something deeper almost certainly lurking behind his unforgiving eyes, but, first and foremost, he is, a formidable, terrifying, seemingly merciless monster. Self-styled “monster movies” started inexplicably getting this characterization wrong at just about the moment Hollywood began routinely trying to fashion them into summer blockbusters, wresting creative control from Japan’s Toho Productions – home of Kong’s occasional dance partner and only true contemporary, Godzilla, plus all his lovably weaponized, rubber-suited friends – and using their newfound license in inevitably ill-fated attempts to either make the movies somehow deeper or the destruction more palatable to a presumably delicate audience.* The former approach produced frustrating misfires like 2014’s Gareth Edwards-directed Godzilla, which got the carnage and scale mostly right but overinvested in its human stars, and last year’s Toho throwback Shin-Godzilla, which began as a sly satire of runaway bureaucratic inefficiency but quickly became as moribund and actively uninteresting as its namesake, an ostensibly earth-shaking lizard that might as well have been a thirty-story cardboard standee for all the credible threat it posed. The latter brought us stargazing, soap-operatic schmaltz like the 1976 Jeff Bridges/Jessica Lange version of King Kong, and Roland Emmerich’s garish, aggressively stupid 1998 Godzilla reboot, which devoted its final third to a blatant, highly specific Jurassic Park rip-off instead of trusting its audience or source material.

*The 2005 version of “King Kong”, Peter Jackson’s bloated but meticulous, imperfect but consistently engrossing labor of love, remains the best synthesis of the two approaches despite its own excess baggage, owing in equal parts to Jackson’s mastery of material he’d adored since childhood and to the simple majesty that undergirds the Kong legend. “Skull Island” largely eschews Kong’s famous love story in a smart executive decision, not because it doesn’t resonate, but because, here, it’s plainly unnecessary. One wonders if Jackson, who never met an edit he couldn’t extend, would’ve beaten this film to the punch if in 2005 he’d followed the now-obvious path of completely separating Kong’s jungle escapades from his fateful trip to New York.

A titanic, impossibly powerful beast lays awe-inspiring waste to its naturally or architecturally impressive surroundings, fighting other juggernauts in the process as, below, human bystanders scurry like roaches in doomed attempts to flee the devastation. The end, pretty much. Why has this become a difficult concept for Hollywood to master? Why do monster-mashing filmmakers continually overthink themselves into inextricable corners? Though 1933’s King Kong is about as universally beloved as movies get, it’s a decade past its platinum jubilee, and no one ever confused the original Toho monster vehicles – remember Raymond Burr as the inert American journalist, gravely narrating Gojira’s 1958 exploits from the dubious safety of a neighboring Tokyo high rise? – with sophisticated melodrama They simply were what they were. So, thankfully, is Kong: Skull Island, a vicious, exhilarating “magic bullet” of a movie that, intentionally or not, somehow hits target after elusive target – getting the physicality, psychology, and mortal interaction of a menagerie of monsters, plus their human hors d’oeuvres, precisely right – despite following a stubbornly linear trajectory. John Goodman leads the engaging, overqualified cast as a shadowy lobbyist for an even more secretive scientific concern, rattling appropriations cages on Capitol Hill in an attempt to convince a skeptical, bone-weary senator (Richard Jenkins, perfectly cast) of Skull Island’s existence and potential windfall for well-positioned exploiters. The mission gains a tepid green light, and to Goodman’s shabby cadre of scientists is added a detachment of soldiers returning home from Vietnam, plus Brie Larson, doing more than the role of “plucky photojournalist” requires, and Tom Hiddleston, as a low-rent Indiana Jones-type whose initiative doesn’t always square with his near-mythic reputation.

Skull Island is set in the conspicuous, dramatically convenient year of 1973 for multiple reasons: 1) so that Cold War paranoia can inform grudging governmental approval for this potentially suicidal, off-books expedition to an ominous, forbidding, uncharted isle; 2) so that, once things inevitably go sideways, our intrepid explorers will be without modern means to combat foes so far beyond either their experience or capacity to realistically engage; and 3) so that, as has been custom in jungle-based war movies since Apocalypse Now, some joker can hook up a loudspeaker to a record player and provide peers and viewers alike with a seriously choice soundtrack – Bowie, Sabbath, a hilariously on-the-nose CCR doing “Run Through the Jungle” – of “contemporary” hits. The army escort, led by Samuel L. Jackson, who plays effectively against expectations right up to the perhaps inevitable moment that actor finally overwhelms character, is fairly substantial for a mere geological survey, simultaneously indicative of how perilous the mission’s backers perceive it to be and the filmmakers’ logistical need for heaping helpings of screaming vittles to shovel down the gullets of local wildlife. As the helicopter fleet fights its way through the thick, roiling, perpetual storm column that envelops the island and then bears down on some truly remarkable sprawling rock faces and greenery, dropping ill-advised ordinance in an effort to flush out disgruntled fauna, the prevailing mood is one of triumph and jubilation. We share it. Spoiler alert: It won’t last until the end of the song.

The first generation to grow up exclusively playing sophisticated first-person shooter video games – complex, disorienting, immersive, hair-raising affairs where there is no avatar to follow and the widescreen camera represents the player’s entire field of vision – has apparently graduated to filmmaking, and it shows. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts applies cinematic depth to Xbox One logic and emerges with an unlikely, near-seamless, alchemic blend of the two styles, which so often pollute if not poison one another otherwise, even in trace amounts, in far less committed (or humid) laboratory environments. Once the aura of danger has been established, in a breathless and shattering extended assault after the team’s initial bombing campaign turns out to have worked a little too well, it is unchecked, unreasonable, and omnipresent, laying as heavy on the viewer as the lead bib worn during dental x-rays, and staying there. Skull Island is a picture postcard, a sort of wild Hawaii on steroids, that, at absolutely any moment and free of provocation, can spring to life and instantly end you.** Standing astride it like a colossus is the titular Kong, who grabs helicopters by the thrumming tail and shakes them and their contents like a child’s snow-globe before casually flinging them into a craggy hillside. Kong’s sudden impact introduction is one of the most thrillingly visceral recent film experiences I can recall, and it sets a pulverizing, ultra-confrontational tone, working a frequency plugged directly into the cackling fifteen-year-old in all of us, that the movie follows to the bitter end.

**This axiom is proven by my single favorite sequence in the movie, which I will describe sparingly in an attempt to preserve the surprise, except to say it doesn’t feature Kong but rather, another gargantuan…something. What it also features, since confirmed by Vogt-Roberts, is a spectacular tip of the cap to notorious horror shocker “Cannibal Holocaust” that, among many other crisp, amazingly brutal individual moments, makes “Skull Island” perhaps the single hardest PG-13 in memory, and definitely among the most inventive. If James Cameron has to keep watching movies like this and inevitably adapting to them, the already long-delayed red carpet premiere of “Avatar 2” will take place at his retirement home.

Against all odds, against a fiercely beautiful backdrop that should by rights swallow them whole, and occasionally does, the humans make both a solid impression and a worthwhile contribution. The central question that emerges among them over the nature of Kong is between Jackson’s reasonable but calculating military man, who “knows an enemy when I see one,” and Larson’s stubborn, empathetic photojock, who refuses to take the ape at face value despite ample, admittedly compelling evidence to the contrary. Kong’s eruption leaves the party scattered like crash site debris over countless miles of treacherous terrain, and forces them into a race against time and bloodthirsty Skull Islanders of multiple exotic species to rendezvous with an emergency evacuation airlift. Along the way, they encounter John C. Reilly, as a WWII vet marooned since crashing on the island almost thirty years earlier. Reilly, always dependable as a comedic foil, here also displays unexpected dramatic chops as a combination pithy tour guide, eager best pal, and eccentric doomsayer, bridging the gap between Larson and Jackson’s conflicting steely resolve whilst Goodman unfurls understated monologues that put the mission in increasingly grim context and Hiddleston largely coasts by on his star power. The film loses some momentum during its extended build-up to the climactic battles, but those battles, like every action set piece before them, still deliver mightily. Kong: Skull Island is the blueprint to which all future monster movies should adhere, focused, fantastical, and furious, full of interesting details and dynamic direction, resonant human perils and performances and moments of astonishing execution (in both the technical and mortal senses of the word), subordinated at all times to the elemental, undeniable pleasures of watching giant behemoths battle one another. I came in with, at best, muted expectations, and it absolutely floored me.

“Kong: Skull Island” (2017) 3.5/4 stars                                                                                    dae3.5

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