Saturday, October 16, 2021

Going Ape

I must have been in a bad mood when I saw Kong: Skull Island (2017, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts) when it was in theaters because I didn't like it very much at the time. I remember grousing about the distinct lack of dinosaurs in the film, and that's a rule I apply to any King Kong movie. There must be dinosaurs. It's one of the reasons I dislike the 1976 De Laurentis Kong so intensely. No dinosaurs. None. All we got was a giant snake and I think Carlo Rambaldi may have re-used that snake for Conan the Barbarian. Don't quote me on that. For what it's worth, the lack of dinosaurs is by no means the only reason I dislike that film. In any event, Kong: Skull Island at least has the courtesy to replace the dinosaurs with monsters, so that's some consolation. I probably let my prejudices blind me to the very real virtues the film surely does possess. Of the Monsterverse films, this is the one with the best cast of human actors, and it does the most with them. It also has an antic sense of metacinema that crops up in unexpected places. None of this should be dismissed just because I don't get my fill of ape on dino mayhem. It's not a bad film by any stretch. As corporate franchise product, it could be a lot worse.

The story is set at the tail end of the Vietnam war as the American army is pulling out of the country. The entire basis for the post-Vietnam economy is about to shift, threatening the funding of Monarch, a small project tasked with keeping tabs on monstrous anomalies. The senator overseeing Monarch thinks the project is a waste of money, given that Monarch has produced no evidence of monsters since its founding, only rumors and conspiracy theories. However, a satellite has spotted an uncharted island in the south seas that seems to be at the center of a perpetual storm system. The head of Monarch, Bill Randa, convinces the senator that if they don't explore this island, the Russians will, and receives reluctant permission to mount an expedition. Randa also requests a military escort, and gets the men under Colonel Preston Packard, who are none to happy to have been hijacked for the mission on the eve of their homecoming. The final member of his team is British ex-special forces tracker James Conrad, though he also picks up anti-war photographer Mason Weaver in the bargain, much to Packard's chagrin upon discovering that Weaver is a woman. Once in Skull Island's waters, Randa, Packard, and company mount a fleet of helicopters to fly through the storms surrounding the island. Once over the island, they begin dropping seismic charges to probe the island's geology. This attracts the attention of the island's "king" who begins swatting the helicopters out of the sky. On the ground, the expedition is scattered. Conrad and Weaver and their escort find their way to a native village where they find a WW II pilot who has been stranded on the island for decades. He tells them that Kong, the king of the island, is a benevolent king. The seismic charges, however, threaten to wake something far far worse than the island's surface inhabitants. Meanwhile, Packard wants a blood price from Kong for the deaths of so many of his men...

According to its production notes, the main cast members of Kong: Skull Island joined the film at the mention of the name "King Kong." There is a sense, absent in the 2014 version of Godzilla that kicked off this series, that the actors actually want to be in the film. They play actual characters with comprehensible motives, and give the film a wink and a nod in their performances. The director, a veteran of comedy both online and on television, indulges them. Randa, played with avuncular good humor by John Goodman, wears a get-up modeled on Carl Denham in the 1933 film. Toby Kebbell, who has mo-cap performances as apes under his belt, gets to look up at Kong and ask "is that a monkey?" John C. Reilly seems to have improvised most of his lines at the director's indulgence. The film's best meta-cinematic joke is when Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and Weaver (Brie Larson) first meet the island's natives. The first native we see through Weaver's viewfinder is Brie Larson herself under a ton of make-up. She ends up holding herself at spearpoint, which seems like it has a deeper meaning given that Kebbell is staring at himself as Kong. A veiled reference to The Secret Sharer, maybe? Somehow I doubt it. The film doesn't have a philosophical underpinning regardless of its borrowings from Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. Instead, it provides an antic sense of fun. This is probably more than anyone should have expected from a movie whose primary job is franchise-building.

It might go without saying that this is a state of the art blockbuster with great special effects if that weren't faint praise in this day and age. For the amount of money poured on these kinds of films it ought to look good. This is a benchmark that a lot of films fail, so when I say that this film is handsome, I'm being genunine. This movie looks good. It's well-directed. It's chaotic when it needs to be (the first encounter with Kong is shot in fragments before revealing the whole shebang) and clear when it matters. It even has time for lyricism, which is an unlooked-for pleasure in a day and age when audiences are focused only on plot. The big water buffalo monster serves no story purpose whatsoever; it's included purely out of a sense of style. I remember not liking the design of the skullcrawler monsters that are Kong's principal nemesis in this film, and I still don't really think they work, but I understand what they were after with them. They're a callback to the scene in the 1933 original where Kong rolls a bunch of the Venture's crew off a log bridge and Bruce Cabot ends up nearly eaten by a two-legged lizard that crawls up out of the abyss. That lizard, presumably, was a skullcrawler.

The human cast of most of monster movies of this ilk are rarely compelling for the audience, so the fact that this film doesn't seem to be marking time between monster scenes when it focuses on its humans is a minor accomplishment. Both Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston bring movie-star charisma to the film in a way that, say, Aaron Taylor-Johnson did not in the 2014 Godzilla. Samuel Jackson does a terrific version of Ahab in his subplot. Even the minor characters are played by the likes of Shea Whigham and Toby Kebbell, who are both "that guy!" actors for the present moment.

Kong: Skull Island does something that Peter Jackson's King Kong from 2005 failed at, too. One of the things the Jackson film set out to do was deconstruct the inherent racism of the 1933 film, particularly in regards to the Skull Island natives. In that film, Jackson restages the ceremonial Kong dance from the original as a racist recreation of island life ahead of Kong's unveiling on Broadway. He even scored it with Max Steiner's music from 1933. Which is all well and good, but Jackson's version of the actual natives is just as racist, being figures from horror movies--specifically calling Italian cannibal movies to mind or indeed Heart of Darkness, which one of Jackson's sailors is shown to be reading. This film will have none of that. This film's natives are shown to have a high degree of culture and self-determination, even if they worship Kong as a god. This subverts the film's journey into the interior, and instead of a journey into the raging id of colonialism, it's a journey into, I dunno, enlightenment maybe? It's clear from the outset that colonialism is only good for (futile) wars. It's not an accident that this is set near the end of the Vietnam war, and this film's engagement with Skull Island is equally disastrous. This film also revises Kong's relationship to blond women. Brie Larson is in the natural fit for a date with the big ape a la Fay Wray, but the film refuses. True, Larson is the Smurfette in a boy's adventure, and she does get one scene in the palm of King Kong, but she doesn't play any of the usual roles in that narrative framing. She's not a damsel, she's not a love interest, she's not a chip to be traded around by antagonists. Her encounter with Kong is as an ally in battle, not as a prize or a love object. Like the other characters, she's a professional doing her job, though the film goes out of its way to emphasize that her job is at odds with the jobs of every other character in the film.

A paying audience doesn't care about all of that, though. This is a film that's about monster mayhem, and at monster mayhem it excels. The initial battle between Kong and the helicopters is viscerally thrilling and is sweet vindication for a creature that has a history with mechanized airborne assailants. Kong fighting a giant cephalopod monster and then eating it is pretty good, too. And Kong vs. the Skullcrawlers is good enough. So it provides what is required. It stomps things real good and makes us care what happens to the human characters. That little extra is just gravy.

Christianne Benedict on Patreon
This blog is supported on Patreon by wonderful subscribers. If you like what I do, please consider pledging your own support. It means the world to me.

No comments: