Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review: Kong Skull Island (2017)

Bearing in mind that I am the guy who re-watches The Lost World more often than I do the original Jurassic Park, I saw Kong Skull Island over the weekend and got exactly what I expected: a brainless, action-packed good time.

Is the film thin on the ground plot-wise and character development-wise? Yes, quite.

Are the only characters who can be said to have any personality or character arc Samuel L. Jackson's Packard and John C. Reilly's Marlow? Yes.

Indeed, Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty is correct to note that "there are about a half dozen too many characters to keep track of once the film gets underway." True -- I remember almost none of them except the two already mentioned plus John Goodman's Randa. Most egregiously, superb actors Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are especially underused here -- they get barely any lines and are mainly around to pose attractively in the foreground of tableaux shots.

As David Palmer writes in his negative review,
If ever there was a blockbuster that was the definition of "studio picture" it’s this. Everything feels been there/done that, and even the scenes where Kong is Gronk-spiking helicopters manage to feel lifeless and almost completely devoid of joy. Slow-mo is overused to the point of eye-rolling and [director Jordan] Vogt-Roberts doesn’t seem to give any character direction to his actors.
I agree with all this and yet, unlike Palmer, I thoroughly enjoyed Kong Skull Island. I knew what I was in for and had no expectation that the film would be anything more than what it is: a big, dumb, action movie in which a giant gorilla beats hell out of a bunch of stuff. Nashawaty calls Skull Island "a big, loud, and kinda silly monster mash that feels like a throwback to the late-‘90s Bruckheimer era of gung-ho, budgets-be-damned macho adventure" and I agree.

Skull Island's soundtrack is riddled with hackneyed, over-used Vietnam-era classic rock tracks: The Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today," Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," and of course CCR's "Run Through the Jungle." As Nashawaty remarks, the film's song choices evince "lack of care" and "have as much imagination as a Time-Life Songs of the ‘70s set." I found these choices annoying.

Yet the movie's weirdest musical choice -- which constitutes my single biggest complaint about Kong: Skull Island overall -- is its use of Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again" right near the end. That song forever belongs to the apocalyptic montage at the end of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964). To use it in any other movie -- especially as used here, as a straight-faced piece of WWII nostalgia -- ends up feeling macabre and off-putting due to that unavoidable intertextual reference. These filmmakers should have known better.*

My other big problem with Skull Island is its bald-faced Orientalism in portraying the native tribe with whom Reilly's Marlow coexists. Between Marlow's Heart of Darkness-evoking surname and the decision to have the natives never speak -- they just silently nod and gesture throughout -- the filmmakers obviously mean to signal that they are "in on the joke," that they are re-hashing these racist, imperialist tropes knowingly, with a nudge and a wink. Yet the tropes are still damaging, and the film's racist, one-dimensional depiction of the 1970s Skull Islanders is distractingly offensive. They could have been done so differently.

In conclusion, I do not know if I will ever watch Kong Skull Island again, but there is a vastly greater chance of that happening than me ever watching Peter Jackson's overlong, draggy, bombastic, and boring King Kong remake again (believe me, I've tried). The difference lies in aspiration, not execution. Both 2005's Kong and 2017's Skull Island are well-executed blockbusters. But the 2005 film is trying too hard to be an "epic," serious homage to the 1933 original, so despite its great casting and better script, it is, for the most part, slow-paced and mind-numbingly boring.

Skull Island, in contrast, wastes no time getting to the island and the Kong fight scenes, so is a much more worthwhile investment of my time and entertainment dollar. I recommend it for what it is: blockbuster thrills held together with a stupid plot and flat characters -- but with the common decency not to pretend to be otherwise. Its honesty in this regard, which reminds me of Pacific Rim (2013), is refreshing.  

King Kong sez: "Eat my shorts, Peter Jackson."

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* Unless, of course, they were misguidedly trying to "steal the song back" from Kubrick on purpose, a hubristic and futile attempt which utterly backfires. How can anyone who has ever seen Strangelove forget that sequence and song?

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