Monday, 13 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2016, USA

Over Christmas, I watched ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ which I hadn’t seen in a while: of course, I came for the Harryhausen creations but then it became evident to me that actually the script and the acting were a bit … lacking. Indeed, my Christmassy family left the room and I could hear them grumbling about “bad acting” in the other room. And I thought: maybe it’s always been this way with monster blockbusters, that the monster stuff is good but the scripts and acting are crap.

And ‘Kong: Skull Island’ is no exception. 

To the good: Kong himself is a frequently exceptional special effect. CGI has come a long way and it’s not unusual, with the right amount of cash and an army of multiple effects crews, to get realistic monsters that can stand up to lingering close-ups. Of course, we could be blasé now that we’re used to such amazing spectacles as the recent Planet of the Apes’ films, but I could  only dream of such photo-realistic monsters as a kid. Some have bemoaned that Kong is shown too early but I would say around the first three Kong reveals are good and thrilling. I had no issue with this, although it did imply a rush to the money shot for fear that the audience wouldn't have any patience. There is enough believable heft to these digital monsters that it’s all quite convincing. Yes, monsters yelling and/or plunging into the camera gets a little tedious, but the fights are decently orchestrated, paced and considered – including Kong battling a giant squid (??) – so it’s all good. That’s what you came for, after all.

But oh the script is woeful - by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly. And that’s when you start to notice all that’s wrong. There are many big names in the cast but this means very little when the material they work with is so poor. I mean, why are good actors even necessary here? Only John C. Reilly really comes to life with what he’s given because he’s the comic relief and has more to work with. But even then, he’s the Comic Relief, because that’s what this kind of thing always has. He’s with the natives, but the natives literally have no voice so it’s America all the way (…okay, except for Hiddleston).

Tom Hiddleston is the ex-army Brit whose introduction speaks to how the script seems to be mostly more just ticking boxes than really trying: John Goodman and Houston Brooks are looking for someone to lead their expedition into an uncharted island so they walk into a bar where Hiddleston is playing pool; he has some kind of disagreement and dispatches his opponents with a couple of violent super-moves and Goodman decides that he’s their man – all this in about a minute. He goes on to warn them that the island will be full of diseases, etc. – but seems to forget this major problem as soon as they land. He’s happy to T-shirt the adventure. But it’s okay: the film forgets too, even though it went to the effort of mentioning it. ... and anyway, just because he's good in a barroom fight, why would they assume he'd be ideal for an expedition on a unknown island? Oh, he is though, so that's okay.

Brie Larson is The Female, an anti-war photographer disapproving of male warmongering as females are wont to do, tilting her chin upwards all the time to denote integrity. But she does get to do some action stuff.

And Samuel Jackson is at his most annoying, fronting the troupe of wisecracking military yahoos. Hey, they die and they never made an impression anyway so we don’t have to care. Jackson is meant to look tough, but he looks equally bored. His character is meant to represent the bad side of the American military “Always Win: Kill Kill Kill!” mindset, and there’s lot of allusions to Vietnam, but these are meagre shadings. Perhaps it’s just Jackson’s character that is irritating.

And why in these things do they seem to think rifles can bring down monolithic monsters? But it’s okay if you have endless ammo, I guess.

And for an island full of gigantitude, shouldn’t the natural surroundings show a little more wear and tear? I mean, we see Kong leaping from peak to peak and causing major damage to the island. And do we really need fantasy monsters as opponents when anything else real could be made big? And this isn’t even getting into how Kong Is A Good Guy And Defender Of Humans rather than a naturally morally neutral, fearsome beast. 

You saw the ‘Kong: Skull Island’ trailer, yes? Well that’s Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ aesthetic: the editing seems to have been learnt from trailers, commercials and actions stills from posters. It’s relentless. Gliding shots over everything – not only over the island, which is understandable, but over a pool table, for example – which means the film is in a constant state of “Awesome!” which only diminishes the genuinely notable and remarkable shots, for example the vista of Kong against the sun and the cast hiding out in a giant skull to name just two (we don’t need a sweeping trick-shot through the native city to see how remarkable it is). Now, I’m all for camera trickery and conceits – I give ‘Hardcore Henry’ a pass for this – but here’s it’s in equal measure intrusive as inspired; it’s like the film doesn’t trust the quieter moments in case we notice how insufficient they are and thinks technical bombast will distract. Mark Kermode thinks the pacing is decent and that the direction has some distinction: I disagree. The monster fights are edited with coherence and focus; my problem seems to be that much else is directed as if a box-of-tricks has been dumped all over it, which I always think reeks of desperation.

And the jukebox soundtrack just seems by rote – by the time Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’ (sheesh, again?!) is followed by Bowie, I was just rolling my eyes. This just feels emblematic of how cynically packaged the whole enterprise felt (“Hey, people, we know from ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ that you like Seventies soundtracks, right? Buy this one!”). It’s gets so that just the opening riffs of songs can be heard to set a tone and that’s it.

So, yeah, come for the monsters. I am reminded that this is the way with blockbusters but I should be the ideal audience for this – I am a sucker for giant monsters and, sure, there are some great shots – but when so much else aggravates, I am left gravely disappointed. Perhaps this has always been the way with such features, even as far back as Harryhausen, but for all its flaws I didn’t feel the cynicism in that; I didn’t even quite feel it in ‘Godzilla’ or ‘Warcraft’ (for all of their failures, they did feel as if they were trying for something individual), but I felt it here. Yeah, I'm nitpicking and I know it's meant to be fun, but it seemed to be so by rote and cynical that I couldn't find it to be so. I don’t demand much, nothing remarkable, not really, honestly: just a reasonable script with my monsters.

And oh yeah, the post-credits teaser for a franchise is crap too.

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