Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Cool Kong, bro

On the world's most obvious soundtrack, the empty use of Vietnam iconography, and the inability to turn prestige actors and legendary monsters into memorable characters

Kong: Skull Island
Warner Bros.
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenplay: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John C. Reilly, Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell, John Ortiz, Toby Kebbell, Jing Tian and Terry Notary
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 58 minutes / 2.35:1
March 10, 2017
(out of four)

Jordan Vogt-Roberts with the deep cuts!

Is a phrase you will never hear spoken about the director of Kong: Skull Island.

In fashioning his King Kong movie as a Vietnam-era pseudo-war movie, Vogt-Roberts decided to evoke the period with a soundtrack that might as well have been lifted from a compilation album sold on late-night television called Now That's What I Call 'Nam! Just imagine the song titles scrolling up your screen: White Rabbit! ...... We Gotta Get Out of This Place! ...... Bad Moon Rising! ...... Time Has Come Today! ......

And lest you think there's been some mistake, don't worry: He of course did not forget Run Through the Jungle. (Y'know, because they're in the jungle.) (Like in Vietnam!) If I have to give him credit for any restraint, I'll say at least he resisted the temptation to throw in The Doors' The End or Edwin Starr's version of War. (Or, perhaps equally likely, he just couldn't get the rights to those two.) In any case, his Sounds of the Tumultuous Early 1970s can't help but fall on ... well, on ears that have heard all of the same movie soundtracks Jordan Vogt-Roberts has heard. It's almost hard to believe those ears as it's happening - hard to believe you're watching a movie with such massive resources and so little imagination for something as fundamental as its music. A good song choice can define a moment - or the song itself, or even a movie as a whole. I cannot imagine the motivation behind using only the most obvious of choices. You get the feeling Vogt-Roberts is the type of director who'd introduce a villain with Sympathy for the Devil, or cut to a scene in London with London Calling and a shot of Big Ben, or use We Are the Champions in the triumphant climax of a sports movie, and whose only classical music references would be Beethoven's 5th and 9th Symphonies.

Those cues are both too general and too specific. Too specific to other movies that have depicted the same era or distinctly similar material, but too general in their usage to qualify as effective tribute. So goes the film itself, which occupies an awkward middle ground between authenticity and homage. To be clear: that middle ground is the worst place to be. At least homage knows why it's doing what it's doing. To say nothing of the filmmakers who take blatant influences and references - Quentin Tarantino first comes to mind - and use them as a springboard into something idiosyncratically personal. But Skull Island is just hollowly aping Apocalypse Now (and other 'Nam movies), drawing attention to its influences while not taking them anywhere else. This isn't mimicry but a loose facsimile, based on a vague notion of the kind of movie it thinks it wants to be. Or ... a kind of movie it thinks it ... might as well be?

I mean, that's the thing. The movie looks terrific; cinematographer Larry Fong traps a lot of heat in his thickly saturated greens and red-browns - or in one case a smoky yellow haze that nicely corners its characters amid the oversized skeletons of a surreal monster graveyard. And the filmmakers take real advantage of the size and scope of what surrounds everyone on this island, from the ground to the sky. But Vogt-Roberts doesn't seem to have any connection to this material - or at least he fails to get any such connection across. He's a dude with a good eye who likes coming up with cool shots, but his movie does not possess a point-of-view to speak of. It's hard not to appreciate how much crisper and more composed this film's images - regardless of their indebtedness to Apocalypse Now or anything else - are, compared to so many tentpole contemporaries. And yet it's equally difficult to sink your teeth into the film itself.

That disconnect can be traced right back to the film's principal idea. The Vietnam stuff is mostly just set dressing. Theoretically, it sets the political climate; practically, it's a convenient place for the film to nest itself, as if it will absorb its desired sense of gravitas by osmosis. Skull Island is a two-hour photobomb. An attempt at depth by association. Its chosen historical era doesn't denote any real significance here, no matter how much those cutaways to the helicopter dashboard bobblehead of Tricky Dick want us to believe otherwise.

The film's attempt at a conscience is embodied by Oscar winner Brie Larson. Her character, Mason Weaver, is an anti-war photographer, inasmuch as she states, "I am an anti-war photographer." The character is bestowed a political point of view, yet she is never given any real opportunity to speak her mind, political or otherwise. Mason is along for what she expects to be a top-secret military mission (which, if she thought about her own theory for more than a second, would be impossible, given that the military is personally escorting her and her camera equipment, something they certainly would not do if intending to do anything, y'know, top-secret), but which is in fact a research operation on a remote island where Bill Randa (John Goodman) believes (correctly, as it turns out) ancient monsters are lying in wait. As far as Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) is concerned, it's just another ho-hum operation - one he's more than thankful to be sent on, being restless and dissatisfied in non-combat environments - until it gets personal when the 100-foot ape shows up, slaps a few helicopters out of the sky and takes a few of Preston's soldiers down with him.

This, at least, gives Preston some sort of angle - and Jackson paints a picture of a man fiercely loyal and singlemindedly committed to a mission, even if it's a manufactured one driven by his own addiction to combat more than anything else. That same purpose cannot be said of all the film's characters - or many at all. The captivating qualities of Jackson and Goodman as performers are more than enough to fill in any essence that might be missing from the script. (To say nothing of low-key MVP Shea Whigham, who, as usual, does great yeoman's work as a seasoned and unflappable member of Packard's squadron.) But they can only do so much to distract from the relative uselessness of Mason Weaver - and the absolute uselessness of James Conrad* (Tom Hiddleston), the British ex-pat turned professional tracker who is hired to essentially lead the expedition despite having no familiarity with this particular island. Even if we write that off, Conrad is a poorly conceived character and, more to the point, terribly miscast. He's grizzled, rugged, physically indefatigable; he's flippant and rude and has that cock-eyed arrogance movie heroines are meant to find so exasperatingly attractive. This is a Clark Gable role. For all of Hiddleston's virtues as an actor, this is really not his lane. And the connection the film tries to force between him and Mason goes nowhere. There's a stubborn insistence that these two are the most important characters, when in fact they're the two with the least individual purpose, the least narrative relevance, and the least utility to the situation at hand. (Everyone else is either a soldier or practically a native - namely John C. Reilly's Hank Marlow**, a WWII fighter pilot who's been stuck on Skull Island for three decades.)

* Oh, we see your Heart of Darkness reference, Jordan. It's very clever.

** Oh, we see your other Heart of Darkness reference, Jordan. It's very clever.

With the threat of death via giant monster hanging in the air, a war photographer and an ill-prepared, out-of-his-element tracker seem woefully superfluous. They are, simply, the young pretty white people; in blockbuster logic, that means they are the de-facto romantic/heroic leads even when the movie in question has little use for them. (I suppose I might feel somewhat differently if it were Gable instead of Hiddleston; he, at least, could evoke rugged heroism even with a half-written character.)

Meanwhile, Kong himself - who, we discover, is the long-time protector and de-facto god of this island - is not really a character at all. I suppose that's one way to do a monster movie. But after Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis turned him into one of the most emotionally vivid misunderstood heroes in contemporary cinema, seeing him just smash and punch things - as stellar as the effects work is - can't help but come off as a step backward.

Then again, "forward" and "backward" don't really matter here, do they. Kong: Skull Island exists not because anyone was creatively propelled to make it, but because there is a machine to be built. An extended universe of movie monsters tying into Godzilla and who knows what other properties down the road. This is a lateral step among lateral steps. It was made because it was there to be made, and Jordan Vogt-Roberts happened to be around to make it - not, we might infer, because he had any particular interest in Kong but because he sought an elaborate way to inform people that he has indeed seen the motion picture Apocalypse Now. This is a "well-made" movie that reveals the too-frequent emptiness of well-made movies.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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