2017, 3-D, Action Movies, All-Star Casts, Animals Attack, Apes!, Based on Classic Films, CGI Monsters, Cinema Knife Fights, Creature Features, Giant Insects, Giant Monsters, Giant Spiders, Monster Movies, Monsters, SPIDERS! 0
CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT:
KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)
By Michael Arruda & L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: Skull Island. MICHAEL ARRUDA & L.L. SOARES make their way through a vast green forest, with huge mountains in the background, in a setting that looks eerily similar to the islands of Hawaii. They stumble into a clearing to find a T-REX, BRONTOSAURUS, STEGOSAURUS, and other assorted dinosaurs assembled in a protest march, holding signs which read “Dinosaurs, yes!” “Not MY Kong!” and “WE live on Skull Island, too!”)
L.L. SOARES: What are they so upset about?
MICHAEL ARRUDA: My guess is they’re up in arms about there not being any traditional dinosaurs featured in the new King Kong movie, KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017), which just so happens to be the movie we’re reviewing today.
LS: Yes, it is. Shall we get right to it?
KONG: SKULL ISLAND is a new King Kong movie, produced by the same folks who made GODZILLA (2014)—the one with Bryan Cranston. As such, it’s not a sequel to Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005), but as most everyone knows by now, a new story to set up a future King Kong vs. Godzilla bash which is scheduled for release in 2020, which is why Kong has been taking steroids. Yup, in this movie, Kong is huge! Whereas in the Peter Jackson movie, Kong stood at 25 feet tall, here in KONG: SKULL ISLAND Mr. Kong stands at a towering 104 feet tall. The 25 feet tall is comparable to Kong’s height in the original 1933 film, and the tallest Kong appeared in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) where he stood at 147 feet.
LS: What’s with all the measurements? You going around with a measuring tape, comparing these Kongs?
MA: You know what they say. Size matters.
For reasons I’m not sure I understand, KONG: SKULL ISLAND takes place in 1973, just as the Vietnam War comes to a close. Scientist and adventurer Bill Randa (John Goodman) asks for and receives—why? —federal funding to lead an expedition to an uncharted island in the Pacific in search of giant monsters. He also asks for and receives a military escort, led by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s still smarting over the way the Vietnam War ended, for as Packard says, “We didn’t lose the war. We abandoned it.”
LS: I didn’t have a problem with the time period. We’re told that it’s when satellites were first viewing the earth, and the island was hidden until then. It kind of makes sense. I guess. And I always like John Goodman, so his appearance early on was a good sign. Too bad the movie doesn’t do much with him.
MA: Also going along for the journey are professional tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and war photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), as well as various other military folks and scientists who are just as under-developed as these main characters.
LS: I think Hiddleston and Larson were just in the movie to stand around and look good, because they have the character development of Barbie and Ken dolls. There’s a scene early on, where the two of them are in the lower deck of the ship going to Skull Island, and their conversation is so dull and inane, I almost zoned out. Who are these characters? They don’t seem human.
MA: When they get to Skull Island, it doesn’t take them long to encounter Kong who quickly makes short work of them, downing their helicopters and killing most of them.
LS: Not enough of them, apparently!
MA: Those who survive find themselves scattered on the island, but they know of a rendezvous point where more helicopters are scheduled to arrive to pick them up, and so they know if they can get there, they can be rescued.
Of course, Kong and the other giant creatures on the island have other ideas.
While I wouldn’t call KONG:SKULL ISLAND the worst Kong movie ever made—that distinction still belongs to the utterly horrible KING KONG LIVES (1986) —it’s certainly one of the stupidest Kong films ever. What a ridiculously inane story!
LS: It’s dumb, but I think you’re exaggerating a little bit. And I still liked it better than Peter Jackson’s overdone and overlong version of KING KONG, which just bored the hell out of me. At least this one had a few fun moments.
MA: I’m not exaggerating at all. And you enjoyed this one more than the Peter Jackson remake? Wow. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not the biggest fan of the Jackson film either, but the scenes on Skull Island in that movie are a heck of lot more entertaining than what happens in this movie, Kong’s fight with the three T-Rexes in particular!
LS: You’re right. The Peter Jackson version does have some good scenes, and I’m sure it’s better than I remember, but frankly, when I think about it, all I remember is how long and dull it was. Kind of the opposite of movies that stick with you over time. I just find myself wanting to forget that one.
MA: Here, first of all, it’s not a new story at all. While technically not a remake of the original Kong tale, it basically tells the same story: a group of people travel to an uncharted island in search of something monstrous that supposedly lives there. It’s the same exact story, only without the Fay Wray character. This is the best the writers could do? Don’t be fooled. KONG: SKULL ISLAND really isn’t an original story. It’s pretty much just another origin story, altered to fit into a Vietnam-era tale, but these alterations only make things more ridiculous.
I’m not really sure why there is a Vietnam connection. It’s obvious from the film’s poster that the filmmakers are going for an APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) connection. And while there’s plenty of cool 1970s songs on the soundtrack, along with wise-cracking soldiers, none of it really works. It all just feels out-of-place.
LS: I don’t think it’s as bad as you’re saying. It’s not great, but I didn’t have that much trouble buying the time period and the APOCALYPSE NOW vibe. The time period was the least of this movie’s problems. And I loved the soundtrack, which is heavy on Creedence Clearwater Revival! Love them!
MA: I didn’t buy it at all. It didn’t seem authentic to me, in spite of the soundtrack, which I also loved. Part of the problem was that the characters didn’t act like people from the period, mostly because they were all superficial characters. To use your Barbie and Ken example, what this film did to capture the period was put 1970s clothes on the dolls and play songs from the time. That’s about it.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does the film no favors with a choppy style that is more reminiscent of TOP GUN (1986) than APOCALYPSE NOW. Like TOP GUN, there are lots of characters who we never really get to know, often shown in brief music video-style clips which serves as a substitute for genuine character development.
The screenplay by three writers with considerable screen credits—Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly—is pretty bad. It’s chock full of awful dialogue, and the only reason folks like John Goodman and Tom Hiddleston say their lines with straight faces is because they’re really good actors. And the story is a snooze. It’s an origin story disguised as a monster movie/war movie hybrid, and it just doesn’t work. Gilroy wrote NIGHTCRAWLER (2014), Borenstein co-wrote GODZILLA (2014), and Connolly co-wrote JURASSIC WORLD (2015). Compared to those films, KONG: SKULL ISLAND is not their best work.
Back in 1976, critics made fun of the fact that in the 1976 remake of KING KONG, Kong walked upright like a man, which was a clear departure from the way he walked in both the original 1933 classic, and in the ensuing Japanese Toho productions. Kong was a giant ape and was supposed to walk like an ape. To be honest, I never had a problem with Kong walking upright in the 1976 version, as it is an interpretation which suggests that Kong is not just a giant ape but a different creature altogether. This interpretation makes Kong more monstrous.
I bring this up because here in KONG: SKULL ISLAND Kong once again walks upright. I don’t have a problem with this. However, I do have problems with Kong in this movie.
LS: I read in an interview that they purposely have him walking upright, and yes, he’s supposed to be a different creature altogether. Not just an overgrown ape.
MA: While Kong looks fine, he has to be the most boring King Kong ever to appear in a movie. In every Kong movie, even the Toho films, Kong has a personality. He is a definite presence in the film. He has no personality here. In KONG: SKULL ISLAND, Kong is nothing more than a slow-walking giant who battles both humans and monsters and that’s it. Not that I’m arguing that every Kong movie has to be a love story between Kong and a woman, because that’s not what I’m talking about. In other films, Kong has been angry, Kong has been heroic, and Kong has been ruthless. It’s these emotions which have set Kong apart from other giant monsters in the movies, and while Kong goes through the motions in this movie, I never felt these emotions at all.
It’s one of my least favorite Kong interpretations of all time.
LS: I’ll talk more about the “Kong Interacts with Humans” thing later. But I didn’t have as much of a problem with the way Kong is presented here. He is a slow-walking giant. But you’re right that his personality is a bit muted compared to other movies. I don’t think he needs to fawn all over a human to have a personality, but there are other ways to give him more of a presence. I didn’t mind this version, but he could have been better.
MA: One thing the movie does have going for it is it is full of good actors, and so you cannot argue that the acting is bad here. In fact, the acting in spite of the silly script, is one of the film’s best parts.
LS: The actors are good. The acting is a mixed bag, mainly because the script does not seem interested in characters at all.
MA: Tom Hiddleston, who plays the villain Loki in the MARVEL superhero movies—a character I have never liked—is very good here as hero tracker James Conrad, in spite of the laughable dialogue he has to say. The same can be said for John Goodman, who plays adventurer Bill Randa, a sort of Carl Denham character—in fact, the clothes he wears in this movie are an homage to the clothes Denham wore in the 1933 original film—and who has to say even worse dialogue.
LS: I like Hiddleston more than you do. He’s impressed me in a lot of stuff other than as Loki. But I found his character very one-dimensional and boring here. Talk about not having much of a personality! That isn’t just a complaint we could say about Kong; the human characters don’t fare much better. Goodman is slightly better than Hiddleston, because he has a slightly more interesting character, but once they get on the island, he doesn’t do much of anything. He’s wasted
MA: Brie Larson also does a fine job with Mason Weaver, although like everyone else in the movie, her character is way under-developed. Samuel L. Jackson probably fares the worst, because in addition to his lousy dialogue, his military character is strictly cliché, the type of character who always seems to show up in a giant monster movie, the military officer who takes out his misplaced frustrations on the giant monster, vowing to kill the creature at all costs. Blah, blah, blah.
LS: My complaint with Brie Larson is the same I have with Hiddleston, as I mentioned. I like her a lot as an actress. Her character here is a cardboard cut-out.
As for Jackson, at least he tries to put some emotion into his character, even if he is the most unlikable person in the movie, and very cliché, to the point of becoming irritating. Didn’t Stephen Lang play the same character in AVATAR (2009)? And because the movie is rated PG-13, Jackson doesn’t even get to swear like a truck driver! They could have done a better job writing him—but that goes for all these characters.
MA: The most interesting character in the film is Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) a World War II pilot who was shot down during the war and has been living on Skull Island ever since when he is discovered by the folks in this movie. Reilly has a field day with the role, and he has all of the best lines in the movie.
LS: Reilly is always good, and he somehow manages to be the most three-dimensional character in this movie, too. He’s funny, he’s sympathetic, and he seems much more like a real human being than anyone else in the cast. I also wanted to know more about those Polynesian natives he was living with. We basically just meet them, and then move past them. They’re more scenery than people.
MA: In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the story of KONG: SKULL ISLAND is really the story of Hank Marlow. The film begins with him being shot down, and the entire story arc in the movie which goes all the way into the end credits follows his tale, not Kong’s, which would have been okay, had I bought a ticket to see HANK MARLOW: SKULL ISLAND.
As I said earlier, there are not any dinosaurs on Skull Island, this time around, but there are plenty of giant creatures. Some work, others don’t. I liked the giant spider and the bird creatures, but Kong’s main adversary in this film, giant reptilian creatures which come out from underneath the ground, did not work for me. I thought they looked really silly.
LS: The spider scene is great, and obviously a homage to the legendary “lost” giant spider scene in the original KING KONG.
MA: Another homage is Kong’s fight with a giant octopus, which hearkens back to a similar scene in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962).
LS: But here’s my problem. The spider shows up above them, being a real threat, and then they get through it, and then—no more spiders. How convenient. Life on that island should be scary and dangerous ALL THE TIME, but once a threat is vanquished, things calm down again, and it’s off to the next adventure. In a real jungle, with poisonous snakes and insects, etc., there’s the chance that anyone can get hurt or die at any time. Here, it’s just like “Take a number, monsters, and then move on to the next one.”
MA: I agree. There’s not much intensity here.
LS: As for the main baddies, I thought the skullcrawlers were okay. They looked kind of like a cross between a giant lizard and a snake, with their skeletons on the outside, but once again, we know nothing about them. Kong, we know. What are these lizard-things? Where do they comes from (we know underground, but where?) and what do they want? Like everything else in this movie, they’re not developed at all, so we can’t get to know or understand them. They’re just something for Kong to fight, and so, even if they look half-way decent (but not amazing), I never really cared about them.
(DINOSAURS start shouting and complaining)
T-REX: Those skullcrawler things were just plain stupid.
BRONTOSAURUS: Yeah, and they took our jobs! We should have been in this movies.
T-REX: What, does the new Kong think he’s too good for us?
STEGOSAURUS: We want our jobs back, dammit!
(DINOSAURS go back to protesting)
MA: As we just said, this film isn’t really all that intense. In fact, you can make the argument that the 1933 original KING KONG is a far more intense film than this 2017 edition.
LS: The original is still the best. No sequels or remakes have ever come close. The effects might seem dated now, but it’s a major film classic for a reason. It transcends its limitations and stands the test of time.
MA: Yup. It’s still the best Kong film. Heck, it’s one of the best movies, period!
I love King Kong and I’m a huge fan of the King Kong movies, both the good and the bad, and so I can’t say that I hated KONG: SKULL ISLAND. I just thought it was really stupid, and I didn’t particularly like the interpretation of Kong in this movie. The actors all do a good job, but they’re in a story that doesn’t help them at all.
KONG: SKULL ISLAND is certainly one of the weaker films in the KONG canon.
I give it a tepid two knives.
LS: I love King Kong, too, and I liked this one slightly more than you did. First off, I just like the idea of making more Kong movies. He’s been around a long time, and it’s about time people realized his potential as a great, ongoing character. Also, I liked that the movie did not just retell the same story from the original. We got that in the 1976 version with Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges (which I don’t think is great, but I think it’s better than most people let on), and then we got it again in Peter Jackson’s version. I like that this one took place in a different time period. It’s not the 1930s, and it’s not modern-day, and I thought that was interesting. The fact that satellite cameras just discovered the island worked for me, and the fact that it’s surrounded by a circle of bad weather explained why it’s not so easy to stumble upon.
MA: Yeah, except the story really isn’t all that different. I was hoping for a far more creative adventure for Kong.
LS: I also liked Kong himself more than you did. I thought he looked good, and he did have a presence. Could he have been better? Sure. But aside from John C. Reilly I thought Kong was the most sympathetic character in the movie.
MA: I felt very little sympathy for him. We’re supposed to, but it’s difficult to sympathize with a creature that possesses as much range as the Robot Kong in Toho’s silly KING KONG ESCAPES (1968).
LS: The human characters—aside from Reilly—are lame, just about all of them. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t want to know more about them. For example, I wish we knew more about John Goodman’s character, Randa, and his assistant, Houston Brooks, played by Corey Hawkins. Hawkins was also Dr. Dre in the movie STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (2015), played Heath on THE WALKING DEAD. He’s also the star of the new 24 spin-off show, 24: LEGACY (which I don’t watch). I also wish they told us something about San (Tian Jing), the third scientist who goes with Randa and Brooks. She just shows up at the boat when it’s time to leave for Skull Island, and aside from a few scientific comments here and there, we know nil about her. It’s like they had a checklist and said “one Asian woman,” and then forgot to give her an actual role. There are also a few soldiers who are slightly fleshed out, played by Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, and Thomas Mann, who seemed little more than clichés, and could have been more. I especially like Shea Whigham, who is an excellent character actor, who was Eli Thompson in the HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE (2010 – 2014), and is in VICE PRINCIPALS, as well as in movies like SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013), and he deserved a better-developed character.
MA: These are all reasons why the movie didn’t work for me.
LS: Another solider is Jack Chapman, played by Toby Kebbell, and he’s interesting because Kebbell also played Kong, before they added the CGI.
The other thing about the humans is the fact that every single one of these movies has to have a moment where the monster notices the human stars and stares at them. It happened in the previous remakes of KING KONG, of course, with Kong actually falling head-over-heels in love with Naomi Watts in Peter Jackson’s version, but it also happened in the American GODZILLA movies, as well. There’s always this stupid moment—I call it the “bestiality moment”—where the monster puts his head really close, as if to say, “Hey you look good,” and it’s always one of the most wince-inducing scenes in these movies.
In KONG: SKULL ISLAND, it’s a scene where Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are on a cliff edge, and Kong’s face comes really close—so close that she can reach out and touch him—and I was thinking “How friggin’ stupid is that?” Especially since this Kong is HUGE, like you said. These humans would be little more than mice in comparison, so why would he care? Except for the fact that some of the humans shoot at him and he wants them to stop, he wouldn’t care about them, much less play peek-a-boo with them. And then later on when Kong saves Brie Larson’s character from a bad situation, I had to wonder WHY? Why does he care? It’s not like he’s going to date her. I mean, if he’s going to have romantic feelings, wouldn’t it be for a lady Kong? It’s just stupid.
MA: What’s even more stupid is the movie doesn’t attempt to explain any of this. If we knew more about Kong– why exactly does he care for the natives there? Why does he have a connection to people? It could be a number of reasons. The point is, there is a story there, but the movie doesn’t go into it.
LS: Also, like most Marvel movies—but not the new one, LOGAN—if you stick around until the end of the credits, you’ll see an extra scene that sets this one up for some future developments. It’s an okay scene, I guess, but I hated having to stick around through all those boring credits to see it. Marvel started this trend and it’s downright annoying! Now everyone does it.
(Shakes his fist at the sky) Damn you, Marvel!
MA: I had had enough and chose not to stay. I stay for the Marvel ones because I like those movies.
LS: I also saw this KONG in 3D, and while it worked in a few rare moments, I didn’t think it added much to the experience.
MA: I saw it in 2D, which also didn’t add to the experience. (Laughs)
LS: So I thought this was a real mixed bag. I give it two and a half knives. If you’re a fan of Kong, you might want to go see it in a theater, so he can look nice and big, but if you don’t really care, wait for it to come to streaming.
T-REX: Are you guys done yet?
MA: Yep, that’s our review.
BRONTOSAURUS: You went way too easy on this movie. Especially since they stole our damn jobs!
(DINOSAURS roar in unison.)
© Copyright Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives KONG: SKULL ISLAND ~ two knives!
LL Soares gives KONG: SKULL ISLAND ~two and a half knives.