Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

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I don’t think I was supposed to enjoy Kong: Skull Island as much as I did.  It’s a large movie with too many stars, and it came and went from theaters before I knew it.  It just kind of happened without much fanfare.  But this movie is surprisingly entertaining.  It’s well-shot, well-acted, it’s fun, it’s occasionally silly, and it has its own video game style, suggesting a movie that is somewhat of its time, whatever that means.

Okay, here’s what that means.  There are so many ‘meh’ action movies about things we’ve already seen.  They may be superhero movies, monster movies, zombie movies, spy movies, etc. and they all disappear together because they’re made to be the same.  And while Kong falls into this to a degree, it’s shot and edited in such a way to resemble video games, made for people who have played games Call of Duty or Far Cry.  This speaks to an audience, and I think that in time if someone were to come across this they could see that it’s a product of the time it’s made, unlike so many ‘meh’ movies that could exist anytime and anyplace.

Of course, Kong is very formulaic like most such movies.  There are good characters and bad, with a divide that slowly forms through the movie but which you can see miles away.  There is a plot contrivance to get these characters to this dangerous island, there’s the blonde damsel in distress which is iconographic of King Kong, and there are so many celebrity actors who require a certain amount of screen time, meaning the story blows through scenes without much time for you to get to know anyone.

At its worst, Kong is uneven, a blend of multiple different competing films, stories and tones.  In one scene you might establish something ominous and then suddenly cut into the familiar beat of a recognizable song from Now That’s What I Call Music 1970s. Seriously, every Creedence Clearwater or Rolling Stones song I know seemed to be on the soundtrack.  This is a movie set in the 70s but which is very much based on the surviving legacy of 70s culture.  We only hear the music which has stood the test of time, even if it’s possible this music wasn’t the defining tune of the 70s as it happened.

The soldiers themselves are very much the Vietnam War soldiers we’ve seen onscreen many times.  They’re dirty and sweaty, wearing torn clothing, smoking cigarettes and carrying disenchanted dispositions.  This is a war they don’t want to be fighting, that kind of thing.

Anyways, maybe this movie is more style than substance.  Individual scenes are so well-made, but then it’s juxtaposed awkwardly against stilted expository scenes.  If you get rid of maybe half the ensemble cast and focus on even less of the remaining ones, the story would have more opportunity to flow.

Since we’ve seen King Kong in movies before, only ten years ago most recently, we know all about him.  So the movie does a good job of not withholding the big reveal of the monster.  He shows up only minutes into the movie, and he’s never really hidden. Instead of getting a glimpse of a foot or a snout, we see the whole damn thing.  Kong is a beast, but he’s more of a character than other monsters such as Godzilla.  Kong has a whole backstory, and we’re told that he’s the king of the island, protecting everyone from underground lizard snakes.

This movie never makes Kong too scary, but that’s because the main conflict is about the divide between two groups of people.  One of them, led by Tom Hiddleston’s James Conrad, appreciates King Kong while the other, led by militant Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) only wants to kill the beast because Kong killed so many of his men (granted, in self-defense).  So even though Kong is more expressive than I remember him being ever before, he is just… a guy onto which two other people project their own problems. Conrad is kind of bland, just the generally good main character we seem to need in these kinds of movies.  He’s handsome, athletic, kind, witty, adept with a knife, but otherwise he’s just there.  He only defends Kong because he’s good, and I suppose Kong didn’t crush him when he had a chance, so there’s that.

The real character is Packard.  He doesn’t want the war to end, and he takes all his militant, testosterone, fighting energy and directs it at the ape.  Granted he has a point to a degree.  He’s responsible for his men whom he eagerly brought into battle when they were about to go home, so when many of them die, he’s understandably angry.  This anger blinds him to the fact that Kong is a nice fella.  All Packard wants is vengeance, and is there a commentary hear on the Vietnam War?  Perhaps, but I don’t know enough to know for sure.  Packard’s character pretends his vengeance has a greater purpose when it’s really just that, vengeance.  It’s petty and personal, and that’s probably not a good thing to have during war.  There are themes hear similar to the recent Netflix movie War Machine which is about a character who can’t take ‘no’ for an answer.  The goal is to win at all costs.

Okay, so here’s the thing, this is the third day I’ve had this blog post open.  I can’t seem to write about this damn movie.  I have nothing to say and too much to cover.  Kong: Skull Island is a heavily plotted movie with no room for character.  Every character moment is just a trampoline we jump on to get to the next scene.  Every character’s pain and triumph is taken from other movies.  There’s nothing original here, just a simple story onto which the director can add his fingerprint, and he does so through a unique action-shooting style.  It’s just that when there’s no action, there’s really nothing interesting going on in the movie.

That being said, I enjoyed this more than I should have.

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