Kong Battles A Weak Script in KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

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King Kong is back!

And while he’s still king when it comes to defendindg Skull Island from giant monsters and aggressive humans, he’s not so adept at overcoming a bad script.

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.

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.”

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.

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.  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!

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 is not an original tale.  It’s just another origin story, and we’ve already had plenty of those.  They’ve been called KING KONG. Sure, here it’s been 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.

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 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).  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.

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’s 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.

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.

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.

Brie Larson also does a fine job with Mason Weaver, although like every one 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.

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.

In fact, 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.

Surprisingly, 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.

The giant spider is an homage to the giant spider in the pit scene from the original KING KONG (1933) which was cut upon release, lost, and has remained missing ever since.  Kong’s fight with a giant octopus is also an homage to a similar scene in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962).

There is an after-credit scene, but I didn’t stay for it.  I had had enough by the film’s end.

KONG:  SKULL ISLAND 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.

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.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

PICTURE OF THE DAY: THEM! (1954)

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James Whitmore trying to elude a giant ant in one of the scarier scenes from THEM! (1954).

James Whitmore tries to elude a giant ant in one of the scarier scenes from THEM! (1954).

PICTURE OF THE DAY:  THEM!  (1954)

Spoiler Alert!

While I don’t mind spoilers for older movies, since most of us have seen these movies several times over, in the interest of not wanting to ruin a good movie for those who haven’t seen it, this column features a major spoiler about the classic monster movie THEM! (1954) and so, if you haven’t seen the movie, feel free to skip this column, and I’ll see you again next time.

Anyone still with me?  Hope so!

Today’s Picture of the Day comes from the classic 1950s monster movie, THEM! which tells the story of a colony of gigantic mutated ants discovered in the desert of New Mexico.  They eventually terrorize Los Angeles.

THEM! is one of the best giant monster movies ever made, and one of the reasons for this is that for a 1950s film, it’s still rather scary and suspenseful.  Director Gordon Douglas crafts some genuinely suspenseful scenes, and the screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes, based on a story by George Worthing Yates, tells a gritty realistic story rather than an overblown fanciful one.  This one plays like a mystery and a police drama long before it delves into the world of science fiction—- just what is killing these people?— and then once the giant ants are discovered, the film takes on that WAR OF THE WORLDS invasion feel— just how can we stop an army of giant ants?

Another reason THEM! is so scary and so memorable is it does something which so few films do— now or back in the 1950s— and it’s one of the reasons this movie has stuck with me since the first time I saw it on television as a kid in the early 1970s (and here’s the spoiler):  it kills off the hero.

Yikes!

Yes, that’s right, the hero in THEM!, Police Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) in his attempt to rescue two children trapped by the ants in the storm drains underneath Los Angeles, gets the children out, but he  gives up his life in the process, leaving co-hero FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) in charge of saving the day.

It’s such a powerful scene, especially since in 1950s horror movies, this never seems to happen.  I remember being absolutely shocked that the ants got Ben Peterson.  So much so, that moments later, when the ants close in on Robert Graham, I thought he was a goner too, and I never would have felt this fear had not Peterson met his demise.  It’s great stuff.

The image from today’s picture of the day shows Peterson seconds before the ant gets him.  He had just pushed the children to safety and is about to follow them when the ant— the bastard!— sneaks up behind him and attacks.  For my money, it’s one of the most emotional and frightening moments in 1950s horror movie cinema.

I still get shivers thinking about it, even as I sit here and look at that still.  You’re a good man, Ben Peterson.  You saved those kids, and you came oh-so-close to making it out alive yourself.

Oh so close.

RIP Ben Peterson, one of my favorite horror movie characters, played so well by the great actor James Whitmore.

Hope you enjoy the image, and if you’ve never seen THEM!, definitely check it out.  It holds up remarkably well today.

Well, that’s it for now.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

THE HORROR JAR: GIANT BUG MOVIES

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THEM! (1954), the first and arguably the best of the giant bug movies.

THEM! (1954), the first and arguably the best of the giant bug movies.

THE HORROR JAR: Giant Bug Movies
By Michael Arruda

Just in time for summer, it’s another edition of THE HORROR JAR, that column where we feature various lists of odds and ends pertaining to horror movies. This time out we look at giant bug movies. That’s right, when you’re out picnicking, at the beach, on a hike, or at a barbecue, and the pesky bugs are getting in your face, remember, it could be a lot worse.

They could be a lot bigger.

Here’s a look at some giant bug classics:

THEM! (1954)
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Screenplay by Ted Sherdeman
Sgt. Ben Peterson: James Whitmore
Robert Graham: James Arness
Dr. Harold Medford: Edmund Gwenn
Dr. Patricia Medford: Joan Weldon
General O’Brien: Onslow Stevens
Running Time: 94 minutes

Giant ants attack Los Angeles. One of the first giant bug movies remains one of the best. Chilling thriller is much scarier than its 1950s counterparts. Originally to have been shot in color and in 3D. It works just fine in black and white.

 

TARANTULA (1955)
Directed by Jack Arnold
Screenplay by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley
Dr. Matt Hastings: John Agar
Professor Gerald Deemer: Leo G. Carroll
Running Time: 80 minutes

John Agar defends a desert town from a giant tarantula. Another classic.

 

RODAN (1956)
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Screenplay by Takeshi Kimura
Running Time: 74 minutes

Sure, Rodan is a pterosaur, but this Toho flick also features prehistoric insects which are quite scary until Rodan decides to eat them for breakfast.

 

BEGINNING OF THE END (1957)
Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Screenplay by Fred Freiberger and Lester Gorn
Dr. Ed Wainright: Peter Graves
Running Time: 76 minutes

It’s all in the family, as this tale of giant grasshoppers stars future Mission: Impossible star Peter Graves, the brother of James Arness (future Gunsmoke star) who starred in THEM! This one comes to us from director Bert I. Gordon (B.I.G.) who made a lot of these giant monster movies, and it’s an inferior production to the giant bug films which came before it.

 

THE BLACK SCORPION (1957)
Directed by Edward Ludwig
Screenplay by David Duncan and Robert Blees
Hank Scott: Richard Denning
Running Time: 88 minutes

This tale of giant scorpions attacking Mexico City features special effects by KING KONG (1933) creator Willis O’Brien and stars Richard Denning, fresh off his battle with the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954). Budget constraints forced O’Brien to use incomplete shots of the giant scorpions in some scenes. In these scenes the monsters appear as black shadows as opposed to fleshed out creatures.

 

THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957)
Directed by Nathan Juran
Screenplay by Martin Berkeley
Col. Joe Parkman: Craig Stevens
Dr. Ned Jackson: William Hopper
Running Time: 79 minutes

Universal’s companion piece to its earlier hit TARANTULA, this one about a giant praying mantis. Not as good as TARANTULA, but still an above average entry in the genre. Contains some very creepy scenes.

 

EARTH VS. THE SPIDER (1958)
Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Screenplay by Laszlo Gorog and George Worthing Yates
Running Time: 73 minutes

This Bert I. Gordon flick should have been called Teens Vs. The Spider, as a group of 1950s teens takes on a giant Arachnid which invades their small town.

 

MOTHRA (1961)
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Screenplay by Shin’ichi Sekizawa
Running Time: 88 minutes

I’ve never understood the desire to make a movie about a giant moth (“Hey, guys, here’s an idea for a giant monster movie: a giant moth!” Seriously?) Of course, this shows how little I know, as MOTHRA became a hit for Toho, and everybody’s favorite giant moth would go on to appear in countless other movies, most featuring Godzilla.

 

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961)
Directed by Cy Enfield
Screenplay by John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman, and Crane Wilbur, based on the novel by Jules Verne.
Captain Cyrus Harding: Michael Craig
Herbert Brown: Michael Callan
Gideon Spilitt: Gary Merrill
Captain Nemo: Herbert Lom
Running Time: 101 minutes

This classic movie with special effects by Ray Harryhausen features many giant creatures, including oversized bees. Superior special effects here, but that’s no surprise as Ray Harryhausen always brought his “A” game to his movies. Memorable music score by Bernard Herrmann.

 

GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1964)
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Screenplay by Shin’ichi Sekizawa
Running Time: 89 minutes

Godzilla battles Mothra for the first time. Mothra would go on to appear in many other Godzilla movies, not listed here.

 

SON OF GODZILLA (1967)
Directed by Jun Fukuda
Screenplay by Shin’ichi Sekizawa and Kazue Shiba
Running Time: 84 minutes

No Mothra here, but this film which introduced Godzilla’s son Minilla does feature giant praying mantises known as Kamacuras, and a giant spider called Kumonga.

 

THE FOOD OF THE GODS (1976)
Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Screenplay by Bert I. Gordon, based on the novel by H.G.Wells.
Running Time: 88 minutes

This Bert I. Gordon flick is mainly about enormous rats, but does feature humongous wasps as well.

 

EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977)
Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Screenplay by Jack Turley, based on a story by H.G. Wells
Marilyn Fryser: Joan Collins
Dan Stokely: Robert Lansing
Running Time: 89 minutes

Bert I. Gordon again, this time directing a tale about giant ants in Florida, starring Joan Collins, four years before her run on the TV show Dynasty.

 

KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977)
Directed by John “Bud” Cardos
Screenplay by Richard Robinson and Alan Caillou
Rack Hansen: William Shatner
Running Time: 97 minutes

Okay, technically, this isn’t a giant bug movie, because the spiders in this flick are regular sized— it’s just that there are millions of them invading a small town. (Well, maybe not millions, but there sure are a lot of them!). This film is on the list for one reason only, other than the spiders, of course, and that’s William Shatner. Shatner lifts this one to a higher level. Sure, it’s his over-dramatic Captain Kirk shtick again here as he plays veterinarian Rack Hansen, but that’s what makes his performance and ultimately this movie so much fun.

 

TREMORS (1990)
Directed by Ron Underwood
Screenplay by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock
Valentine McKee: Kevin Bacon
Earl Bassett: Fred Ward
Burt Gummer: Michael Gross
Heather Gummer: Reba McIntire
Running Time: 96 minutes

Another film that technically isn’t a giant bug movie, but this flick about ferocious giant mutated worm-creatures is so good it’s impossible to keep off this list. A highly entertaining movie that was largely ignored upon its initial theatrical release, TREMORS ranks as one of the best giant monster movies ever made.

 

EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS (2002)
Directed by Ellory Elkayem
Screenplay by Jesse Alexander and Ellory Elkayem
Chris McCormick: David Arquette
Ashley Parker: Scarlett Johansson
Running Time: 99 minutes

This effective horror comedy mix about giant spiders features Scarlett Johansson in one of her early roles.

 

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson, based on the novel “The Return of the King” by J.R.R. Tolkien
Frodo: Elijah Wood
Aragorn: Viggo Mortensen
Gandalf: Ian McKellen
Gollum: Andy Serkis
Running Time: 201 minutes

This 2004 Oscar Winner for Best Picture features one very nasty giant spider in one very creepy scene. The other 195 minutes aren’t half bad either!

Well, there you have it. A list of giant bug movies just in time for summer. Is this all of them? No way! These are just a few of the giant critter flicks which I recommend. There are many, many more.

That’s it for now.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael