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.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) Is NOT the Sequel CLOVERFIELD Fans Have Been Waiting For

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Let’s get this out of the way right now:  10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) is not a sequel to CLOVERFIELD (2008), arguably one of the best giant monster movies ever made.  For this reason alone, this well-written, acted, and directed thriller is flawed.

It’s flawed because producer J.J. Abrams resurrected the CLOVERFIELD name, resurrected the anticipation and excitement of fans the world over of the original movie, only to put out a film with as much in common with CLOVERFIELD as THE MARTIAN (2015) has with GODZILLA.  Yeah, but if you pay close attention, you’ll see that the astronaut in THE MARTIAN had a cousin who worked for the company responsible for resurrecting Godzilla.  Isn’t that cool?  Isn’t that a wild connection?

No, it’s not.

It’s geeky and annoying.  Now, obviously, there is no connection between GODZILLA and THE MARTIAN, but the example shows the level of connection we’re talking about between CLOVERFIELD and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.  It’s minuscule.

It’s also embarrassingly clear that J.J. Abrams threw in the Cloverfield name simply as a marketing ploy to attract viewers.  Shame on him.  Sure, you can argue otherwise, but you might just sound like Donald Trump doing it.

Other than this though, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is a pretty nifty thriller.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is leaving her boyfriend.  He calls her (that’s Bradley Cooper’s voice on the phone.) asking her to come back, but she’s not interested.  She no sooner turns off her cell when she’s involved in a nasty car accident which leaves her unconscious.

When she awakes, she finds herself imprisoned in an underground bunker, and she assumes she’s been kidnapped.  When the peculiar Howard (John Goodman) shows up and tells her that he hasn’t abducted her but rather has saved her life after the car accident, she doesn’t believe him; and when he tells her she can’t leave because outside the bunker the world she once knew doesn’t exist anymore as some unknown apocalyptic event has poisoned the air killing everyone on the surface, she thinks he’s crazy.

Even when she meets the third tenant in the bunker, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who confirms Howard’s story, she’s still not convinced.  But later, when Michelle tries to escape and sees a woman outside the door whose skin seems to be peeling from her face and acting crazy, it appears as if Howard has been telling the truth.

The three then set their sights on surviving, and life is good, until certain things come to light that confirm Michelle’s worst fears.

The story told in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is tight and well-written.  It’s an excellent screenplay by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle.  There’s an uncomfortable feeling permeating throughout this film, as you’re never quite able to feel at ease around John Goodman’s Howard.

John Goodman delivers a phenomenal performance as Howard.  He’s the best part of 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.  Goodman is almost always good, but his performance here in this movie is extra special.  He’s just “off” enough where you’re pretty sure you don’t trust him but you’re not quite convinced because the crazy things he says all seem to be true.    He’s a difficult character to read, which is one of the reasons the story works so well. Should Michelle trust him?  Or should she try to kill him?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is equally as good as Michelle.  She is not a helpless victim at all. At first, she’s constantly trying to escape, and even later, when she more or less believes Howard, she still keeps her eyes wide open.  No one is going to pull  a fast one on her.

And John Gallagher, Jr. rounds out the phenomenal trio with a decent performance of his own as Emmett.  At first, you’re not sure how much Emmett knows or what his intentions are, but as the story goes on, he becomes Michelle’s biggest ally.

Director Dan Trachtenberg, in his feature film directorial debut, does a nice job at the helm.  He gives this film a claustrophobic feel as he puts the audience right in the middle of the action with the characters in the underground bunker.

There are plenty of suspenseful scenes as well.  There’s one scene in particular where they are playing a game, and it goes from funny, to suspenseful, to back to funny again all in a matter of seconds.

Strangely, the weakest part of this movie is its ending, and it’s strange because it should have been the best part.  This is where the film should have tied in with the original CLOVERFIELD, but alas, that’s not how things play out.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is a tight little thriller, a stand-alone movie that would work on its own merits even without the CLOVERFIELD name in the title.  Unfortunately, however, the name is in the title and the fact that is so loosely connected is a shame.  It’s pretty much not connected to the earlier movie at all.  Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS (2012) was more connected to the ALIEN series.

Why does this matter?  Let me use another movie to make my point.  Take JAWS (1975) for example.  And let’s say instead of JAWS 2 (1978) the next movie in the series was called 10 JAWS LANE, and in this movie, there’s no shark, there’s no Brody, no Matt Hooper, it doesn’t take place on Amity Island, and heck it’s not even about a shark!  It’s about an unknown threat that may or may not be lurking in the ocean while our characters are holed up in an underground bunker.  It’s a well-made movie, but without even one reference to the events in the previous film, I think audiences would have been miffed, and they probably would have felt cheated.  That’s how I felt towards 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.

All this being said, I still enjoyed 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, although it’s nowhere near as good a movie as CLOVERFIELD.

It is suspenseful, though, as it plays more like an Alfred Hitchcock movie than a horror movie.  Is this bad?  Not at all, but again, it works against the expectations generated by the CLOVERFIELD name.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is a decent thriller, but it’s not CLOVERFIELD, nor is it related to it in any way shape or form.  And when your namesake is one of the finest giant monster movies ever made, the fact that you share no connection to it, is definitely not something worth celebrating.

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