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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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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

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THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016) Is Laborious & Dull

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I love the old Tarzan movies.

They’ve been around since the silent era and grew to epic proportions in the 1930s with the films of Johnny Weissmuller.  I watched these, but I grew up watching the color Tarzan movies of the 1950s and 1960s on TV, films that featured the likes of Gordon Scott and Mike Henry as Tarzan.  These films were colorful and fun.

It’s been a long time since there’s been a decent Tarzan movie.  I went into THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016) hoping it would be the movie to the end the Tarzan drought.  It’s not.

It certainly tries, and it does attempt to be a classy and elegant telling of a Tarzan tale.  The trouble is Tarzan and the rest of the movie are just so darned boring. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character just can’t seem to catch a break these days.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN opens with the nefarious Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) trudging through the Congo to make a deal with Chief Mbonga (DJimon Hounsou):  Rom is to deliver Tarzan to the chief, and in return the chief will give Rom unlimited access to the diamonds there.  What the chief doesn’t know is that Rom is really there to convert the natives into slaves. Which begs the question, if Rom intends to overthrow Chief Mbonga anyway, as is implied later in the movie, why waste half the film chasing down Tarzan?  Why not just conquer Mbonga in the first place?

We first meet Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) living the life of a noble gentleman in London as John Clayton with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie).  They have put their time in Africa behind them, which is why John refuses to return when Her Majesty’s government asks him to travel to Africa as a special envoy.  But he’s persuaded to go by an American, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) who tells John his fears that someone is turning the population of the Congo into slaves.  Jane returns as well against John’s wishes.  He fears for his wife’s safety, but she convinces him to change his mind, explaining that like him, her true home is also in Africa.

So, they return to the jungle, and as expected, Leon Rom is there waiting for them, but his men bungle their attempts to capture John and manage to nab Jane instead, which as you might expect, doesn’t make John very happy.  Not to be outdone by the main character in the film, Samuel L. Jackson’s George Washington Williams tells John he’s following him into the jungle, and the two men spend the rest of the movie chasing down Rom and his henchmen.

It’s not difficult to deduce which side will win.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN has a lot of problems, but its biggest problem is the way it goes about telling its story.  Director David Yates and screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer make some odd choices.  The film begins with the Leon Rom sequence, then jumps to London, and in a series of flashbacks recalls John Clayton’s origins in Africa, where his father is killed and he is “adopted” by gorillas.  These plot points are revealed in increments, as the film switches back and forth between these flashbacks and some pretty dull dialogue between John and Jane in London.  The result is a terribly slow and laborious first third of this movie.

Things do get better.  In fact, the movie builds to a rather satisfying ending, but it takes forever to get there.

Another problem is the casting.  I didn’t warm up to Alexander Skarsgard as Tarzan at all.  I found him terribly stiff and boring.  He makes for a quiet and somber Tarzan and gives the hero little or no personality.  I expected more from Skarsgard, who’s the son of actor Stellan Skarsgard.

Nor did I enjoy Margot Robbie as Jane.  She’s gorgeous and beautiful, but there’s something very annoying about her personality.  She pretty much tells Rom that her husband is going to fix him good, and that’s about it for depth:  she knows what Tarzan is capable of, and she seems to have zero doubt that he will rescue her.  Not one time does she even appear the least bit scared that she might die.  Nope.  Tarzan will save the day.  And I’m beautiful to boot!

Christoph Waltz is fine as the villain, Leon Rom, although he doesn’t stray very far from his comfort zone.  He could have easily walked off the set of SPECTRE (2015) where he played Blofeld, change clothes, and become Leon Rom.  Truth be told, I thought he was better as Rom than he was as Blofeld.

Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson, who seems completely out of place here.  The film is a period piece, taking place in the 1890s, yet Jackson’s George Washington Williams speaks like a 21st century character.   I kept waiting for him to don an eyepatch and declare he was Nick Fury in disguise.  In fact, at times it seemed this movie wasn’t a Tarzan film at all, but Nick Fury vs. Blofeld.

As a result, Tarzan is overshadowed by Jackson and Waltz. Skarsgard lacks their charisma, and there also wasn’t enough Tarzan in this movie. The satisfying scenes towards the end, where Tarzan interacts with the animals of the jungle, should have come earlier and been more frequent.

Things just don’t mix together well in THE LEGEND OF TARZAN.  You have Waltz on one side doing his thing, and Jackson on the other doing his, and a bunch of less interesting stuff in the middle.

The other jungle movie released this year, THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) did a much better job telling its story.  And both films include a similar elephant scene, but the one in THE JUNGLE BOOK was more effective.

Even the animals here are rather dull.  While the apes look good, they don’t look as good as the apes in the recent PLANET OF THE APES reboots, nor do they possess the sharp personalities of the apes in those movies.

My favorite acting performance in the film belongs to DJimon Hounsou as Chief Mbonga, and it’s for one scene. When Mbonga laments that Tarzan killed his son, it’s the most powerful moment in the movie.  It’s such a strong sequence that I found myself wishing the film had been about Mbonga!

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is an oddly constructed tale that eventually gets better but is so long getting there it’s almost not worth it.

Tarzan is a really cool character. He deserves to be in a really cool movie.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is not it.

Before this movie, I was eagerly awaiting the next great Tarzan movie.

I’m still waiting.

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