Main Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
We’re in the midst of dress rehearsals for my divine new interpretation of that old chestnut, Gypsy, at the Pacoima Playhouse. I must say that I look absolutely stunning in the aubergine taffeta creation Mary Gee and Kim Dee, my seamstresses, have run up for my first entrance early in Act I when my ever-youthful title character enters down the aisle, singing arpeggios up to a high A-flat, and takes over as hostess for the kiddie show. My first line is the immortal “Hello everybody, this is your Auntie Gypsy” but I am considering changing it to “Hello everybody, this is Mrs. Norman Maine” so that the audience won’t have any difficulty recognizing me, despite my silver tasseled headpiece and four-inch stiletto heels. Angela Arden, the Madame Rose, seemed miffed that our little rewrites make her first entrance a walk on from stage left where various characters mistake her for a hotel maid.
Angela seems to have resigned herself that she’s playing a purely secondary part and is taking it well. She was quite bubbly all day. She even apologized for having eaten my tuna salad and brought me a divine little fruit basket with a nice bottle of gewürztraminer to accompany it. As we are on dinner break, I have it with me in the star dressing room, nibbling my way through it while discussing the latest sales reports for my various fine consumer product lines by telephone with Leah, head of that department of my vast business empire. There’s apparently been an uptick in orders for Lesterene skin products Tangerine Dream bronzer and facial toner, all going to some address on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC. I told her to throw in a little lagniappe with the next order, perhaps a nice Autumn Sunrise pageboy bob from Maine’s Manes line of wigs. The colors are so complementary.
As the hydraulics on the set are acting up, dinner break is going to be a little longer than normal, plenty of time to get in a film, before having to get out there and lead the gang in a couple of rousing tap numbers. I had the producers install a small 56-inch screen with Blu-ray player in my dressing room and I brought some of my to view pile from home to watch during our down time. My choice this evening was the adventure movie, Kong: Skull Island which played theaters earlier this year. I did not catch it at that time but I’m always down for mayhem involving giant apes and prehistoric creatures in a jungle environment so I popped it into the machine to give it a whirl.
Since his debut in 1933, King Kong has appeared in multiple films. The original was remade twice, once in 1976 and once in 2005, with basically the same plot and the giant gorilla has also appeared in low budget Japanese horror battling Godzilla, and as a supporting player in comedies and cheap adventures world-wide. He’s one of the most recognizable names from classic Hollywood. People all over the world who have never seen a film with the character still know who he is and the basic outlines of his story, at least the original plot of the beast captured and charmed by the pretty girl who ends up falling to his doom from the top of the Empire State Building. Awed by the success of the Marvel Universe, Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers have decided to create a fictional universe of their own called the MonsterVerse, using the famous Japanese movie monsters from Toho Studio in the 1950s and 60s. King Kong, by virtue of his battle with Godzilla, fits in with Mothra and Gidrah and the rest of the gang and this film is part of what is planned to be a whole catalog of interlocking movies with crossover casts and plots. It’s the second entry in the series, the first being the recent remake of Godzilla.
Kong: Skull Island takes place in the early 1970s. The war in Vietnam is coming to its unhappy end. The film makers apparently chose this time period as they wished to use the breakdown of society and social unrest as a background theme but I think it was really to have a cool late 60s/early 70s soundtrack and to make a whole lot of references to Apocalypse Now! After a brief World War II prologue, we’re into the throes of Vietnam when a government functionary named Bill Randa (John Goodman) teams up with a chopper unit, the Sky Devils under the command of Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), to go off on a secret mission to Skull Island to discover if there really are monstrous inhabitants which might be a threat to humanity. They are joined by a motley collection of folk including various soldiers who exist mainly to be killed off in various ways, a British Air Service Captain (named Joseph Conrad of all things – as if we couldn’t draw the Heart of Darkness parallels ourselves) with a smarmy corporate type (John Ortiz). The cast heads off for the island, braves the continuous storm that shields it from prying eyes and starts to survey the island using some sort of geologic cluster bomb. This disturbs the hundred foot Kong (about twice the size he’s been in previous films) who starts snatching choppers out of the air and hurling them to the ground. The survivors are split into several groups and must make it across the island to a rendezvous point for hope of rescue. There are various creatures, predominantly some sort of pseudo reptilian thing called a skull crawler, grisly deaths, an angry ape, and a lost tribe with an even more lost World War II pilot at their head (John C. Reilly). There are battles, betrayals, some live, some die, and some head home to Chicago.
I am a huge fan of the original film. I don’t even mind the remakes too much (although the Dino DeLaurentis version is full of risible moments and the Peter Jackson version is bloated and over long). Kong: Skull Island, not so much. The whole point of Kong is that he’s the stranger in a strange land. Keeping him confined to Skull Island removes this and therefore makes him nothing more than an obstacle against which our heroes battle. It’s a waste of a tragic character. Kong also gets no real relationship with any of the humans. Some of his actions suggest an understanding of their various motivations but there are no quiet moments which allow us to really get to know him and there’s no analog for the Ann Darrow character who is Kong’s salvation and destruction in the original narrative.
There’s no recognizable humans in the film either. Everyone is playing a type or a trope without any depth. Most of the characters only get screen time to set up the next action moment or a particularly grotesque death scene. Kong: Skull Island is a film about CGI, not about people. I don’t mind a good adventure story or action film but I like to care about the people caught up in the extraordinary circumstances. This is one of those films where I can only remember who’s who by their hat or the color of their shirt and I have a sneaking suspicion that the film makers are just fine with that. The screenplay is credited to four people (never a good sign) and appears to exist mainly to get characters from one action set piece to the next. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has never directed a major film before and it shows. Some of the actors try (John C. Reilly, Tom Hiddleston) a lot of the others seem to have showed up on set, hit their marks, collected their paychecks, and paid no attention to whether anything they did is recognizable as a real human action. Samuel L. Jackson, in particular, seems to be channeling every other movie he’s ever made, especially Jurassic Park and Deep Blue Sea. The man likes to work and he’s becoming a victim of his own success through over exposure.
The action sequences are somewhat clumsy and relatively repetitive so I lost interest in them half way through. How many times can you watch a hundred-foot gorilla throw a tree or wrestle some other giant creature when there’s nothing else in the film to hold your interest? The end result is the tale told by an idiot, full of the sound and fury. It signifies nothing.
Wall of storms. Jefferson Airplane song. Speared helicopter. Gratuitous giant water buffalo thing. Death by walking stick. Jury rigged boat. Pterosaur dismemberment. Napalm explosions. Hot dog and beer. Promise of sequels.