Saturday, August 19, 2017

Great ape


Who'd have guessed that the best movie of 2017 so far was the one about bouncing goofy visual gags off the side of a giant monster?  Actually, I had an inkling.

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly, and John Gatins
With Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell (Kong), John C. Reilly (Lt. Hank Marlow), Corey Hawkins (Houston Brooks), Jing Tian (San Lin), Tom Hiddleston (Capt. James Conrad), Brie Larson (Mason Weaver), John Ortiz (Victor Nieves), Jason Mitchell (WO Glenn Mills), Toby Kebbell (again) (Maj. Jack Chapman), Shea Whigham (Capt. Earl Cole), John Goodman (Bill Randa), and Samuel L. Jackson (Col. Preston Packard)

Spoiler alert: mild

You know who likes giant monsters?  That's right: everybody.  But, more importantly, me.  As for Kong: Skull Island, I don't suppose there's been a movie made so especially for me this whole wishy-washy year.  (And so, of course I missed it in theaters, like a chump.)  It's worth saying this much, anyway: of all the various gambits tried by all the major movie houses to forge a Marvel-style interconnected universe, the one being played by Legendary Entertainment in conjunction with Warner Bros. and Universal is easily my favorite.  But then, they had an ancient and worthy playbook to follow.  Sure, The Avengers is swell, but it wasn't anything really new: Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster came out five damn decades ago.  (And wouldn't you know it? Skull Island's credits conclude with a stinger that had me quivering in a fit of nearly epileptic geekery.)

The moneymen have read that old Toho playbook, and they've figured out a way to accelerate the timetable Ishiro Honda never actually used while he was shepherding his own major monster franchises together, making them ever-lighter (and ever-weirder) in the process.  But this is how Skull Island's director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, was permitted to embark upon his project to once again bring King Kong, the grand old man of all giant monsters, into a wider, cross-marketed world.  Refreshingly, it's also how Skull Island has only a tiny little bit to do with King Kong, Classic Edition.  (Though it does, cagily enough, exploit the living hell out of our preexisting fondness for the Eighth Wonder of the World, alongside our longstanding familiarity with his iconography.  Gentle primates do still prefer blondes, even if Brie Larson does just barely sneak in there, pigment-wise.)

In fullest truth, Skull Island doesn't even have that much more to do with its immediate franchise predecessor, 2014's Godzilla—at least, besides sharing a fictional timeline with it.  The most robust connection between the two otherwise is either Skull Island's satisfyingly-similar opening-credits history lesson, or in the reappearance of Monarch, who turn out to be this franchise's universe-binding quasi-governmental cabal.  (For every franchise these days needs a universe-binding quasi-governmental cabal.  Them's the rules.  It's only that some are better than others—and Monarch, trading on gloriously ridiculous conspiracy theories of a hollow Earth, and represented here by the ever-excellent John Goodman, is far and away the best.  Does Sam Jackson, co-starring, feel threatened by this development, or proud?)

Anyway: to the extent one can call Skull Island a sequel, it surely joins the august ranks of sequels that improve upon their forebear.  (Technically, it's a prequel, and presumably the worthiest since Temple of Doom.)  I don't mean to knock Godzilla, mind you; Gareth Edwards' impersonally apocalyptic tour of force has only increased in my esteem in the past three years.  But Skull Island nevertheless represents a flawless course-correction for the series as a whole—away from the kind of severity and general fun-lessness that would have gotten real old, real fast, if it had become its signature.

Accordingly, Skull Island gets to be an auteurish flight of fancy on Vogt-Roberts' part, to the extent you can honestly express a touch of surprise that it was allowed to be made the way it was.  Even though Skull Island diligently refrains from overthrowing Godzilla's ecological metaphors—if it even undermines them, it's only by the fact that it necessarily anthropomorphizes them more—it's still entirely impossible to imagine two movies any more different in tone.  Imagine if Batman Begins had still been followed up with The Dark Knight, but it starred Adam West.

What Skull Island winds up being is one of our 21st century's handful of really excellent high-camp/low-camp double-bluffs: a movie you can laugh with, or at, and it's perfectly okay with either.  It makes its intentions known in its opening prologue, in which two WWII airmen, one American and one Japanese, crash land upon an uncharted island and resume their hostilities the instant they get out of their parachutes.  The shiny CGI planes and oddball, toy-commercial framing of their landing suggest it; the moment that the American unloads a whole pistol magazine at the Japanese, who realizes with just the slightest hint of comedy that the American missed every last shot, seals it; and the bit during their subsequent fisticuffs where the American grabs the IJN pilot's samurai sword by its blade is just the cherry on top.  And that's before the giant monster shows up to make their continuation war seem completely laughable in comparison.  The whole movie's like this, by the way.

Skull Island has an abidingly simple story; it only appears complex in the same way that slasher movies can appear complex, in that it has a driving need to introduce a massive cast of pseudo-colorful characters who can then be murdered.  It does a fine job at both, but we can streamline it: in the days of peace with honor (that is, 1973), Monarch honcho and froot loop Bill Randa manages to finagle a government sponsorship for an expedition to the mysterious "Skull Island," walled off from the rest of the world for as long as humans can remember by a permanent (and implausibly huge) cyclonic storm.  In the process, he gets access to a host of Landsat geographers and, more importantly, a military escort, led by one Col. Preston Packard, a soldier in desperate need of a new mission after losing his favorite war (that is, Vietnam).  To round out the group, however, Randa acquires the services of a tracker, former SAS officer James Conrad, and a war photographer (an "anti-war photographer," groan/laugh), Mason Weaver.  And to Skull Island's credit, it's likelier than not that you'll not realize until the movie's over that their inclusion on a secret American mission is pure stupid contrivance.

They make their way to Skull Island, to "map" it, with "seismic charges"; but they find out, with outright terrifying swiftness, that Randa has told a little fib.  The real reason they've made this journey is to smoke out the monsters he just knows are living here, and come back with the proof.  Unfortunately, you can't just ask a monster to take a picture, especially not with bombs.  In short order, almost every last extra is dead at the hands of a certain monumental ape creature, and the movie takes up the thread of its most obvious literary antecedent, becoming a vigorous adaptation of Moby-Dick, with a skyscraper-sized primate in the titular role, and Col. Packard playing Ahab with a customary (but gratifyingly focused) Jacksonian brio.

What's that?  Oh, right: you might've thought the novel Skull Island took on was Heart of Darkness.  But I have no idea why Vogt-Roberts and his screenwriters thought their story deserved to name one character after Darkness' author, and another after its protagonist, except that Skull Island and Darkness' best adaptation, Apocalypse Now, both involve the Vietnam War.  Nor, I'm afraid, could it come close to bothering me.  It's worth pointing out, at least, that while Skull Island does indeed love it some Vietnam movies, it's hard to dislike it for doing nothing but following every last Vietnam movie's lead, and packing its runtime chock full of overwrought period signifiers and bitchin' 70s rock.  It might come off better here than it usually does, frankly, in a movie at least partly dedicated to making a darkly irreverent joke out of failed American interventionism.

But if Skull Island is dedicated to anything, it's rad-beyond-belief monster action.  There's an idea that Skull Island is the movie Godzilla might've been if you ever got to see the title character; truthfully, I'd need to see some hard numbers before I'd believe that Kong is onscreen more than his scaly green counterpart.  But Skull Island never loses sight of what it's about, and there's a good reason why the title privileges its setting.  It's the excuse for some of the finest creature design of a generation.  I won't even list its monsters, for fear of spoiling them—though I'll happily note that one of Skull Island's several gore shocks tests its PG-13 rating in the best kind of way.  The headliner can only boast of being the second-best monster in his own movie, thanks to that; but everything here is excellent, from the sterling giant ape CGI that happily wants to recreate classic monster-movie suitmation acting with Kong himself (the most upright he's ever been, possibly including the actual Toho suitmation movies), down to the outright bizarre beasts Kong must fight.

So Skull Island, you see, is just jam-packed with stuff.  (It's a movie clearly of the opinion that Kong '33 was way more fun while it was still on the island that time forgot.)  And it's astonishing that Vogt-Roberts keeps the pace this fluid, and the storytelling this clear, while still managing to shuffle through a whole deck's worth of face cards—though it helps, I imagine, that the movie's "protagonist," such as he is, doesn't show up till John C. Reilly bursts onto the scene with loopy humor and a hint of genuine pathos, as the marooned American airman I mentioned way back.  But fluid it is; there's a sense of urgency to these proceedings, a driving impatience to get to the good parts now.  I'd be lying if I said it didn't serve the film perfectly: it'd be hard for any movie to top the orgasmic surprise of Kong tearing helicopters out of the sky literal seconds after we've arrived over the island.

In point of fact, Skull Island never does—but that's no sin, thanks to its single greatest virtue.  It's a movie that knows that the goofy can be breathtakingly beautiful, too, and to one extent or another it can be reduced to just that, a wonderful string of beautiful, goofy moments.  I could describe one for you—"Tom Hiddleston in a gas mask, charging across a field of lime green toxic gas while carving a path through a flock of deadly prehistoric birds with a samurai sword"—and, I know, it would only sound like I'd had an idea for a fat man's T-shirt.  But there it is; and, in the seeing, it's pop art majesty.

Vogt-Roberts lucked out, though, and big time: for Skull Island, he snagged one of the single best cinematographers working today that nobody really rates, Larry Fong, and Fong goes positively nuts with lurid lighting everywhere it could possibly go, and colors so lovingly oversaturated they look like they could drip right off the screen.  Given the monochromatism of the typical Fong film—after all, he's been Zack Snyder's lensman for a nearly decade—it's pleasing as hell to see him get to work with a palette, rather than just one hue at a time.  (You'd never think Skull Island would actually resemble its many pretty posters, but Fong proves you wrong.)  And you can still tell that Fong was cross-pollinating the best of Snyder's aesthetic here: those dizzying, swirling, and occasionally-speed-ramped sequences certainly didn't come from nowhere.

Meanwhile, Vogt-Roberts is an absolute master of the insert-shot grace note: every last one of them presents itself as a little diamond artifact of the sheer joy of making a film on such a large and indulgent scale.  If Vogt-Roberts or Fong or production designer Stefan Dechant or costume designer Mary Vogt had an idea, any idea, then it showed up in the final cut, at least for half a second.  And seriously, whoever let them get away with the rack-focus gag that pulls from a helicopter to a dragonfly is probably an objectively bad movie executive—but they do have my most heartfelt thanks.

It's not like there's nothing sincere to hang onto in this film, if you require it.  Indeed, there's more than your usual blockbuster.  (The whole thing's tremendously sincere, really; that's the "high-camp" part of its equation, the same way that the anything-goes visual scheme is the "low-camp" part.)  And besides Reilly's time-lost pilot, there's a legitimate symbolic motif here, thankfully left unpicked-at, in the different ways our two groups of survivors wind up experiencing the island as they move toward their hoped-for rescue: the soldiers, who fix upon vengeance and domination, meet nothing but gruesome monster-movie death (even when they try to be heroic); whereas the group of civilians, who demonstrate something more like an open heart, get to walk around inside a Miyazaki movie instead.

So, themes!  Hey, everybody likes those, too.  Better to have them and not need them than need them and not have them.  But Skull Island cares most of all about fun.  That attitude seeps into every single scene, whether it's monster-related or not.  Does it have actual weaknesses?  Of course it does, though even pointing them out is a waste of time.  For example, I'm at a loss to explain how an ecosystem with this many giant monsters also has this many groves of densely-packed trees.  But if you called that an incredibly stupid objection, I'd have to say you were right.  In the same vein, does anybody really care if Larson and Hiddleston are a little blank in their roles?  The people calling them out are the same kind of folks who'd spend time criticizing Sam Jones in Flash Gordon.  In other words, morons.

Score:  9/10

No comments:

Post a Comment