Sunday, March 12, 2017

Kong: Skull Island - A Well-Oiled Chaos Machine


Kong. He's been a staple of American cinema for 84 years now, from his first groundbreaking movie to the campy af '70s remake to Peter Jackson's love letter and three-hour tour from 2005. Now, in 2017, he's back on the big screen, rebooted into the Legendary Pictures MonsterVerse which secretly began with 2014's Godzilla reboot, and headlining an inspired, propulsive film that's probably the best genre Vietnam War movie since James Cameron's Aliens.

Try not to love the smell of napalm in the morning too much. Kong might shove a palm tree into your face for that.

Though this movie's set in 1973, and was filmed quite a few months back, releasing it now, in the spring of 2017, makes the movie's themes resonate surprisingly well. Just look at the early scene where John Goodman's Bill Randa, an agent of the secret Monarch team featured in Godzilla, comes to DC and comments on the unprecedented corruption of the Nixon administration, which he's pretty sure will never repeat itself again. (Fast-forward 44 years and see how wrong you are, Randa, when the corruption reaches new highs in the absence of a legitimate administration.) Together with his assistant Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins - now we know the other reason, in addition to 24: Legacy, why Heath's been MIA for a while on The Walking Dead), Randa seeks funding for a Monarch expedition to find the mysterious Skull Island, traditional home of Kong and other assorted MUTOs. To get said funding, he takes advantage of the rampant confusion in the system as the book closes on one particularly troubling chapter of American history - the Vietnam War. For additional support for his Monarch team (which also includes San Lin (Jing Tian), a biologist with whom Brooks bonds), he picks up some military-types who are looking to come home from the war at last - a US Army squadron led by Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), and Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston looking unusually rugged and ragged), late of the British Special Air Services, who brings hunting and tracking skills to the team. Assisting in visual documentation (it wouldn't be a proper Kong movie without someone to film it all!) is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson, our forthcoming Captain Marvel), a professional photographer and peace activist hoping to use her art to make a difference.

They go to Skull Island (here said to be in the Pacific, not in a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean southwest of Sumatra like in previous versions) daunted to various degrees by the storm system that perpetually encircles the place, but the helicopters soar through the rain and lightning and soon start flying over the island, dropping seismic charges to map the island's underlying geology. The mission soon falls to pieces, however, when Kong himself looms out of the jungle and starts throwing palm trees at the choppers, which fall spectacularly and explosively all over the place. Who knew Skull Island was so huge? Conrad, for what it's worth, indicates that the wreckage of all the choppers and the crew are scattered over a roughly 45-square-mile area once Kong's done with them. (And take note - because he's not distracted trying to hold on to the Beauty to his Beast on top of a huge NYC skyscraper, he's got no trouble making mincemeat of these choppers even as they attempt to shoot him down. At one point in this first extended fight, he even jumps into the air and successfully tricks two choppers into shooting each other down.)

The plan, from this point forward, is to rendezvous at an exfil point on the north end of the island, but to get there, everyone has to trawl through the jungle like it's Vietnam all over again. And, just like Vietnam, our fighters are horribly outmatched - not so much by human inhabitants, though. In fact, unlike previous Kong movies whose depictions of the Skull Island natives have aged badly due to overuse of harmful "savage" stereotypes, here we see the local human population as a small, peaceful society living in relative harmony with Kong, their god and protector. They also count among them a fallen World War II pilot, Hank Marlow, played terrifically by John C. Reilly. (Don't worry, if you think the movie's gonna portray the tribe as a cargo cult, they don't.) Marlow actually first appears in the movie's prologue, wherein he and a Japanese pilot, Gunpei Ikari, crash-land on Skull Island's shores in 1945, fight each other for a while, and then witness Kong himself rising out of the jungle. When we meet Marlow again in 1973, he reveals that, having found a place where the war no longer mattered, he and Gunpei wound up becoming friends, and both came to live in the tribe's village (although Gunpei has since died.)

Marlow's function in the story is to represent the perfect antithesis to the movie's more warlike characters, particularly Sam Jackson's Col. Packard, who pretty much forgets the Vietnam War is over the second Kong starts acting up. From there, another parallel to the present day is drawn - not only does the movie take place at a time when corruption and cynicism were infecting the government at the highest levels (just like today), but also, like today, the movie's time period is coming down off a war that, in hindsight, has proven totally unnecessary, a waste of precious resources, money, and manpower fought only because those in charge were hawks who just wanted any excuse they could get to rattle their sabers. (And, as Packard says to try and justify his ways, "We didn't lose the war. We just abandoned it.")

They may have abandoned it, but they've sure as hell found their way into another one, this time on a scale far greater than human. As per tradition, Skull Island is populated with a wide variety of Pokémon - sorry, MUTOs, to use the official MonsterVerse acronym. Some of these, like a massive water buffalo, are pretty harmless. One is Kong, not the nicest guy around, but he's easily counted on to keep you safe from the worst of them, unless you piss him off. But then there's a bunch of other nasty monsters, such as giant spiders and ants and even the deadly, dinosaur-like Skullcrawlers (whose design, according to director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, took inspiration from Neon Genesis Evangelion, No-Face from Spirited Away, and the Pokémon Cubone - a surprisingly terrifying mashup in practice). These monsters have a way of lurking in wait, camouflaging themselves and only striking when it's too late. They're monsters, but their ecosystem perfectly represents a foreign land in which American military might really has no place - again, just like Vietnam. And again, just try telling that to Packard, who by the end of the movie basically wants to blow it all to hell as revenge for the team's first encounter with Kong, with no regard for the terrible impact this will have on the rest of the island. Including the villagers.

While the producers' approach owes a lot to the Marvel Cinematic Universe - #ItsAllConnected in the tangled story threads, some of which wait until a post-credits scene to make themselves known; and they've also hired a little-known director with more than a strong flair for filmmaking, very clearly standing on the shoulders of the giants Abrams, Spielberg, Whedon, Gunn, etc. - Kong: Skull Island manages to be even more of a thinker's movie than some MCU films. It's brutal and blistering, to be sure, but its themes and messages resonate shockingly well in the wake of America's fall to fascism.

Go and watch this grade-A movie if you can. You're welcome. Obviously.

Till next time, Pinecones...

Remember: Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

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