REVIEW: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

kongskullislandbanner

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly, Story by John Gatins
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman

As you may or may not know, I cannot stop gushing love for Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. It is a monster movie of the same caliber as Gojira or the original King Kong, even if whole swaths of the modern moviegoing audience cannot recognize that. With Kong: Skull Island, Legendary Pictures hopes to springboard a new “Monsterverse,” modeled on Toho’s old cinematic series and aimed to compete with Marvel’s MCU. And I’ll just get this right off the bat: it has a lot more in common, quality-wise, with the former.

A diverse team of scientists, soldiers and adventurers (Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson) unite to explore a mythical, uncharted island in the Pacific, spurred on by the eccentric and desperate Dr. Randa (John Goodman). After their research mission is violently ended by the King of Skull Island, the gigantic ape known as Kong, they must fight to escape a primal Eden in which humanity does not belong. While one group seeks escape alongside a World War II survivor (John C. Reilly), the military escort, led by Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) seeks vengeance, and the ultimate battle between man and nature is ignited.

Maybe I should have tempered my expectations going in; weeks of hearing comparisons to Apocalypse Now and allusions to “deep thematic ties to the Vietnam War” really set my sights high with this one. While there are high ambitions and some creative ideas at work in Skull Island, many of them are unfortunately wasted. I think giving this project to sophomore director Jordan Vogt-Roberts was a mistake; he seems to settle for music video editing and lackluster performances when someone like Edwards would have definitely pushed for more.

One immediate problem with the whole affair are the characters: this ensemble cast should have knocked Godzilla‘s out of the park, but only two seem to live up to any expectations: John Goodman’s bitter take on the Denham archetype Bill Randa, and John C. Reilly’s lovably-zany Marlow, who’s as satirical a riff on Heart of Darkness as good taste will allow. Everyone else is just kind of….there. The air cavalry is about as stereotypically gung-ho as you can get, led by Sam Jackson’s pseudo-Ahab hardass. And in what must be the final insult to such a potential awesome time, Hiddleston and Academy Award-winner Brie Larson never seem to break out of a very obvious boredom with the lazy script. I kid you not, two conversations that they have alone are set up like a five-year-old playing with broken action figures, and end the same way–uselessly.

Even Kong doesn’t survive this severe lack of focus on character: despite getting the grab on the first big action sequence only 35 minutes in (no doubt a response to audience complaints on the Big G’s lack of screen time), he sadly isn’t explored outside a ton of exposition by Marlowe. He has a few moments of emotion here and there, including one amusing fight with a giant octopus that ends in a very tasty meal, but in the end I didn’t feel much connection to the big guy at all, which is rather troublesome: not only is he supposed to be a natural guardian in the way Godzilla was previously, that is Kong’s forte–making the audience cry. That simply doesn’t happen here.

The other big failing Skull Island wrestles with is the relative mediocrity of the photography on display. Opening on the beach during 1944, a P-51 crashes ashore, and proceeds to look like its 5 feet long. I don’t know what caused this bizarre depth of field problem, considering I know a miniature wasn’t used, but mistakes like this continue to pop up every now and then. The rest of the film utilizes the picturesque grass fields and dense jungles of Vietnam, but barely ever opens up to let us realize the scope. And God forbid the soldiers pop on another rock song into the record player, because then the editor decides we need to keep beat with the drummer at the cost of whizzing by even more big and beautiful sights.

Don’t take this to mean that I hate the film; I’m sure once I’m done bitching, I’ll soften enough to go pick up the blu-ray. Many of the old Toho films and American monster cinema of the ’50s had similar problems, and I still adore them. Indeed, I was rather tickled plenty of times to see so many kaiju and Kong references stuffed into one film, and the two climactic beats of the final act were quite thrilling indeed. Skull Island is definitely enough for a fun monster mash, and maybe that’s enough for now. I just know that I’m happy Vogt-Roberts is not helming Godzilla 2.

Advertisements

REVIEW: Godzilla (2014)

godzilla2014banner

Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Max Borenstein and David Callaham
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston

If you don’t already know, than you will soon find out just how much of a tokusatsu and kaiju film fanatic I am; just the fact that I refer to those films by their actual subgenre terms and not just as “Godzilla” movies should begin to account for that. With this known, hear me on this: Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is the redemption American filmmakers and audiences have been seeking since the first fumble Roland Emmerich’s film made with the Big G’s legacy. It’s probably even the best Godzilla film since the original 1954 classic. It certainly is the only one that feels like it belongs in the same class.

In 1999, the Janjira nuclear plant in Japan is mysteriously destroyed with most hands lost including supervisor Joe Brody’s (Bryan Cranston) wife, Sandra. Years later, Joe’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a US Navy ordnance disposal officer, must go to Japan to help his estranged father who obsessively searches for the truth of the incident. In doing so, father and son discover the disaster’s secret cause on the wreck’s very grounds. This enables them to witness the reawakening of a terrible threat to all of Humanity, which is made all the worse with a second secret revival elsewhere of an even greater threat. And yet, this new enemy of civilization may be its only hope. And its name is Godzilla.

Edwards probably had the toughest job imaginable ahead of him when he accepted the job directing this film. Having only directed one film beforehand, even if it was the critically acclaimed Monsters, this must not have instilled a lot of confidence in the fanbase. Boy, were they wrong. Everything about his gargantuan vision is perfectly suited to the King of the Monsters, and in many ways improves upon what Ishiro Honda and Tomoyuki Tanaka envisioned for their God of Destruction over 60 years ago.

However, to talk to the average moviegoer who claims to have “watched Godzirra movies back in the day,” you’d think this movie was a sin against God. “There’s not enough Godzilla!” “It’s boring and pretentious!” “Not enough monster fighting!” These are the usual complaints I heard from behind the concession counter when this film was still in theaters.And sorry, but all of these arguments betray a lack of true love for the titular creature and what he represents. Godzilla is best understood not through the prism of the seemingly-countless Vs. series of films from 1956 on (and don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of entertainment to be had there), but through the dark iris of 1954’s Gojira.

As expanded upon in The Long Take’s excellent comparison video, Edwards’ Godzilla opens the story with a disaster related to the headlines of the time: the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown becomes the Janjira tragedy. And then the new film branches off: while Tanaka’s Godzilla was always a response to unchecked nuclear testing and aggression, the title monster having been awakened and severely scarred by a nuclear bomb, Edwards’ Godzilla is impervious to the bomb, indeed, to all human attempts to destroy him. The new Godzilla represents the entirety of nature’s response to mankind’s stupidity and arrogance, effortlessly swatting away the best of our weapons and soldiers in his single-minded quest to destroy this film version’s nuclear allegory, the MUTOs.

With this, the writers achieved a distancing from the old anti-nuke allegory in a perfect way that doesn’t negate those fears; it expands upon them, bringing every human action against Mother Earth into sharp, uncompromising focus. From there, all the nitty-gritty narrative plot points become borrowed from the best of the unmade Godzilla films. The MUTOs are discovered within the carcass of another Godzilla-like creature, just like in Jan de Bont’s 1994 script. The MUTOs themselves are constantly evolving; another lifting from Godzilla vs the Gryphon. The final battle takes place in San Francisco–hello, Godzilla 3D. It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to reward us for waiting through the deaths of all of those promising projects by giving them a chance to shine through this one.

And then Edwards takes over, drawing out the suspense of the main set pieces Spielberg-style, keeping the camera fixed on a human-eye vantage point. Whether watching Godzilla stomp his enemy from an hovering helicopter shot or the male MUTO swooping over from a 40th-story window, not a single shot aimed at the monster is not in documentary style. There were a few moments where I felt like I was watching a Jurassic Park sequel.

And now comes one of the bigger complaints, and one that is hard to ignore: the human characters. Everyone gives a great performance, from Strathairn’s by-the-book command to Cranston’s tortured, obsessive search for the truth. The problem is that they all don’t do much. All of their actions contribute to the greater calamities that propel the plot along to the final confrontation. Ford is the only one who accomplishes anything worthwhile, but in the end, still fails in his mission. But I say this isn’t a failing of the screenplay, but a main feature. Looking back to the original film, the exact same problems exist: too many people who do nothing but watch, slack-jawed, in terror of the monster. Only one, Dr. Serizawa, is the man of action, defeating the beast in the end. Ford is now that character, but is infinitely more relatable as a soldier and a father–another aspect of American cinema.

I could go on and on, but I trust my point is made, or at least begun. Godzilla is more than the majority of its predecessors. It is the first successful reboot, from any country or filmmaker, of the original film. There are a handful in the Japanese series that are worthy followups, but none captures both the fear and wonder of the unknown, and the sheer power of Allmother Nature like this one. Like the incredible, bone-rattling roar of the Big G himself, Godzilla makes a mighty impression.