Friday, August 4, 2017

The Pulp Fails of Kong: Skull Island.

Remember the original King Kong? It was a very simple premise. "We're going to go to a new island, and film a movie there in the name of discovery!" The huckster in charge finds a poor starving (and startlingly beautiful) girl, who he brings along in order to give her a job, and have a pretty starlet in the film. Along the way, they find an island full of man-eating monsters, a native tribe that sacrifices to their monkey god the size of a building. When the girl gets kidnapped by the natives, the heroic men of the ship charge to her rescue. The monkey gets attached to the blond -- so much so that he follows her once her true love saves her. The monkey is caught, brought to civilization, gets loose in New York, and goes on a rampage until he's destroyed.

How can you screw that up?

.... If you're not Peter Jackson, that is.

There is so much right with Kong: Skull Island .... in the first 30 minutes or so. The rest of the movie is fail after fail, and missed opportunity after missed opportunity. The way I'm which I did this review is inspired by the Castalia House critique of Rogue One. When I started thinking in those term, life became easier for me to better understandall the problems I had.

Our movie opens with fighter pilots from World War II trying to kill each other after landing on an island. I will leave out the factual fail here: the Japanese soldier thrusts at the American (you don't thrust with those swords, you slash), or our American grabbing the blade to stop it (with the traditional swords, that's a great way to lose a finger). I'll forgive all of that because it was fun. The past was fast and frenetic, and insane. We are then interrupted by a glimpse of ten-story killer monkey.

Cut to title.

Enjoy it folks, because that's the most action we're going to get in this film. Even the opening credits try to establish that there are satellites, and overhead shots of the planet, revealing never before discovered lands.... Yawn. Thank you, I like Tom Clancy too, but he does a better job of showing us the technology. AND THIS ISN'T A TECHNO-THRILLER. I won't credit it as a fail, since it's only a few minutes, and it's their sad attempt to establish the time period.

PulpFail #1: We're now at the end of the Vietnam war, where Doctor John Goodman is making an argument with a bureaucrat to be attached to a geographic mapping survey team that has just discovered Skull Island via satellite. Seriously, we needed this discussion? We're going to have it again in a half hour anyway. No, really. In 30-40 minutes, we're going to have this discussion again. Pulp rules should have made this easy. "We think there is something about this island that makes it special. We just want to be attached to this team that's already going. Why? For SCIENCE! For discovery!"

Anyway, we then go about assembling our Magnificent Seven posse: Samuel L "I am the wrath of God" Jackson as the leader of air cavalry and Military escorts of this "milk run." Shea Whigham is playing an older vet and heavy weapons specialist named Cole. Tom "Loki" Hiddleston as an adventurer and tracker. Brie Larson as ... a photojournalist? Really? John Goodman, and two assistants. Why am I not using character names? Because the actors have more personality than anyone in the cast.

I don't necessarily mind the existence of Photojournalist Larson. Plucky girl reporters are all over 30s and 40s films. And the first time she gets uppity, Sam Jackson slaps her down, and that's the last time we hear her try to get self righteous. The exact exchange is over the war itself. Larson says "Don't blame the news because you lost the war." Jackson accurately replies, "We didn't lose the war. We abandoned it."  I hate this part because it gave me hope.

PulpFail #2: Were this plot being developed by people who understood pulp, this is where we would have had a conversation between Scientist #1 (John Goodman) and Military leader #3 (Sam Jackson). The conversation would have included relevant details, like "Yes, it's a land survey. But I'm going to look for real life monsters, and document their existence FOR SCIENCE! So keep your head on a swivel."  But, no, we have to be dishonest and secretive, because otherwise ... no one would be stupid enough to go on this island? No idea.

PulpFail #3: After dropping bombs on the island to "map it with sonar," King Kong pops up, and starts swatting gun ships out of the sky like pesky mosquitoes. All right, this should be ... wait a second. This is too soon. A battle between air support and Kong? That's the end of the movie. And why are bullets not doing anything to Kong? Seriously, those gunships carry huge caliber rounds. Is Kong bulletproof now? And why are they constantly engaging? A huge freaking gorilla pops out of nowhere, takes out helicopters left and right, and they keep engaging at relatively close range? What is this idiocy?

During this fracas is a great, brilliant moment where Kong and Sam Jackson lock eyes over a pillar of CGI fire. Ah. This is where our two adversaries acknowledge one another now, and they'll come after each other later on, during the climax. Sam Jackson seizing the opportunity to avenge his men, lost in this savage attack. Pulp +5.  Don't worry, it won't last.

PulpFail #4: After this, everyone is split up. John Goodman is the only civilian who lands with the military. And Sam Jackson has a very sincere heart to heart with Goodman, at gunpoint. He is understandably a little upset at having his men wiped out by a threat they didn't know existed. Goodman explains that "Monsters are real," one of them took out a ship he was on during the war, and has spent his entire life trying to prove what really happened. While this is an intense performance between two solid actors ... we just set up TWO revenge stories. Both want to avenge their men from two different decades. Wait, what? Really? One wasn't enough?

Sam Jackson has resolved to get to one of his isolated men, who also has the remaining earth-shaking explosives. He is going to get these explosives, and blow this Oedipal monkey if it is the last thing he does, because "Our children shouldn't even have to know that monsters like this exist." I'd say Pulp +5, but this is really just putting into words what we've already seen when the two titans of scenery chewing (Kong and Jackson) locked eyes.

PulpFail #5: From the 45 minute mark on, for the next half hour, the movie gets boring. Yes, boring. How do you have an entire film set on an island where everything from the bugs and birds to the upper echelon predators can kill you? The team of civilians, who are just trying to get the heck off the island, have one encounter with the local fauna ... a really big cow. FAIL!

PulpFail #6: Sam Jackson's team actually has a random encounter with a giant spider. What's the fail here? It doesn't really feel half as frantic as a sudden attack like that should be. Bullets make no impact. The only thing that works is to cut the legs out from under it with machetes. That's it. Bullets do little to nothing here. Honestly, is everything here bullet proof?

PulpFail #7: Hiddleston's team of civilians encounter a local tribe ... and the WWII American pilot from the opening. Ah! About time! We can have the natives take Brie Larson, tie her to a giant gate, and offer her up to Kong as a sacrifice, right! The American has blended in for years, waiting in terror for when it's his turn, or perhaps he's gone native? We can get this movie started!  .... No. The tribe is friendly. There is no conflict. There is no threat. Our WWII pilot is actually a talking head to dump exposition about how the tribe is perfectly peaceful, there is no private property ... really? We're going Communist here? They couldn't just say "Every day is a struggle for survival, no one's really worried about stuff, because there's nothing to covet"? So much fail....

PulpFail #8: I had to break this up in two, it was so stupid. The WWII American pilot, who is actually well-played by John C Reilly (finally allowed to act, I see), explains that Kong is actually the last in a long line of protectors to keep monsters from within the earth from arising... an active threat, once the stupid Americans dropped their bombs and woke them up. Now, while on the one hand, that sounds fairly pulpy-- a band of intrepid explorers accidentally awake ancient creatures from within the Earth -- the execution comes off as "Ah, stupid Westerners screw with mother nature and get what's coming to them," aka: "Are we doing Fergully again?"

PulpFail #8a: Also, this highlights a problem with PulpFail #4: If Kong is merely reacting to evil Americans dropping bombs, what's the excuse for John Goodman's ship being taken out from under him? Is John Goodman's vendetta against the other creatures on this island? The ones Kong is trying to stop? Congratulations, movie, you've not only introduced plot holes, you've now introduced a different adversary, one we haven't even seen yet. Where did you people learn to write?

PulpFail #9: Plucky girl reporter goes outside the massive wall the tribe has put up, and finds a massive cow trapped under a wrecked helicopter. After trying to lift it off of the cow (yes, really), it is lifted off ... by KONG.  At long last! Kong meets girl! We can have a connection! Twas beauty killed the beast! This movie can get started... wait, where is Kong going? He's just walking away? What? Why? Huh? FAIL, movie! Just FAIL!

PulpFail #10: Aw, a nice touching scene between girl and boy leads. Can we have romance? Chemistry? Personality? Anything? Please? Somebody? No. The most we get is a history of Loki's lighter, a Zippo variant from his father. Really, people? Chekov's gun doesn't work like that.

PulpFail #11: The civilians have fixed up a boat, and are riding down river, away from the tribe. And a random encounter bird sweeps in, picks up the lead land mapping ... person ... and carries him off to be torn apart, in mid-air, but carnivorous birds. Does anyone try to save him? Put him out of his misery? Shoot a bird? Shoot him, a la Allan Quatermain? Come on, people, Starship Troopers THE MOVIE had a better grasp of Pulp than you people!

PulpFail #12: The civilians and Sam Jackson have hooked up, and they're going to save the lone soldier, and pick up the massive bombs. Okay. Fine. The fail comes as they tromp through an elephant graveyard. When they are attacked by ... a "Skull head" (Yes, they couldn't come up with a better name for this new primary antagonist.), the first one to go is Doctor John Goodman ... so, what was the point of his character being here? Seriously, the land mapping mission was going to happen without his desire for a monster hunt, so what was the point of him, his back story, or his revenge in memory of everyone he lost? There was no point, except for some exposition we already got from our WWII vet.

PulpFail #13: Just before the elephant graveyard fight against the Skull Head, it is established that the fumes there are so flammable, they ignite and explode with a lit cigarette. During the battle, the automatic fire comes fast and furious, with M-16s, An AK-47, and a heavy machine gun ... the monster shrugs off all of these bullets like nothing. A samurai sword will slice open the skin. The flare from the guns does not set off a single fume pocket. But oh, that lighter from Tom Hiddleston's father? That tiny flare is more than enough to set off a fume pocket, and blow off limbs from the attacking monster. Not only does that not make any sense at all (bullets don't hurt it, but a fire ball blows off parts?) we have your standard eco-message: Man versus Mother nature means that Man always loses. That might be a double fail, but one thing at a time.

PulpFail #14: The dead monster coughed up the dog tags of the soldier Sam Jackson claimed he wanted to save. No. He just wants the bombs so he can blow Kong to Hell. Really, movie? We couldn't do a "save the girl, kill the monster" plot? No, apparently, that's too sexist. We have to have Sam Jackson be the modern cliche, of "crazy military dude #3," more commonly known as the "Captain Ahab knockoff." The civilians just barely beg off, going back to their boat and leaving.

PulpFail #15: Captain Ahab Jackson has a trap for Kong. He's got a barrel of oil dumped in a lake. Kong comes through the lake, and the oil is set on fire. Kong is lost behind a wall of fire. Does he come stumbling through, a juggernaut on fire? ... No. He falls over, onto land. Because his fur is fire proof or something. Kong lands on the trap with all the explosives. Sam Jackson is about to blow up to kingdom come, when Loki Hiddleston comes back, and tries talking him down from blowing up Kong. Jackson's men turn on him, and they'd rather not blow up the monkey that killed all their friends. Because reasons. At that very moment, the big daddy of all of the "Skull Heads" pops up, looming over all of them. This is the point where, if this were Pulpy, Sam Jackson would realize that the even bigger monster, with even bigger teeth, is a bigger threat, and the massive booby trap he just laid would be a good idea to blow the new monster to Hell....

No. Sam Jackson goes full Ahab, looks at Kong, and before he complete his usual slur of an Oedipal nature, Kong wakes up and flattens Sam Jackson. There is no grand gesture. He is surreptitiously wiped out of existence, forgotten, without Jackson even getting out his  trademark catchphrase. He is nothing against .... a giant monkey.

PulpFail #16: The big daddy skull head -- referred to in the film, as simply "The Big One" chases the survivors. I won't call them heroes. One of them, Cole, the older vet of the group, has been carrying around a string of grenades this entire movie. The camera focuses on it every few minutes during the film. As everyone is being chased by this monster, Cole stops to make a final stand against "The Big One." He's pulled pins on the grenades on the bandoleer around his neck. Ah, we know this trope: the massive explosion will slow down the monster just long enough for everyone to get away, his heroic sacrifice capping off a long career of military service, and .....   No. The "Big One" just turns around and knocks Cole aside with a swipe of its tail, knocking him and his grenades at least a mile away, so he could explode in mid-air, doing nothing. A completely futile effort. Massive, massive fail. Chekov is about to take his gun and shoot you with it.

PulpFail #17: Fight between Kong and "the Big One" is barely aided by humans. I'm sorry, in a Kaiju movie, when one is on your side, shouldn't the humans be doing, I don't know, something? "The Big One" is only distracted by a modified WWII turret gun. But it gets really knocked around by the flare gun, fired by the girl photojournalist ... what? Even by it's own standards, this film can't figure out a good execution of plot points.

Additional PulpFails:   -10 Pulp points for "Evil / Crazy military dude" cliche. -20 for the retread Avatar / Pocahantas eco-themes. -50 for "Man's efforts are futile" (Bullets, bombs, the grenade fiasco). BS. -100 points for having zero chemistry between the girl and Loki, or even between the girl and the monkey. -100 points for making me reconsider Peter Jackson's King Kong remake kindly. -100 points for having most of the military men get slaughtered, while most of the civilians walk away,  unscathed.

Kong: Skull Island, failed. It couldn't keep the pace of the original film. It made a terrifying land of monsters boring. I am told that this is expected to be part of a Godzilla universe, like Marvel's Cinematic Universe. Perhaps they should work on getting one film right before they attempt a series.

Here, my own work is more pulpy than this A Pius Man: A Holy Thriller

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