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Arts & Life

'Kong: Skull Island' Falls Short Of Its Film Predecessors


Looking to revenge the deaths of his men, Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) shouts, “I want to show Kong that man is the king.” And you sit in your seat thinking, “Have you learned nothing? Have you not seen a horror movie made in the past 30 years?” In horror pictures, of course, this kind of species-centered arrogance is not treated kindly.

This latest take on the King Kong story takes place during the war in Vietnam. For hazy reasons, an infantry unit on the way home is sent to help explore a previously uncharted island in the Pacific, surrounded by a perpetual storm. And you know that the guy promoting this adventure (John Goodman) is up to no good. And his version of no goodwill shortly arouse the rage of the most powerful inhabitant of Skull Island, the great ape – as tall as a mountain and looking rather fit – the phenomenon known to all as King Kong.

Ever since the first King Kong in 1933, the story and the images have been packed with meaning. Some form of greed is at the center, with a lot of ideology about nature, humanity and even race. When Kong lies dead at the foot of the Empire State Building, the crass promoter Carl Denham blathers that “It was beauty killed the best.” That facile pronouncement evokes a complicated set of attitudes current at the time about how civilization sapped the strength of men and to maintain their masculinity men had to go off to the wilderness and, well, drag huge apes back to New York. The 1976 version is about corporate greed, and all of the films show some lament for the desecration of the natural world.

This latest movie doesn’t quite get there, and doesn’t quite get anywhere, actually. It’s got a ton of action – Kong has to fling around many varieties of unusual and nasty animals. Big octopus-like things, and flying reptiles that come up out of the ground. It’s like going to a CGI festival. The problem is that none of these gory fights make you feel anything, for either Kong or the human beings. Instead of the complexity of Kong’s soul, the film dishes out sterile exercises in technique. In past Kong pictures, Kong fights to protect the woman he’s captured or to defend his territory. The fights are intimate, to give the sense of Kong’s capacity for feeling, his humanity, although that’s not the right world. This movie doesn’t evoke anything.

Kong: Skull Island appears to consider Kong’s humanity in a literal way. It turns out, Kong is a tool maker. He makes a spear from a tree; he uses a chain with a blade on the end as a weapon; he throws one helicopter at another. These are fantastic achievements for an ape; odd that none of the scientists on board notice.

But what passes for science in Kong; Skull Island isn’t much. One of the science guys has the theory that the Earth is hollow and that maybe a lot of weird beasts left over from eons ago, live down there. Then comes another view – from a World War II pilot (John C. Reilly) stranded on the island since he was shot down by a Japanese flyer in 1944. He explains that Kong maintains the balance of nature in these parts, and if anything should happen to Kong, well, the big one will emerge. Now, to mangle the words of Russian playwright Anton Chekov, we all know that if someone mentions “the big one” in Act One, it’s got to show itself by Act three. And when it does, John Goodman is there with the not-quite-zinger, “That’s the big one.”

From one point of view, Kong: Skull Island is pretty listless and pointless stuff. From another point of view, people will be able to snicker at it for decades.

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