The Trouble with Giant Monsters

Let them fight.”

Probably the one line in a giant monster movie that sums up what they are all about. And at the same time, it highlights the gigantic flaw with them as a genre.

And even though I’m going to do my best to refrain from revealing anything pertinent about the plot or specific moments about the film Kong: Skull Island, just in case: *SPOILERS* if you have not seen it yet.

Don’t get me wrong. I love giant monsters. I sat wide-eyed with wonder in my formative years, devouring each and every one that was shown on Saturday afternoon TV or on Sci-Fi extravaganzas or Chiller Thriller Theater shows on late late night TV. I begged and pleaded for as many issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland as I could. I’d gleefully stare at the images of King Ghidorah or Rhodan or Gamera or the King of All Monsters – Godzilla.

I sat through the latest giant monster movie to grace U.S. screens today: – Kong: Skull Island.

I saw the original King Kong (1933) some long ago Saturday afternoon in the early 70’s. I sat in the living room in front of our TV and watched the black & white stop motion classic with a mix of horror and fascination. Looking at the film now, you may ask, what on earth did you find about it that evoked horror? It’s a tame film compared to the spectacles we have today. But something about that log rolling scene (when my child-like mind didn’t see stiff dolls falling to their doom but real people) stuck with me. I actually got a sick feeling in my stomach seeing those “bodies” strike the earth. Kong was a force of nature, a killer beast and men were insects he would crush underfoot.

And I’m sure that’s the reaction the filmmakers were hoping for when audiences saw it 40 years earlier. Its the same reaction that modern films aim for as well – the thrilling, voyeuristic depiction of death by monster.

There are a number of similar sequences in Kong: Skull Island, but they didn’t impact me as profoundly as did that log scene from the original. Of course it can’t – I’m much older and much more jaded than when I was nine.

Skull Island takes the premise of the original Kong movie and takes it out of the 30’s and puts it right smack dab in the 70’s. The synchronicity of my exposure to the giant gorilla and the setting for this latest incarnation is not lost on me, but its simply an interesting coincidence. Placing it in the Vietnam era and using the burgeoning reliance on satellites to uncover a ‘mythic’ island in the South Pacific is a twist that isn’t quite new, but the presentation of it is handled well.

The music used to hammer the time period home just seemed cliche and almost cringe-worthy to hear. Its like the producers needed to hammer everyone over the head with ‘its not 2017! It’s 1973! Can’t you tell? That’s Airplane’s “White Rabbit” for crying out loud!’ Give me subtle rather than in my face anytime.

Skull Island suffers not from a lack of amazing looking set pieces – but rather from a tired plot of ‘humans treading into spaces that should best left alone’. Much like the ’33 Kong, the film is about trekking through lethal jungle terrain to reach a point of safety and rescue. Along the way – the filmmakers showcase a number of giant monsters and deadly threats… which are really nothing more than filler to eat up time getting to the showdown between Kong and Man and the other reptilian threat that inhabits the island.

The one plot device I did find very intriguing was the whole “Hollow Earth” angle that the Monarch Organization was hoping to prove or exploit or whatever it is that their end goal is – it’s left vague or unanswered – that contrived end title scene notwithstanding. And by contrived I mean it felt forced and tacked on.

The geek in me likes the shared universe aspect of this. It sets up the inevitable showdown between Kong and Godzilla (a re-match of the 1962 version we all know and love). I would love a found footage type docu-film about Monarch, showing how they tie-in all the monster myths in this cinematic universe. The tag scene at the end implies they got a butt load of info and that the real villain of King Kong vs. Godzilla won’t be either of our two favorite giant monsters… which I look forward too 🙂

The plot of Kong: Skull Island is fairly simple – secret Organization piggybacks on a government funded expedition to an uncharted island to uh… find stuff before the Russians do.

All of the characters are pretty stock and it falls into the same safe pitfalls as any monster movie that deals with a ‘hidden land’ or ‘undiscovered island’.

Right from the start, we are told by one character (Tom Hiddleston as an ex-SAS tracker) that they are all going to die in horrible nasty ways. And then the film proceeds to march to that tune right up until the climax.

None of the characters are either likable (except for maybe John C. Reilly – he’s always a joy to watch) or despicable. John Goodman’s character is just obsessed and Sam L. Jackson isn’t so much a villain as a man who doesn’t know anything other than fighting and has a over-developed American self-righteous ego. He’s not a villain, just an angry military man who can’t believe that an indigenous life-form would dare kill those who intruded on its territory.

There are natives in this film – there always are – and like so many films of this type – they are reduced to mute savages – a wasted plot device there to simply give the main characters a place to discuss exposition before continuing the inevitable death-at-the-hands-of-giant-things mission they are on.

I think there was some confusion on the writing/casting part of the film – the “hero” is split for the most part between the Hiddleston character and another American soldier played with understated ‘aw-shucks’ Alabama goodness by Toby Kebbell. Personally I think they missed the boat and should’ve put Kebbell’s character more at the forefront and ditched the SAS tracker character altogether – but as Hiddleston has more star power, Kebbell’s Sgt. Chapman doesn’t fair well. I will note that the audience gasped at his fate – because the set up for him was handled in a way that made you root for him once things go sideways… but its a cliche cheesy tug at the heart strings kind of character to begin with.

As far as the Monsters… Kong is awesome, if a little bit cardboard. He suffers the same presentation as the human actors in the film – he’s one note and cliche. Now, don’t angry because I’m dissing on the big ape. It’s more about presentation than a comment on the King.

As an American, and growing up in the US watching the kaiju films and identifying them with certain geographic locations – Kong has always been presented as (and is in my mind) an “American” monster. He is associated with the US the same way that baseball and apple pie are… I remember having debates in grade school about who was cooler – Kong or Godzilla, and inevitably someone would always blurt out that “…Kong’s an American that’s why!” Kong is warm-blooded savagery. Godzilla is dragon-like and foreign. But if you want my true feeling – Godzilla is the better kaiju. he is the king in my book, and Kong is simply an over-sized rendition of the Beast from the fairytale – heck they even quote it in the original.

For most of Skull Island they didn’t touch on the human female / giant ape quasi-romance issue – but yet it got shoe-horned into it anyway. And it wasn’t handled in a way that made any real sense – it was just in there because the studios insisted upon it because otherwise audiences would’ve freaked out. Which isn’t true, but try telling that to them.

I liked this Kong better than Peter Jackson’s take. I remember watching it thinking I should be having more fun – and I simply wasn’t. It seemed to over the top and the actress (played by Naomi Watts) just wasn’t likable at all. Her sense of self importance was pretty off putting. And don’t get me started on that ridiculous bug valley scene… sheesh.

I guess I was sitting there watching Kong: Skull Island and wondering – what’s the point of all this? Maybe there doesn’t need to be – I mean, looking back at the first line of this post… its simply that: “Let them fight.”

I mean – what else do you really expect from a giant monster movie? Its an extrapolation of us in the sandbox with our monster toys – there are no deep and meaningful plots. Its simply an excuse to see monsters/animals battle for our amusement.

But as anyone who knows me or who has read other entries I’ve posted on this blog – fighting just to fight is boring to me. I found the reptilian beasts that were Kong’s enemies on the island to be unbelievable. Everything about them screamed “illogical” and I’m sure they were created with a “cool factor” in mind and also because audiences have had their fill of dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts – so Kong has to fight something giant and terrifying and new! They just seemed like some dumb creature form a D&D Monster Manual. Two legged lizard things with a outer protective skull. Why? Simply to show Kong as a protector, not a savage. It just seemed convenient and forced.

I don’t know what I was expecting from Skull Island. Maybe more of a back story on Kong. Why is he so big? Why does he exist?

Instead what I saw was just groundwork for the films that will supposedly follow up on the Monarch theory that these creatures owned the Earth before us and are going to attempt to take it back.

Skull Island wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. It was just a prequel.

Let’s hope what follows has more to it – but I’m sure what we’ll get is just more fighting.

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