Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island ★★★★

Mild spoilers ahead maybe?

I was at a bar with a friend who posited that Gwyneth Paltrow could have spared a lot of women considerable pain if she'd gone public with her Harvey Weinstein experiences when they occurred in the 1990s. I countered that Paltrow was likely - and reasonably - afraid to risk sacrificing herself without succeeding in destroying the monster. As if to undermine my own credibility, I followed that up with: "It's like that dude in Kong: Skull Island who charges at the Skullcrawler with those live grenades but then the Skullcrawler swats him with its tail instead of eating him and he blows up anyway." My friend hadn't seen Skull Island, and quietly acquiesced to my airtight thesis.

I won't claim that Kong: Skull Island isn't a B-picture that merely happens to be wearing a shiny A-picture jacket. It's undoubtedly not intended to be a metaphor for the fight against sexual abuse in Hollywood (unless I wasn't paying attention). The photography is dazzling by any measure, enhanced by the virgin territory of Vietnam which has seldom graced American silver screens. The creature effects and CGI are among the most convincing I've ever witnessed. And the tonal contrecoups between whimsy and horror is 100% my shit (a cutaway to a convulsing Richard Nixon bobblehead in the middle of a helicopter crash was obviously done with me in mind). But I can't deny the dialogue is all over the place, from carelessly cheesy ("Can you smell that? That's death") to relatively astute ("Sometimes there's no enemy until you look for one") to genuinely amusing ("Mark my words, there will be never be a more screwed up time in Washington") to unexpectedly allusive of Jurassic Park ("Hold on to your butts." — Samuel L. Jackson). The uninspired soundtrack is indistinguishable from any other Vietnam War-era playlist (Jefferson Airplane, Black Sabbath, no less than two Creedence numbers—are these songs free or something?). And the characters, at least initially, are distinct purely via idiosyncrasy.

However: visualize me pensively stroking an imaginary beard as I say there might be more to that. Like I said, and at the risk of rationalizing its shortcomings, Skull Island isn't aspiring to be The Third Man with Joseph Cotton looking for his old friend a giant ape. It does deliver on every promise it makes as a monster movie—and yet, under the A-picture jacket, I perchance detect the sporadic flex of complex musculature beneath its B-picture epidermis? If a guy charging at beaky behemoths with live grenades can uphold the probity of Gwyneth Paltrow, perhaps these ostensibly superficial characters are, y'know... wearing jackets and have skin. Jackson's Colonel Packard lamenting America's "abandonment" of the war belies his fervor to destroy Kong as cartoonishly villainous; in contrast, John C. Reilly's tragicomic Lieutenant Marlow - stranded nearly 30 years on Skull Island with the Japanese pilot who shot him down during World War II - has clearly learned to embrace his adversaries. He's a zany Colonel Kurtz but more respectful of the natives who, incidentally, are a much nobler people than in previous Kong films—no (egregiously) racially dubious kidnapping ghouls in this batch. And on that note, Brie Larson's photojournalist Mason Weaver is the most competent among all of the previous Kongs' blond damsels.

Would I classify Kong: Skull Island as deceptively insightful as other sneakily nuanced summer action fare, like Mad Max: Fury Road or Star Wars: The Last Jedi? Jesus Christ no. We could theorize all day about how the careless destruction of one monster resulting in the rise of more dangerous monsters is a metaphor for ISIS or some shit, but Skull Island never steps out of bounds, nor does it need to.

A few weeks later my friend said he watched Kong: Skull Island on my "recommendation" and he thought it sucked. I clarified that I wasn't recommending it so much as I was making a very, very hip reference. He complained of its simplicity, that "it's just a bunch of offbeat characters dropping into the jungle to kill a special effect," and I admitted that it bore a striking resemblance to Predator in that sense, to which replied "Yeah well Predator is awesome." I haven't seen Predator in its entirety since its release in 1987, so we'll see about that. But if there's one thing I don't want you, reader, to misinterpret from this review: I categorically do not endorse Gwyneth Paltrow's dangerous alternative medicine solutions. Don't squirt coffee up your ass.

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