Kong: Skull Island

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly

When Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla came out, it was criticised for its slow-reveal approach with the titular monster, who only appeared on-screen for about eight minutes. While Jaws is one example of how well this approach can work when done right, Godzilla shows how tedious it can be with the absence of compelling characters or an engaging story. Kong, the second instalment of the proposed MonsterVerse franchise, takes the opposite approach. We meet the gigantic ape as soon as the characters reach Skull Island and then he remains prominent throughout as he battles monsters and whatnot. This approach will undoubtedly work for many viewers as it allows them to see plenty of exactly the thing they paid to see: epic monster-on-monster action. It didn’t work for me though. This was because the misgivings with character and story were still there. It terms of pure action alone, this movie is weird, exciting and fun. As a whole it is a messy, misguided, and often tiresome film.

It is 1973 and the war in Vietnam is virtually over for the Americans. At this time Bill Randa (John Goodman), a government agent, hires the former soldier James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to lead an expedition to Skull Island. Escorting them is a U.S. army squadron led by the ruthless Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Also accompanying them is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist and vocal peace activist. Upon arrival the troops start dropping heavy explosives to map out the island until they are interrupted by the arrival of Kong, an enormous ape, who attacks the party and scatters them all around the island. The survivors must navigate and survive the threats and creatures that inhabit the island in order to find each other and escape. Packard however has other plans for the monster that wiped out his troops.

The design and animation in this film is first-class. The monsters look like they could’ve been designed by Guillermo del Toro or Hayao Miyazaki. Kong himself is larger than life and he looks and feels as real as any of the human characters. The ground trembles with his every step, the blows he delivers to his foes leave a shattering impact and the sounds he makes teem with life. This authenticity however is only true on a visual level because, unlike the previous incarnations in the 1933 classic or in Jackson’s remake, this Kong has no personality. He isn’t keen or intelligent, he isn’t protective or vengeful, and he isn’t hard-hearted or compassionate; he’s just an exceptionally animated CGI monster there to wreak havoc or to rush in as the saviour depending on what the plot wants him to do. Even if Kong were an interesting character in his own right, he has to fight for his screen time against the half-dozen or so human characters the film saw fit to focus on. Hiddleston somehow has less of a character than Kong, Jackson is one-dimensionally crazy, and Larson’s character only exists because blonde damsels are mandatory in King Kong movies.

What really got on my nerves though was that Kong was not satisfied with being a simple King Kong movie. Even with the lack of character, I would’ve been just fine with two hours of mindless, visually stunning action (I’m only human). The truly baffling thing about this film is the statement it’s trying to make (whatever that statement may be). The movie is unreservedly intent on creating some sort of parable to the war in Vietnam, pitting its gung-ho soldiers and their advanced weaponry against a savage foe who bests them with guerrilla tactics, and clutters the movie with homages to Apocalypse Now and Platoon just in case there was any ambiguity on that front. The point however is lost on me. All I got from the movie’s ‘meaningful’ statements about the war, its superficial characterisations and its extravagant imagery complete with napalm explosions was that the film really wanted to make a Vietnam metaphor.

The total clash in tones makes Kong: Skull Island feel like several different films blended together into an indefinable mixture. There’s the monster movie that we all wanted to see but it has been mismatched with some kind of political allegory that is so blatant and unsubtle and yet so random and unfocused that I’m not sure whether ‘allegory’ is even the appropriate word. The movie somehow takes itself too seriously and yet not seriously enough. It is certainly a weird and crazy enough film that the mess will work for some viewers. At its best the action is thrilling, awe-inspiring, and epic. I however found myself so distracted by the confused, cluttered story and the soulless characters that I was never able to lose myself in the spectacle. Godzilla may have lacked character but at least it was tonally consistent enough that I never felt like the story ever derailed or lost track of itself. This movie was anarchy from beginning to end. Visually stunning anarchy, but anarchy nonetheless.


10 Cloverfield Lane

Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher, Jr.

Director: Dan Trachtenberg

Writers: Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, Damien Chazelle

The secrecy surrounding this film as it came out is I think one of its best selling points. As it was being developed and filmed, few people realised that it was going to be a sequel to the J.J. Abrams movie. The ambiguity and intrigue that the revelation of the film’s title inspired ended up being a key ingredient in what made watching this film such an enjoyable experience. The question of how this story is connected to Cloverfield adds much to the uncertainty provided by the film’s very concept and also keeps the viewers on their toes whenever they start to believe that they might have figured this movie out. I was a bit apprehensive about watching this movie as I wasn’t really a fan of the original Cloverfield. However I ended up finding the sequel, with its wholly different tone and style from that of its predecessor, to be a fascinatingly compelling and intriguing film. It works well enough on its own but as an ambiguous sequel with an uncertain connection to its original counterpart it works splendidly as both a mystery and a thriller.

After breaking up with her fiancé, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) frantically drives through rural Louisiana where she ends up in a car collision. When she regains consciousness she finds herself chained and locked in an underground bunker. Howard (John Goodman), the man holding her in this place, reveals that an unknown attack has occurred and that he cannot allow her to leave his shelter. These claims are given credence by the testimony of a third survivor Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a construction worker who helped to build this bunker and who witnessed the attack himself. After an escape attempt convinces Michelle of the truth behind these claims she accepts that she must remain in the bunker with these two men for an indeterminate amount of time. As time passes by however, Howard’s eccentricities and antagonism convince Michelle that he might be withholding secrets from them both and might even have ulterior motives for holding her in the bunker.

While Cloverfield was a found-footage monster movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane adopts an entirely different style as a claustrophobic psychological thriller. The audience is trapped in the bunker along with Michelle while the threat in the outside world remains invisible and anonymous. The film makes the wise decision of portraying the entire narrative through Michelle’s eyes, meaning that we only ever know as much as she does. With each new discovery she makes about the ominous threat that has them all trapped inside this bunker and also about the strange, hotly tempered man keeping her here, the deep tension and stirring intrigue keeps growing and growing. Although I do think that the ultimate pay-off in the third act was perhaps a little too far-fetched, the way that the mystery unfolds over the course of the first and second acts is a suspenseful and captivating experience.

At the centre of it all is Winstead as Michelle, the viewer’s window into this world. While we never really learn much about her, we get a strong enough sense of her personality that she never feels like a mere surrogate for the audience. In her attempts to understand the reality of her situation and the natures of the men sharing this living space with her, the film never makes the mistake of making her an idiot. She applies reason and rational thought, she is able to be trusting without being naïve and she takes action when faced with a legitimately threatening situation. The best performance of the film however belongs to John Goodman as Howard. This is a man who clearly isn’t all there, given that he was paranoid enough to have actually built the bunker in the first place, and whose eccentricities range from strange to charming to terrifying. He is the one who holds all of the power within this bunker which means that he could be either Michelle and Emmett’s greatest asset or most dangerous threat. The fact they don’t know which he is scares them to no end.

10 Cloverfield Lane is easily a clear step up from its predecessor. The film is tense, smart and enthralling and unfolds its story and just the right pace. While I did find parts of the climax to be somewhat bewildering and cannot help but feel that they sort of undermined the film as a whole for me, I can still definitely say that I never saw a single frame of it coming. Obviously I cannot elaborate in any way on what happens, but feel I should say that the decision to make this movie a sequel to Cloverfield without explaining how or why was an excellent one on the studio’s part. The mystery of how the two movies are connected is the icing on what is already a rich and layered cake. If this franchise chooses to continue the trend of reinventing itself then I eagerly await its future instalments.