There is a flaw in the new movie about the fictional, enormous, plane-swatting ape King Kong and it plagues many modern films. Ironically, it is the same flaw that inspired Carl Dunhem to abduct Kong in the first place; he was obsessed with the spectacle.
Technological advances have made anything possible in movies. Anything. We can turn a man into a monkey, we can transform a dusty landscape into a foreign planet, we can distort reality and invade dreams. The creators behind Kong: Skull Island take full advantage of these possibilities to create the largest version of the monsterous ape to date.
The king of skull island stands more than 30 meters tall and is made up of the performances of two separate actors. Terry Notary, the movement choreographer for Avatar and the two newest installments in the Planet of the Apes saga, captured the body movements of Kong. The filmmakers wisely gave the job of portraying his expressions to one of the soldiers in the movie (Toby Kebell), realizing the importance for a character who is unable to speak (at least not in a language any audience would understand.)
Undoubtedly, there is a clear love for Kong in this film. The creators didn’t skimp on his visual design. Two animators spent a year creating the fur for the titular character, designing new programs to add random patches of mud and twigs amongst the hairs. They have taken their time to add noticable spittle whenever Kong demonstrates his mighty roar and flexing muscles when he prepares for combat. Kong is at his most frightening and realistic; he will most likely be the character you most connect with.
Unfortuantely, it seems the team behind this beauty got lost in their creation; they can’t stop showing him off. The movie is crammed with dramatic introductions. At one point, the camera slowly moves through a cave to reveal Kong marvelling at the polar lights. There is no doubt in my mind that the producers searched “most awe-inspiring sights in the world,” found a video of the dancing lights, was amazed, and immediately started to work on this scene. They didn’t even consider it long enough to discover that the location of skull island would make polar lights extremely unlikely.
The filmmakers treat Kong like a loud, colorful rattle in a futile attempt to conceal these facts and maintain the interest of the audience.
After that, the movie turns into a destructive game of one-upmanship. The rules are simple: every appearance by Kong should outdo the others. Let’s play. At 1:28, Kong walks slowly out of a mistful landscape, with the soft light of the silver moon glistening on his body. Two minutes later, he is introduced again, this time as a shadow surrounded by furious flames. Barely a minute later, the producers combine the shots to give us Kong staring down the humans, surrounded by fire and smoke, with an abnormally large full moon forming a halo around his head. He beats his chest and roars. Alone the shot would’ve been incredible but with a dozen competing scenes, none of them gets to be the king of the hill.
The movie moves from fantastic roar to fantastic roar without much plot to fill the gaps. The humans are reduced to tour guides, bouncing aimlessly around the terrain encountering more monsters than Jacob Kowalski ever did. It is only when some of them perish that you realize how two-dimensional they all are. Some of the main characters are swatted like flies, but their death inspires little grief; they barely existed in the first place. Everything we know about Hiddelstons character is his profession as a tracker. The supporting cast often mention his talent, but we never see it. The only time it’s highlighted is when he loses the trail and struggles to find the vantage point, which contradicts his only attribute. Characters exist to serve as metophors, to drive the plot forward or to elicit empathy. The character’s in Kong: Skull Island serve either none of these functions or they do so poorly. In fact, acting as stan-ins for the awe and excitement that’s lacking in the audience seem to be their only function.
A cautionary tale
I chose Kong: Skull Island as a platform for these critiques because it was the most recent example and one of the more obvious ones. It lacks an interesting plot, developed characters and good dialogue. The filmmakers treat Kong like a loud, colorful rattle in a futile attempt to conceal these facts and maintain the interest of the audience. Kong and the other monsters are full of sound and fury, but after a while it signifyies nothing.
Too many new movies (particularly in the horror, action or adventure categories) suffer from the same issue. CGI is the new, wonderful toy in Hollywood and the filmmakers are a bunch of rampid dogs who chase it with all their heart. They only realize once they finally catch it that they have no idea what do to with it. It’s an alluring instrument. To a director it means finally fulfilling a vision that would be impossible without CGI. But it must be used wisely. It should complement the story, not substitute it.