When Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was released a few months back, Yahoo Movies UK ran a fascinating interview with its editors, which casually slid in a rather jaw-dropping factoid about making modern blockbusters and why they so often feel like an assemblage of scenes from other movies: they literally are. “There was no screenplay,” explains editor Colin Goudie, “there was just a story breakdown at that point, scene by scene. He got me to rip hundreds of movies and basically make Rogue One using other films so that they could work out how much dialogue they actually needed in the film. It’s very simple to have a line [in the script] that reads “Krennic’s shuttle descends to the planet”, now that takes maybe 2-3 seconds in other films, but if you look at any other Star Wars film you realize that takes 45 seconds or a minute of screen time. So by making the whole film that way – I used a lot of the Star Wars films – but also hundreds of other films too, it gave us a good idea of the timing… Then I used dialogue from other movies to give you a sense of how long it would take in other films for someone to be interrogated. So for instance, when Jyn gets interrogated at the beginning of the film by the Rebel council, I used the scene where Ripley gets interrogated in Aliens. So you get an idea of what movies usually do.”
I didn’t really notice this process in Rogue One itself – perhaps because it’s such a slavish backstory delivery system that such the act of imitation hardly stands out – but I couldn’t stop thinking about it during Kong: Skull Island, the new King Kong reboot/origin story, which lifts so blatantly, so frequently, from other, better movies that you can call them out yourself during your screening, like a sing-along. (Note: I don’t advocate actually doing this.) When it’s not cosplaying Apocalypse Now, Jurassic Park, and earlier Kong pictures, it’s busy “world-building,” setting up what Warner Brothers hopes will be a lucrative franchise of interconnected giant monster epics. With all of those obligations to fulfill, there’s not much of an opportunity to make an actual movie. And they don’t.
It’s the kind of filmed product that feels focus-grouped and conference-called to death; every word of dialogue sounds like it was written so it would sound cool in the trailer (“It’s a place where myth and science meet”), every character is a type and every story element is mathematically configured, and the Vietnam-War-movie needle-drops are so obvious, Suicide Squad’s music supervisor would laugh at them (no, they don’t play “Fortunate Son,” but when they trot out both “Run Through the Jungle” and “Bad Moon Rising,” you know they wanted to). It’s a film filled to the brim with terrific character actors – John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Jenkins, Shea Whigham, and John Ortiz all show up, along with both Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell, so clearly somebody saw Straight Outta Compton during casting – and it’s hard to find two more charismatic and attractive people to lead them than Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson. But nobody (aside from an unleashed and uproarious John C. Reilly) gets anything interesting to do. They’re all placeholders in a filmed outline.
They’re left doing a lot of gawk-acting, reacting to a tennis ball where a CG monster of one kind or another will be added later, and Larson fares best there; her reactions seem properly modulated to the majesty, and that’s hardly consistent from person to person. (The getting-to-know-you stuff between her and sorta-romantic interest Hiddleston, however, is a drag.) And make no mistake, the Kong creature is impressive, and yes, the monster fight at the end is thrilling. Skull Island’s issues aren’t technical ones; every effect is convincing, every shot is worked out. But, aside from Reilly (who seems to be improvising most of his lines, considering how badly everyone else’s jokes tank), there’s rarely any life in these frames. Late in his career, Alfred Hitchcock would tell his screenwriters the set pieces he’d already devised for his pictures, and instruct them to write a script around them. Skull Island feels like that, except they forgot to do the writing.
Instead, they do a whole lotta homage. If the poster art didn’t make the debt to Apocalypse Now clear enough, the film winkingly gives us one character called “Conrad” and another called “Marlow,” a Kurtz-esque military madman in the form of Samuel L. Jackson (“We didn’t lose the war, we abandoned it”), and Reilly doing his best Dennis Hopper. But the influence of the Jurassic Park films is also clear, from the visual style to the Lost World-esque search party scenes to even, yes, Mr. Jackson informing his co-stars to “Hold on to your butts.”
Watching all this empty quotation, it’s not hard for the mind to wander to Jurassic World, a film with a backstory remarkably similar to this one. Their directors, Jurassic’s Colin Trevorrow and Kong’s Jordan Vogt-Roberts, landed the gigs on the strength of a single, comparatively micro-budgeted indie feature debut (Safety Not Guaranteed and The Kings of Summer, respectively). Neither boost made much sense – Safety had a brief special effects sequence, and, um, Kings of Summer mostly takes place outdoors? – and the resultant work is that of filmmakers tossed into the deep end of big-budget tent-pole filmmaking, and drowning in it. There’s an art to telling stories at this scale, to marshaling the disparate elements of multiple screenwriters and studio note-givers and effects people and big-name actors, but you’ve gotta work up to it. (Even Christopher Nolan, the go-to example of this process working, had the mid-budget Insomnia between Memento and Batman Begins.) Rather than puzzling out an approach of their own, or a distinct way of painting on this giant canvas, both Trevorrow and Vogt-Roberts seem to have merely looked at how other big movies and big moviemakers worked, and cherry-picked the elements they liked.
Look, I’ve got no quarrel with a good, goofy monster movie – hell, I’m the guy who liked The Great Wall. But that movie at least felt bound by a singular vision, by a director and his personality. Kong: Skull Island is spare parts, held together with Scotch tape.
“Kong: Skull Island” is out tomorrow.