Like any red-blooded American male, I’m a total sucker for a fun, largely mindless, action-disaster flick. These are typically poorly-reviewed movies that Hollywood churns out because these movies’ profits underwrite the less popular indie movies that garner Oscar buzz. They are the lifeblood of Tinsel Town; they aren’t meant to change the world, only to entertain it.
Granted, it’s only March, but "Kong: Skull Island" is 2017’s first mega-budget effort in the "Summer Blockbuster" space and, despite the often over-the-top marketing hype, it is actually pretty good.
The plot is as simple as it is preposterous: In 1973, a group of scientists (led by John Goodman) believe that "monsters" exist on a never-been-charted island in the South Pacific. The U.S. government, in the midst of pulling troops out of Vietnam, grants permission for these scientists, a sassy female photographer (Brie Larson), and an ex-Special Forces British alcoholic (Tom Hiddleston) to travel to the mysterious island and learn its many secrets (before the Russians do).
Escorting them is a U.S. air cavalry unit led by the sadistic Samuel L. Jackson who is driven by the fear that what he and his men have fought (and died) for in Vietnam won’t be worth the trauma they endured.
Upon reaching Skull Island, things go horribly wrong and the separated parties must make their way to the rendezvous point on the other side of the prehistoric land mass. Monsters emerge. People die. And which side King Kong might be fighting for is debated.
"Kong: Skull Island" is demonstrably better than Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong movie. The time period and cultural zeitgeist of 1973 are expertly captured and conveyed. The characters — as clichéd as most of them are — make sense for the parts they play in the overall narrative. Sam Jackson is at the top of his game. And the talented John C. Reilly steals the show and brings some legitimate comedy to the picture.
But the key flaw in "Skull Island" is one that is increasingly common in many modern films, but big budget action-adventure ones in particular — filmmakers and studios don’t really know what to do with the concept of "good vs. evil."
Moral relativism is the native tongue of American progressivism and few places more thoroughly embraced progressive values than Hollywood. Who are we to say what is right and what is wrong? One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, right? And if the biggest problem facing the world is that actresses in Hollywood aren’t paid the same amount as their male counterparts, what room does that leave for stories about actual good people stopping bad people from doing bad things?
Combine misplaced moral outrage with the obsession "gritty" filmmakers since Martin Scorsese have had with the anti-hero, and the third act in a movie like "Kong: Skull Island" can get a little muddled.
Every character — except the female photojournalist, a black scientist, his Asian assistant, and a ruggedly handsome Brit named Tom Hiddleston — takes a turn at being the enemy in this film. And yet every "bad guy" is underwhelming because their motives are convoluted and morally confused. The filmmakers instead seem intent on avoiding stepping on anyone’s toes — except Hollywood’s favorite villain, of course: America. As one Australian critic argued, much of the movie, "can be understood as a reflection on U.S. foreign policy, leaning towards the view that giant gorillas can be tolerated if they serve to keep worse threats at bay." (The U.S. is the giant gorilla, in case you missed that subtle symbolism.)
We go to movies like "Kong" so we can turn our brains off for a few hours and just be entertained by loud explosions and Samuel L. Jackson diatribes. We don’t go to wade through Hollywood’s murky moral relativism. Like so many movies today, "Kong: Skull Island" only works when it sticks to focusing on entertaining, not lecturing, us. When will Hollywood learn that lesson?
This article first appeared on Acculturated.com.
R.J. is a writer based in Los Angeles. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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