Often the best monster movies declare that man is the truest beast. The shark in JAWS may have been feeding in the wrong waters, but it was the selfishness of the mayor that rang the dinner bell when he should’ve closed the beaches. Kurt Russell’s character kills a scientific outpost colleague in cold blood while trying to root out who’s being inhabited by THE THING. And even in ALIEN, the corporation sponsoring the Nostromo is willing to sacrifice its entire crew to ensure the safe return of the lethal creature they want to employ in warfare. As screenwriter Blake Snyder said in his “Monster in the House” description applicable to the horror and thriller genre, whatever the ‘monster’ is, it is always encouraged by man to do the utmost damage humanly possible.
Thus, it is with no fewer than six films about monsters currently in cinemas. The runaway hit of the winter season of course was Jordan Peele’s GET OUT, a film concerning a black man running afoul of a group of affluent suburban white supremacists who use young black bodies as vessels for the transplanting of aging white brains. In France’s RAW, the savagery of the collegiate hazing system at a veterinarian college stimulates the inhumane nature of one of its students and she develops a taste for human flesh. Since I’ve already reviewed those two superb films here and here, respectively, I won’t dwell on them, but suffice it to say that they reinforce Snyder’s credo that man is the most dangerous animal of all.
For this post, I’m going to concentrate on three other monster movies currently playing in cinemas across the land and how they tell their ‘horror’ story. The first is LIFE, and its beast isn’t a man, but an alien life form that is determined to rob the human crew aboard a space station of their lives. The six members of the multi-racial cast include Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds, and they were likely lured by the notion of doing a film that has an ALIEN-like vibe, one with auspices to be a horror classic such as that. This, unfortunately, never rises to the sublime skill and scares of Ridley Scott’s 1979 breakthrough, but this one, directed with gusto by Daniel Espinosa, is a decent enough imitation of it. Still, this is all very familiar territory, as there have been many imitators of ALIEN in the past 30 plus years. To make matters even more difficult with this one, the monster here is a little too shrewd for its own good, or for the interest of the audience. Its ability to counter every human measure makes for too perfect of an opponent, and in doing so, the beast quickly becomes a bore.
The story starts with the space station crew rescuing a probe from Mars that has a sample inside that turns out to be the first proof of extraterrestrial life. They, and the world back home, celebrate the find via cameras aboard the ship, and one lucky child even gets to name the alien. She dubs it “Calvin.” But assigning it such humanity turns out to be a ginormous mistake. As the little bastard starts to grow, it becomes increasingly hungry and wouldn’t you know it, all the plasma and cell sources that he needs to consume to survive happen to be those that human beings carry around in their bodies. Soon Calvin is growing and acting like a superior intellect, constantly a few steps ahead of his earthling counterparts, and in doing so, he is able to turn one crew member after another into his lunch.
What started as an organism, shapeless and resembling a mere amoeba, continues to grow into a bigger and uglier creature. It looks like a cross between a stingray and the alien from PREDATOR. And indeed, prey it does. And like ALIEN, there is some surprise in who bites the big one when and how, but none of the characters have the moxie that Nostromo's crew did. And outside of the main stars, the rest of the cast is mostly defined by their accents. Ryan Reynolds registers, as he always does, because he knows how to be a compelling actor and a movie star, but then the film has him claimed as Calvin's first victim. It becomes a bit more about stunt casting than anything else, but no matter, losing Reynolds an hour into the film cripples it. His character's prolonged and brutal death doesn't help either. It would seem that Espinosa doesn't have a lot to play with here, so he overplays what drama there is.
Then, to add insult to injury immediately following the Reynolds' character's death, the still famished alien devours the pet lab rat and turns him inside out while doing so. Watching that play out all too vividly onscreen as well is a buzz kill. No matter how the alien is killed now, and you know it's not going to as the studio would love a sequel, it won't be justice for those first two horrible deaths. From there on, the film becomes a mere guessing game of who will die next.
There remains one twist at the end that frankly, I saw coming because I've seen too many of these kinds of movies, and the conceit is actually quite a cheat. It is a good scare, so that can be said about it, but it leaves as bad an aftertaste as all the previous deaths, including those first unfortunate two. If only the film was half as clever as Calvin turns out to be. Instead, his abilities are wasted on nothing more than a so-so sci-fi adventure that is little more than one long funeral dirge.
Another monster movie still playing in the cineplexes and raking in the dough is the current reboot of the King Kong franchise entitled KONG: SKULL ISLAND. It too sends a crew of naifs into a confined setting where they’re picked off one by one by monsters, but this one has so much fun building its body count that it's really quite a hoot from start to finish. There’s nothing dour or serious about what they're attempting here. Unlike LIFE, which wants to have the gravitas of GRAVITY around its edges, this one only wants to a clever popcorn movie, and indeed it is. In fact, it might be the most enjoyable B-movie I’ve seen in decades. And I mean that as the highest of compliments. It’s what JURASSIC WORLD should have been, but couldn’t possibly be with Bryce Dallas Howard doomed to run around in those ridiculous white pumps for the better part of two hours.
KONG: SKULL ISLAND thrills you with its chills, but also with its laughs. It doesn't take itself so seriously like Peter Jackson’s overlong and over-indulgent remake of KING KONG back in 2005. This one has an energy and verve to it. The action scenes are sharp and deft, never dragging out, and surprisingly, there aren't that many big set pieces. Most of the time is spent with the characters trying to avoid being casualties in the jungle. It also wisely lets Kong play the hero over and over again. Kong isn't really the monster here, it's those pesky humans invading his backyard, don't you know?
The human avarice that encourages the monsters, to Snyder's point in his Save the Cat screenwriting books, comes in the form of government intervention, circa 1973. John Goodman plays a special op who wants to investigate rumors of fantastical life amidst the unchartered Skull Island in the South Pacific. And his entourage is accompanied by a military man played by Samuel L. Jackson, who brings along his unit of soldiers fresh from defeat in Viet Nam. He's still smarting over that failure and would love a shot at redemption, particularly if he could bring down those he'll find in this jungle setting.
The rest of the entourage include Tom Hiddleston playing the ex-British intelligence officer who’ll serve as their jungle guide, and Brie Larson as a crack war photographer employed to capture images of what they find. (Did she pack her panoramic lens? I don't believe so.) Of course, the screenwriters make her a pacifist too so they can get in some fun digs at the war machine, anti-environmentalists, and perhaps even the macho western hemisphere sensibility about might always making right. Remember, every period piece is always designed to comment on our current world.
The 20 odd characters here will start to be whittled down as soon as they fly their choppers into the jungle. The encounter the gigantic Kong right off the bat, all 10 stories of him, and he bats their threats away like they’re pesky birds. He’s got enough problems on the island, staving off the threats from various oversized creatures that would like to eat his monkey brains, and soon enough, the humans will run afoul of these other beasts too.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who comes from the land of character-centric comedy on television, keeps his focus on his human players at all times, even during the big action set pieces. He keeps us invested in their fate, and he surprises us with who dies when and how. In fact, Vogt-Roberts is so adept with his cast too that he makes the unknowns register as well as the stars. He also wisely directs Goodman and Jackson to be less duplicitous then there characters are written. They are still the bad guys here, but at least these two accomplished thespians know how to add charm and nuance to their roles to keep them from becoming monstrous cliches.
And God love him for casting John C. Reilly. The veteran character actor plays a WWII pilot who's been stranded on the island for 30 years, and he steals every scene he's in. Reilly knows how to play up the comedy and the pathos too. His character and Kong walk away from the film live and well, and if the denouement is any indicator, it looks like the big ape will be back to fight Godzilla or Mothra. The producers of that inevitable sequel would be wise to bring back Vogt-Roberts to keep the emphasis on the fun and the human cast.
Finally, there is a monster in the new Terrence Malick film SONG TO SONG, but it’s merely an awful man. He's vain, ruthless, selfish, and treats everyone around him as disposable playthings. What's his job? Of course, he's an entertainment exec. Man oh man, Malick must hate the guys in the suits!
The high-powered exec here is a music producer in Austin, Texas and he's played by Michael Fassbender, an actor known for playing such coldhearted snakes. Sure enough, most of the scenes he's in show him seducing others, like a spider inviting a fly into its web, or as a prowling figure with overt carnality. We get almost no indication of what he does as an actual music producer. Perhaps if we saw how terrific he was at that job, and how he emboldens great artists, it would add more dimension to this monster. Instead, Malick is only interested in painting him as a prick. Fassbender could do this role in his sleep, as he hoods his eyes, and serpentines as he makes his way towards the women he wants to screw. We long for some sense of him as a maker of music, for any music in this film, but little comes. For a town that has revolutionized the industry and does every genre from country to rock, it would have been nice to get a real sense of such things here, but they never really come.
Instead, the devil here seems to have an awful lot of time on his hand to do all kinds of things that have nothing to do with him going in a recording studio and lay down some killer tracks. The baddie frequent diners, easily picking up the white trash help. He zips across the border in his personal jet to goof around with his friends. For a home he confesses to hate, he sure spends a lot of time roaming around from room to room, chasing women, and in particular Rooney Mara's singer character. In fact, he's constantly getting on his knees to be at eye level with her taut tummy and worship her Pilates preened stomach muscles. Is this what the character really is passionate about? Shouldn't it be the music he's getting her to make?
It becomes laughable after awhile how shallow Malick dips his toe into the industry backdrop here. Does his main character do anything in the industry other than hobnob with Flea and Iggy Pop backstage? Where is the hours and hours of work that producers, artists and musicians put into making an album? None of that is onscreen here. But we sure get a lot of shots of minutiae like Fassbender tracing his fingers across a wall, or Mara playing peekaboo behind his curtains.
Malick wastes a lot of other terrific actors in equally one-dimensional or underwritten roles as well. Ryan Gosling, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, and Holly Hunter also have significant screen time without really registering as anything more than conceits of a character rather than flesh and blood individuals. And Malick gives them precious little to say to each other. Instead, most of their dialogue is voice-over narration as the main characters regale the listener with their thoughts about life, love and the pursuit of happiness in the Texas town. All the pontificating doesn't sound like different characters, it sounds like a screenwriter getting off on a philosophical jag. And an overly pretentious one at that.
Emmanuel Lubeski’s cinematography is as gorgeous as ever here, and God knows the man can make anything look stunning, even the graffiti on an Austin underpass. But overall, the technical aspects that Malick applies to SONG TO SONG feel too reminiscent to his acclaimed THE TREE OF LIFE. The floating camera, the editing jumps through time and place, the meandering narration – they all worked well in that 2011 film because it was a memory play, the memories and recollections of a man (Sean Penn) as he looked back on his 1950’s childhood. But here, it seems like Malick is trotting out the same techniques for the sake of art rather than there inherent value to the story. This one should've been grittier, blunter...and filled with music. But it isn't and it comes off as a shallower work.
My final issue with SONG TO SONG is its unfortunate vein of sexism throughout. Some may have faulted THE TREE OF LIFE for its Jessica Chastain character who often seemed like an ethereal angel as much as an earth mother, but here Malick veers in the other direction. Mara voiceover early on exclaims that she is a woman who sought out dangerous sex to feel something. And indeed, the character's sexual issues plague her throughout as she cheats on lover Gosling repeatedly, returning back to the mogul's bed, even when he's married. If it was just that one character whose sexual peccadilloes were so sadly prevalent, that's one thing, but Portman's waitress who becomes the producer's bride turns out to be an even more tragic and sexually abused character. Her husband ignores her, becomes abusive in the bedroom, and even bullies her into engaging sexually with the with prostitutes he brings home for four-way trysts.
For some reason, in this examination of love amongst the world of artists, it would seem that Malick chose to portray his female characters as tramps, weaklings or victims. Where is the Mara’s character’s art, her singing, her talent? Something is wildly amiss when we in the audience get a better bead on Patty Smythe playing herself as she pontificates about love and life and loss better than the main characters whose motivations, actions and arcs seem as difficult to pin down as Lubeski’s constantly moving camera.
Perhaps the most disappointing element to SONG TO SONG is that after decades in show biz, Malick has nothing particularly profound to say about the industry. Powerful men abuse susceptible women and those same monsters never can be satiated. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if Fassbender’s record exec lost interest in Mara because her talent couldn't hold his attention? Or what if he took her on because he thought she could be great but then she was never able to live up to her potential or even his standards? That could’ve served as his rejection of the Gosling songwriter character too. If his standards were that high, wouldn't that have been a more interesting villain?
This monster just isn't complex enough. But a youngish exec (Fassbender is only 39) who's that successful with the big house, the wide-ranging influence, and the demonstrable bank account should make for a more interesting center of a film. Instead, he's just another dick thinking with his dick. I think the alien from LIFE would've eaten him first just to get such an asshat out of the way.
By the way, there is another movie with a monster theme currently scoring at the box office as it did with critics, and that is BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. I'll write about that soon, and do a caricature too. It honors the classic 1991 Disney cartoon, yet also forges its own way too. Plus, it honors Snyder's theory about monsters too. There's a monster on the prowl here, but it isn't in the house, or even the castle for that matter. It's in the village and as you probably realize the true beast of the story is the one who uses antlers in all of his decorating.
To be continued…