Tag: Monster films

Jurassic Park (1993)

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Dinosaurs walk the Earth once more in Spielberg’s classic blockbuster Jurassic Park

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Sam Neill (Dr Alan Grant), Laura Dern (Dr Ellie Satler), Jeff Goldblum (Dr Ian Malcolm), Richard Attenborough (John Hammond), Bob Peck (Robert Muldoon), Joseph Mazzello (Tim Murphy), Ariana Richards (Lex Murphy), Samuel L. Jackson (Ray Arnold), Wayne Knight (Dennis Nedry), Martin Ferrero (Donald Gernaro), BD Wong (Dr Henry Wu)

Can you imagine a more exciting film for a 12-year-old boy, than one with dinosaurs walking the Earth once more? And not the sort of rubbery dinosaurs, that we always knew were really models, in classic films. I was 12 when I first saw this film, and these animals really did look 65 million years in the making: they felt real, with roars that deafened the ears and footfalls that made the cinema shake. Dinosaurs are hugely exciting, awe-inspiring beasts. So much so you can forget many of them were also ruthless killers, with really sharp pointy teeth. It’s that mixture of awe and terror that Steven Spielberg understands so well in this exceptional blockbuster, like he mixed Close Encounters and Jaws together in a lab and then let it run loose.

Boffins have worked out a way to clone dinosaurs from frozen DNA, stuck inside prehistoric mosquitoes. Naturally, what else would you do with this discovery but use it to create the most exciting theme park ever seen. What could possibly go wrong? Avuncular billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has built the park – and he wants scientists and archaeologists Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to give it the thumbs up. Sadly however things are set for disaster during a long, low-staffed weekend when an act of industrial espionage by disgruntled employee Nedry (Wayne Knight) leads to all control over the par being lost and the dinosaurs turning on the guests.

The rights to Chrichton’s novel were sold before the book was published, and it’s classic Chrichton set-up of science trying to play God, and landing us all in a moral quagmire and massacre. But first though, let’s not forget how awe-inspiring dinosaurs actually. It’s a long wait until we see any more detail of one than a fearsome eye. But when we do, Jurassic Park knows that for that brief moment we are all children again. As John Williams’ triumphant theme thunders out, and the characters stagger with breathless, tearful excitement in its wake, a Brachiosaurus towers over the screen. Spielberg’s camera perfectly hammers home the sense of wonder at the size and beauty of this gentle giant. Sure science is arrogant, but then if it wasn’t we’d never reach the stars, right?

Spielberg’s film though isn’t just an awe-inspiring modern-day Planet Earth. Because the makers of this park also created plenty of fierce monsters, from the mighty T-Rex to the scarily smart and vicious velociraptors. And if the first half of the film is about the magic – that imperious brachiosaurus, a sleeping triceratops, a baby velociraptor emerging from its egg – the second half is about the horror of finding out what happens when man’s hubris comes back and (literally) bites him in the ass (and plenty of other places). Because when the Raptors get lose, suddenly this park isn’t magic, but a terrifying death-trap where the guests are the prey to out-of-control exhibits.

The second half of the film – from the moment the T-Rex bursts through its non-functioning electric fence to rip apart two jeeps (and of course eat a lawyer cringing on the toilet) – is a terrifying, giddy, exciting monster-chase, with a director who hasn’t delighted this much in the relentless horror of nature since Jaws. And Spielberg gets to play every game here. Huge dinosaurs stomping on cars. Velociraptors playing ruthless hide-and-seek in isolated power houses. Open spaces becoming terrifying hunting grounds and everyday ones like kitchens become terrible traps. What chance do human beings have when there are “clever girls” like the raptors running around?

Jurassic Park is singularly responsible for elevating the raptor, a previously largely unknown dinosaur, to the front rank of dinosaur fame. There is always a romantic appeal to the T-Rex. It’s the king after all, the biggest and the most famous – and its status in the public perhaps reflects the fact that the film sort of asks us to root for it. After all, it only eats the lawyer. And when the final act comes, it’s the T-Rex’s intervention that saves our heroes bacon. The real monsters are the raptors: supremely clever (they can open doors!), totally ruthless, they hunt in packs, they move super-fast and they look like a disturbing mix between bird, human and lizard. Spielberg makes them one of the most terrifying monsters in film, that more than live up to their extended build-up.

Spielberg directs the entire film with his usual devilish wit and fiendish mastery of the set-piece. The film draws some neat, if simple, story-lines for its human characters. Will Dr Grant overcome his aversion to children? Each of them gets a snippet like this. The actors are often (literally) in the shadow of the dinosaurs, but they are big part of communicating the sense of awe. Neill and Dern go through the motions with a certain charm. Goldblum steals most of his scenes as a rock ‘n’ roll physicist, riffing in the way only he can. Richard Attenborough reinvented himself from a career of creeps to cuddly grandad as a Hammond who shares nothing but his name with the book’s ruthless capitalist.

But the real stars are the dinosaurs. And even almost thirty years on, the special effects are really breath-taking here. These feel like real, living, breathing creatures, and Spielberg knows how to shoot them. Even today it still casts quite a spell. It’s telling that none of the sequels, except Jurassic World (which was made by the people who grew up on this film) gets near to matching the mix of magic and horror that this one hits. Sure, it’s a film so confident of success that it fills one scene with shots of the park merchandise (available in a shop near you now!), but then that’s because it’s got a master at the helm and the greatest attractions in 65 million years.

With its underlying plot of the dangers of mankind’s hubris – plus some rather witty criticism of how a park reliant on wild animals might have struggled to work anyway if the dinosaurs refused to emerge from the shadows of their huge paddocks for the tourists – Jurassic Park gives you something to think about, while still terrifying you with ruthless monsters. It’s a classic.]

King Kong (1933)

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The end of an unsuccessful New York vacation in King Kong

Director: Melville C Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack

Cast: Fay Wray (Ann Darrow), Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham), Bruce Cabot (Jack Driscoll), Frank Reicher (Captain Englehorn), Sam Hardy (Charles Weston), Noble Johnson (Native Chief), Steve Clemente (Witch king), Victor Wong (Charlie)

Of course, Citizen Kane is possibly the greatest and most influential film ever made. But, let’s be honest the paw prints of Kong is what we see most often in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Kong may have met his end atop the Statue of Liberty (a death the poster spoiled), but his children are everywhere, from Alien to Jurassic Park to Avengers: Endgame. King Kong basically sets the template for special effects movies and Hollywood has almost been remaking it, in some way shape or form, for almost ninety years. But few films can match its momentum, action – or above all the heart it gives to its beast.

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a Hollywood director who has a plan to make his next film a huge success. He’s got a map to Skull Island (no need to worry with that name) where he’s heard rumour that a mighty creature is just waiting to star in his next film. Denham needs a female lead – so plucks Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) off the streets promising her the adventure of a lifetime. During the voyage to the island, she falls in love with first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). On arrival at the island they find a tribe of ferocious narratives, who kidnap Ann intending to sacrifice her to their god Kong – a massive gorilla. Instead Kong falls for Ann and carries her into the jungle. When Driscoll and Denham go to save her they find Skull Island is a dangerous place (who knew!), stuffed with brutal dinosaurs and scary beasts – and that Kong himself has no plans to give Ann back.

King Kong’s final hour is essentially little more than a stream of action scenes. However, few action films since have paced its action as well as this film does. With special effects by Willis O’Brien, one of the earliest masters of stop-motion, Kong in turn takes on a T-Rex, a pterodactyl, a village of natives and then most of New York in a series of escalating and dramatic sequences which use all the tricks Hollywood had, from animation to models and back projection. Each of these sequences are perfectly done and carry the sort of awe that stop-motion animation can project – all those hours of work! – helped by the successful (and brilliantly clever) use of back-projection to have these battling beasts seeming to tower over the human cast. You can imagine how thrilling it must have been – I’m not sure anything like this had been seen before.

But the film has really lasted because Willis O’Brien’s skill is to add humanity and sensitivity to Kong himself. There is a reason why Peter Jackson (director of the sensitive but overextended remake) talked of weeping when he saw Kong meet his end. From almost the very first shot, Cooper and O’Brien cut to Kong’s eyes, which have a surprising soulfulness to them. And after all what does Kong really do wrong in this film? He is perfectly happy on Skull Island – he even only attacks other creatures when they make the move on him – he has no desire to go to New York and spends half the film trying to protect Ann from danger (not that she thanks him for it). The animation takes several moments to create the soul in Kong – from the ripples of his fur to his curious inclines of the head. After defeating creatures, he curiously picks up their crushed bodies, as if surprised to find them unresponsive. He gently moves Ann. There is a sort of innocence to him. After all what is he but a small-town guy who heads to the big city and falls for the wrong gal?

As such it’s rather hard not to root for him – or feel his pain (and shock) when attacked by planes at the top of the Empire State Building. You can see in Kong’s eyes the lack of understanding about what these metal objects are that are punching through his skin. The shooting gallery is tinged with tragedy – and it’s hard not to cheer when Kong manages to take one of these planes down. For all his fierceness, Kong seems like a real person, a vulnerable guy taken out of his depth against his will. The cruelty of exploiting Kong for Broadway ticket sales, as Denham plans to do, seems particularly un-just. It brilliantly allows us to get the best of both worlds: we can enjoy the spectacle of the wild animal Kong snapping the jaws of T-Rexs but we also feel for him as a confused and frightened animal put to death in a world he doesn’t understand.

Perhaps its easier to sympathise with Kong because so many of the human characters in it barely register. The first forty minutes is low-key – and often frankly rather flat – competently filmed but fairly-stiff build-up, carefully (and at times rather pointedly) establishing the situation and themes. None of the actors make much an impression (not helped that the second half of the film is so Kong focused that they hardly have a line to share). Robert Armstrong is effectively arrogant and ambitious as Denham. Bruce Cabot is pretty wooden as Driscoll (his first film after being recruited from the studio doorman staff, he has said he essentially stood where he was told and that was it). Fay Wray has a certain sweetness and charm as Ann, but barely opens her mouth other than to scream after the first forty minutes (in a neat bit of wit, her rehearsal on ship is standing still and practising screaming silently at an object she can’t see). With its blundering Hollywood director at the heart of all the chaos, King Kong could also be one of the first Hollywood satires.

Intentionally or not the film has an imperialism to it. Denham is an arrogant man out of his depth – although I am not sure how far the film is aware of this – and the crew come across as arrogant and clueless, blundering into a wild environment with an armed over-confidence (that quickly gets them all killed – most of them tumbling to their doom with an almost sickening rag doll snap after a meeting with Kong). You can sense that as well in the awkward lack of PC in framing the (black) residents of Skull Island as blood-thirsty savages with a lust for human sacrifice. However, with its eventual sympathy for Kong, there is enough here to allow the viewer to read into it a certain amount of post-colonial criticism of this sort of H Rider Haggard meets Arthur Conan Doyle world.

The film is very proud of its “Twas beauty that killed the beast” concept (it’s repeated numerous times in the film – not least most famously at the end) – but it’s an idea that is already framing Kong as the victim. So, for all the triumph of the design – the production design is stunning, rarely have Hollywood back lots looked as good – and the awe of Kong, the idea of him as a victim is there from the start.

A lot of that awe though comes from possibly the film’s MVP: Max Steiner. King Kong is one of the first films to use a full orchestral score and the music is vital to adding heft, drama and danger to this stop-motion beast. Steiner’s score superbly uses motifs to build Kong’s presence and operatic crescendos that brilliantly heighten the drama. It’s certainly one of the most influential scores ever written – and it’s impact on film history is so lasting, that watching the film today you take it’s revolutionary nature for granted, so often has the way of using music become part of our accepted cinematic language.

King Kong lasts because of the awe it builds for the monster, but also the way we start to feel for him. Complimented by the professional skill of Cooper and Schoedsack’s direction, King Kong still grips today, for all that you need to read into it more depth than is (perhaps) there. But depth isn’t what made Kong great. It was the excitement and drama of the spectacle – and its so exciting you barely notice that Kong dramatically increases in scale as the film continues. And while special effects have moved on, the power of what’s presented here hasn’t. Deserves to be listed as one of the most influential films ever made.

King Kong (2005)

Naomi Watts and a mo-cap Andy Serkis bring to life Peter Jackson’s dream in King Kong

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Naomi Watts (Ann Darrow), Jack Black (Carl Denham), Adrien Brody (Jack Driscoll), Thomas Kretschmann (Captain Englehorn), Colin Hanks (Preston), Jamie Bell (Jimmy), Andy Serkis (Kong/Lumpy), Evan Parke (Ben Hayes), Kyle Chandler (Bruce Baxter), John Sumner (Herb), Lobo Chan (Choy), Craig Hall (Mike)

In the late 90s Peter Jackson was working hard on putting together the plans for his dream project. It was a complex project, with unprecedented special effects demands, a huge cast, a demanding shoot and a big budget. However, plans fell through, so Jackson decided to move his attention to that Lord of the Rings trilogy idea he had been banging around instead. Hot of the success of that little escapade, he delivered at last his dream: a huge remake of King Kong.

Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a ruthless film director, desperate to make the big epic that will dwarf all others. Pulling together a team including playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and vaudeville dancer Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), he heads out on a ship for location shooting on the mysterious Skull Island. Arriving on the Island, they find that the savage natives aren’t the only dangers on an Island that has bypassed evolution. The crew find themselves hunted by dinosaurs, huge creepy-crawlies and other horrors all while they try to find and rescue Ann from the Island’s Alpha – a huge gorilla, King Kong (famously motion-captured by Andy Serkis). Led by Jack, who has fallen in love with Ann, dangers surround the crew – but is mankind, and the ambitious Carl, the real danger?

Time and public perception has not always been kind to Jackson’s labour of love. Perhaps coloured by the generally negative reception to his Hobbit films (which are a mess), perhaps also by the film being more of a gentle, sentimental film mixed with cartoon-splatter horror rather than the monster-mash B movie later Kong films have been, it’s generally remembered as a bit of a disaster. This is far from fair. Yes it’s overlong (hugely so at well over three hours – nearly twice as long as the original) and over-indulgent but it’s also quite a sweet, if rather tonally mixed, film that more or less manages to keep an audience entertained.

Unlike later films which have enjoyed Kong (or Godzilla) most when he smashes things – even if he is often the film’s hero or at least anti-hero – this Kong film is perhaps at its most contented when it is finding the humanity in the ape. As a 9-year old, Jackson talks about crying when Kong fell dead from the Empire State Building – and it is this engaging giant that he wants to bring to life here. Using Serkis – cementing his reputation here as the whizz of motion capture – to have a human literally inside the Gorilla, giving real expressions and genuine character to a giant ape was deliberate. The film’s most heart-felt – and quietest – moments both involve moments of gentle play or innocence from the Gorilla, either starring at a beautiful sunset (which he does both on the island and on the Empire State) or playfully slipping and sliding on a Central Park frozen lake, this is a monster that Jackson sees as a misunderstand soul, that bond he felt at 9 brought to the screen.

That’s the key between the bond that Ann feels with this beast who starts as potential killer, becomes protector, friend and finally a sort of romantic interest of a kind. Well played by Naomi Watts, Ann Darrow herself is a damaged soul, a bright-eyed, naïve dreamer with a dose of realism slowly entering her soul, who wants to entertain people but also to make her immediate world a better, warmer place. It’s natural that such a person would start to feel a deep bond with Kong, to learn to appreciate his gentleness and protectiveness, to put herself at risk to try and save his life. It’s a huge development of the character from scream-queen, and positions Ann (or tries to) as a more pro-active force in her own story.

And the ape responds to this, slowly revealing his own true nature as a potentially gentle giant, albeit one who is prepared to rip a few T-Rex’s apart to protect his love. He certainly ends up feeling more of an ideal partner for Ann than the other men in the film. Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll is a determined, principled and brave man but there is a touch of inadequacy to him, a surrendering of responsibility and a lack of proactivity in his make-up. While the early love story between the two characters is sensitively drawn, it tellingly can’t survive the events of Skull Island – at least not in the same way.

Mind you Driscoll is better than Denham, who is transformed in this film to a soulless monster interested only in his own greed for fame and power. Jack Black delivers what the script demands – even if the film is pushing on the edge of his range. As Black’s stock has fallen, so perhaps as some of the film’s – and the perception of his performance here. It doesn’t help that the idea of the ruthless film director seems to be a common trope for film director’s to explore (and interesting psychological question there!) so the character’s shallow lack of regard for anyone else, coupled with his fierce ambition to be the greatest showman around start to grate after a while. It’s a character lacking any depth.

But then that’s the case for most of the rest of the cast as well, who struggle to make room in a film that is overloaded with events and action to the detriment of its overall impact. Jackson’s heart may really lie in the quiet moments between beauty and beast – but he also loves an action scene. And King Kong has too many of these. Much of the middle hour of the film is given over to a never-ending parade of events on Skull Island, that after a while seize to have any real impact. As nameless crew members are crushed by boulders, or stampeding dinosaurs, or savaged by giant insects, or have their heads caved in by savage islanders (not surprisingly these H Rider Haggard style savages, with their lust for human sacrifice, drew more than a little criticism – and it hasn’t aged well) you start to feel your interest sagging. Kong’s brawl with three savage T-Rex’s is perfectly made in every respect, except for the fact it goes on forever.

Ambition lies behind every frame (all of them beautiful by the way) of this huge three hour epic monster picture – but it gets all so much that it buries the story. Like Kong himself, it touches the heavens only to fall tragically to Earth, trying to protect the thing it loves. Jackson wants to protect Kong from being just seen as a massive ape that hits things – but loses his way at times when Kong does little more than exactly that. It is still an intelligent and heartfelt film – but it struggles as well with being an uncontrolled play in the sandbox.

Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla the only character this film is truly interested in.

Director: Gareth Edwards

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ford Brody), Ken Watanabe (Dr Ishiro Serizawa), Bryan Cranston (Joe Brody), Elisabeth Olsen (Elle Brody), Juliette Binoche (Sandra Brody), Sally Hawkins (Dr Vivienne Graham), David Strathairn (Admiral William Stenz)

There is a lot of affection out there for Godzilla. I’ve never quite felt it myself, so I guess I was the wrong person to watch this film. This is a film celebrating the legend of a series of films from Japan about a guy in a rubber suit hitting other guys in rubber suits in a set designed to look like a miniature city. Gareth Edwards’ has directed an affectionate homage that at times flirts with being a more interesting film but never really commits to it.

In 1999, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is forced to watch his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) die in front of him in a mysterious accident at the nuclear plant in Japan they work at. Fifteen years later, his now grown-up estranged son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a bomb disposal expert, is called to Japan after Joe trespasses into the exclusion zone. There Ford and Joe discover there is no fall-out at the accident site – and that the accident was actually linked to a series of mighty beasts from prehistoric times who feed off radiation. The beasts are being investigated and monitored by a global organisation called Monarch – and they are starting to stir. Soon cities are at risk and our only chance of survival may be from alpha-predator Godzilla bashing the other monster out of existence.

Godzilla starts with a brilliant human interest story – a husband forced to sacrifice his wife to save hundreds of thousands of others. But around the halfway mark it loses all interest in its human characters, who become mere spectators to the mighty monsters hitting each other. By the final act, your interest in the action will depend on how much you can invest in a huge CGI monster hitting another huge CGI monster. With nary a character in sight, I’m not sure how much I could. 

Gareth Edwards does a good job directing the film. It’s intelligently and imaginatively framed and Edwards shows some wonderful restraint in showing Godzilla himself, gently avoiding showing too much too soon (the monster doesn’t appear full in camera for well over an hour into the film). In fact, Edwards has a lot more interest in showing the perspective of ordinary people watching the rampage, running or simply standing in awe starring upwards at these mighty beasts. It immediately hammers home the scale and awe of these creatures. Edwards often films from the perspective of those on the ground, with the camera craning upwards seeing the colossal beasts.

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t lavish as much attention on the cardboard cut-out characters who are running around beneath the beasts. A fine company of actors are assembled, most of whom are relegated for much of the first half of the film to spouting exposition and the second half of the film to staring upwards in awe. Remember when Edwards made his breakthrough film Monsters? This film, sure, had monsters in it but it was a human interest story about two very different people thrown together after cataclysmic events. Edwards’ film worked because it was above all about people and their problems. Hollywood came calling.

And Hollywood of course missed the point. Edwards is a director who I think has some truly interesting work in him. Watch the scene as Cranston is forced to slam the safety doors on Binoche. This is a scene crammed with more drama, emotional investment and tragedy than the whole of the rest of the runtimes of Godzilla and Edwards’ Rogue One. Both of those films are well-made but derivative bits of geek chic, pandering towards the crowds by giving them parts of what they think they want, homage-stuffed retreads of other films that focus on bashes and toys rather than on people and characters. Edwards is becoming a purveyor of B-movie thrills, well made, but basically empty. 

That’s your Godzilla movie here. Well-made but rubbish. Full of spectacle wonderfully filmed, but fundamentally empty. A film that is careful about what it shows you and when, but is basically lacking any real soul.

The Mummy (2017)

Like the film, Annabelle Wallis stares at Tom Cruise in awe in disaster laden (in more ways than one) The Mummy

Director: Alex Kurtzmann

Cast: Tom Cruise (Nick Morton), Sofia Boutella (Ahmanet), Annabelle Wallis (Jenny Halsey), Jake Johnson (Chris Vail), Russell Crowe (Dr Henry Jekyll), Courtney B Vance (Colonel Greenway), Marwan Kenzari (Malik)

Mummy PosterMany films have killed their franchises. It takes a really special film to kill a franchise before it has even started. Welcome to the first, and probably last, entry in Universal’s misguided Dark Universe franchise, a Marvel-style playground for all Universal’s old monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman etc. etc. And of all of them, The Mummy was the one they decided to start with? 

Anyway, our hero is Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) a sort of soldier of fortune in modern day Iraq, plundering antiquities under the banner of the US Army like some low-rent Indiana Jones. He and his hapless sidekick Vail (Jake Johnson) stumble upon a tomb of mysterious lost Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) after stealing information from archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). On the clock to take as much as they can from the tomb, Jenny and Nick take home Ahmanet’s sarcophagus. Their plane crashlands in Dover, with Jenny the only survivor – only for Nick to be resurrected in the mortuary. Looks like reborn Ahmanet wants to bring Set, the God of Death, into the world and has chosen Nick as the vessel for Set’s soul. Or something. It’s not really clear. 

In fact the whole film is pretty awful. What sort of film were they trying to make here? Is this a horror or an action film or a buddy film or some sort of black comedy? The tone shifts wildly from moment to moment: one minute Tom Cruise is exchanging Indiana Jones-style banter with his buddy Vail (Jake Johnson). The next he is shooting a possessed Vail at point-blank range (even this is played for laughs a bit). The next he’s being haunted American Werewolf style by a ghost or vision or zombie or somethingversion of wise-cracking Vail. What is going on here? What kind of film is this?

Tom where he normally is – centre of the frame

Well actually we know what kind of film it is: it’s a Tom Cruise starrer. Allegedly, the Cruiser (already quite the control freak perfectionist) took over most of the production from inexperienced, Universal suit Alex Kurtzmann. The DVD’s special features don’t half support this, with Cruise shown effectively directing most of the action sequences while Kurtzmann stands quietly to one side or (best of all!) greeting the star after the opening aircraft crash has been filmed to be told “you’ll love the footage Alex!”. 

Well the studio had doubled-down on Cruise to launch their franchise with his glittering smile and international box-office appeal, so I guess it’s fair enough the guy was shoved square centre. I know the film is called The Mummy but it might as well be Nick Morton. Cruise is in almost every single scene, most of the characters spend the whole time talking about him, and all the action is done by him (every other character is completely useless). The best lines, such as they are, go to him. He’s starting to look a little bit too old for the “young buccaneer” role he has here – and certainly too old to be flirting with Anabelle Wallis – but the film doesn’t care.

Anyway, the plot charges about London with odd time jumps, and unclear character motivations abounding. Why does Ahmanat have such an idee fix that Nick has to be the vessel for Set (other than, of course, his Tom Cruise Awesomeness)? Is it a good or bad thing that Nick could or could not get the powers of a god? Why does Ahmanet need Set in the first place – she “sells her soul” to him in ancient Egypt times for the throne, but basically just cuts the throats of her family at night (hardly requiring the demonic powers of the dead)? In Egypt she’s easily defeated with a blow dart but by the time she’s reborn in London she has incredible powers over minds, matter and animals – why didn’t she use any of this before? 

On top of that, we’ve got the incredibly dull Prodigium organisation (a sort of SHIELD for monster fighting) run by Nick Fury-ish arc character Dr Henry Jekyll, played with lumbering crapness by Russell Crowe. Why Russell, why? Crowe plays the part half like a plummy Stephen Fryish professor, the other half like some demented OTT cockney geezer. Of course the film isn’t subtle enough to avoid giving us Jekyll going full Hyde, a laughable moment of cheesy rubbishness with a wild-eyed Crowe reduced to “alrigh’ mate” hamminess while tossing Cruise around in a punch-up that looks like two drunk dads at a wedding going at it.

Oh Russell, why? Why do you make it so difficult for your fans?

The film is also saddled with one of the most inept female characters since Roger Moore’s Bond years. At one point, poor Anabelle Wallis stumbles on Ahmanet and her zombie minions on the verge of stabbing Nick to death and turning him into a demon-host, and Nick’s response is an irritated cry of “Jenny!” as her total lack of proactive response to this, like even he finds her arrival pointless and annoying. I’m afraid to say after that moment, every moment in the film with Wallis weeping, panicking, running away or laughably cheering Nick’s Tom Cruise Awesomeness from the wings (“Kick her arse Nick!”) was met by me and everyone I was watching the film with shouting “Jenny!” at the screen with the same exasperated annoyance.

The only good sequence in the film is the opening plane crash – and that is spoilt as it was all over the trailers. By the time we are in a secret crypt (getting in the way of the crossrail construction) with zombie Templar knights wrestling Nick (no seriously) you’ll have long since ceased caring. Even the fun of saying the next line in the cliché-ridden script before the actors do will be less fun than it used to be.

The Mummy sounds like it should be some sort of camp classic. But it’s really not. It’s ineptly made, poorly written, with a plot that makes no sense and action that varies from dull to laughable. Terrible characters, awful pace, rubbish acting, lousy direction and half-hearted from start to finish – it could barely launch a fart let alone a franchise.

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

The ape headlines and all other parts of the movie get crushed in Kong: Skull Island

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Cast: Tom Hiddleston (James Conrad), Samuel L. Jackson (Colonel Preston Packard), John Goodman (Bill Randa), Brie Larson (Mason Weaver), John C Reilly (Hank Marlow), Corey Hawkins (Houston Brooks), Toby Kebbell (Major Jack Chapman), John Ortiz (Victor Nieves), Jing Tian (San Lin), Jason Mitchell (Glenn Mills), Shea Whigham (Earl Cole), Thomas Mann (Reg Slivko), Richard Jenkins (Senator Al Willis)

Kong: Skull Islandis another attempt to kickstart a monster franchise (rumours abound that eventually Kong and Godzilla duke it out. I’d start worrying about all those major landmarks.). So anyway, Kong: Skull Island sees a team of explorers head towards the mysterious Skull Island to… well to poke around I think. Actually the aims of the expedition rarely trouble the screenwriters so they shouldn’t trouble us. Anyway, Kong (larger than ever) is deeply pissed at this invasion of his territory so trashes every helicopter going. Our heroes are stranded on the island, while their incursion releases numerous monsters who endanger the whole world that only Kong can stop.

This pretty feeble film is a crumby repackage of numerous (much better) films – and yet another example of a generation of film-makers producing films whose only points of reference are older, better movies. This one plays like Apocalypse Now humped by King Kong. Perhaps one day we’ll actually get some truly original, distinctive films that make their own points rather than reworking others. And perhaps we’ll still get genre films that actually are interested in character and development, rather than bashing and blowing things up.

Anyway, the human characters are almost completely pointless in this B-movie retread. I was wondering how they persuaded such an illustrious cast of actors to come on board. This mystery was solved when I watched a remarkably bland DVD-feature – Tom Hiddleston’s video diary. This was basically shots of Hiddleston talking about having a great couple of weeks in Hawaii flying in helicopters, four weeks sunning himself in Australia and three weeks of travelling down a Vietnamese river. And he got paid millions of dollars to do it. No wonder he ends the video saying he’d recommend this life to anyone.

It certainly wasn’t the character that lured him in. Conrad is interesting for precisely one scene – as a troubled drunk in the bar – before he reverts into clean shaven, upright and heroic. His vaunted skills as a tracker are never used. His set-up as the natural survivor and leader never comes to fruition. His relationship with Brie Larson is based solely on them being the two most attractive members of the cast. As for Larson: has an Oscar-winning actress ever followed up her win with such a truly pointless, empty, non-part? 

The film is completely uninterested in human beings – it can’t even bother to make those that buy it early in the film distinctive individuals. Even the ones left at the end barely pass as people we know. Only John C Reilly crafts a truly engaging character as a sort of Ben Gunn figure. Samuel L Jackson gets the “soldier maddened by war” so that we have the typical “the real danger is man” sub-plot, but everything is by the numbers. The characters are so mix-and-match that you feel no peril at any point. It’s so cynical that it can even drop in a Chinese scientist from nowhere (who does nothing at all in the film) solely to try and sell the film to that market.

Our nominal heroes: most of them I’ve already forgotten

Kong is the real focus of the movie – and there is limited interest you can get out of a gigantic ape bashing and ripping things apart. Protracted battles go on and on and on. You really see the difference between the work of Andy Serkis and Peter Jackson in their Kong movie and this one. That Kong actually felt like a character you could bond with. This is just the wet-dream of a boy who grew up watching too many Harryhausen pictures, a behemoth who everyone stares at with wonder but whom the audience never feels any emotional investment in. And for all the faults of Jackson’s Kong, it was a film with brains, with heart, made with artistry and which understood character and emotion give meaning to spectacle, rather than being dull speed bumps a film needs to get over.

The film aims sometimes for an Apocalypse Now-style dread of humanity and the madness of war etc. etc. – but nearly always misses. The humans (and their aims) are such non-event blanks that we can’t care less about the danger of humanity. The film itself has none of the poetry of Apocalypse Now, and instead just wants a lot of (PG rated) violence and a bit of madness. Some of the madness even seems a bit uncomfortable – a tribe of natives are treated as humble exotics. It’s aiming to piggy-back on an attitude of America being humbled by Vietnam and lashing out – but never adds any material in the story to actually take this idea anywhere. Calling characters Conrad and Marlow doesn’t suddenly give it a Heart of Darkness depth – it just makes you think the screenwriters thumbed through CliffNotes before naming their characters. 

Instead the film winds on, never really getting entertaining, boring us with the characters and taking way too long lingering over monsters and bashings. The only thing the film loves is the bang, the buck and the “ain’t it SO COOL” shots of a monster ape hitting things. It’s totally empty, boring trash and it has all the grace and skill of a child’s home movie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s professionally made – but totally empty. Nothing in there is designed to stick with the audience or even remotely make them think. Harryhausen movies had a depth and magic to them that inspired a generation. Films, like this one, churned out by today’s imitators are empty light shows that won’t last a week in the imagination.

The Mummy (1999)

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz face off against their undead nemesis in The Mummy

Director: Stephen Sommers

Cast: Brendan Fraser (Rick O’Connell), Rachel Weisz (Evie Carnahan), John Hannah (Jonathan Carnahan), Arnold Vosloo (Imhotep), Kevin J O’Connor (Beni Gabor), Jonathan Hyde (Dr Allen Chamberlain), Oded Fehr (Ardeth Bay), Erick Avari (Dr Terrence Bey), Patricia Velasquez (Anck-Su-Namun), Omid Djalili (Warden Gad Hassan)

The Mummy came out so many years ago that it’s being “rebooted” again as a Tom Cruise vehicle, as part of a Universal “Monsters Cinematic Universe” (oh dear God, even writing it sounds terrible). I’ve no idea what the new Mummyis like, but I am pretty certain it won’t match this film for fun, excitement, wit or (most of all) honest, gee-shucks B-movie charm.

In ancient Egypt, High Priest Imhotep is cursed and buried alive after his affair with Pharaoh’s mistress; should he rise again, he will do so as an unstoppable monster. Flash forward to 1926 and adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) is hired by Egyptologist Evie Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and her chancer brother Jonathan (John Hannah) to guide them to the hidden city of Hamunaptra. There, in competition with a rival American team of explorers, they find the body of Imhotep, read aloud from the book of the dead, bring Imhotep back to life – and all hell breaks loose.

I’ll say it straight out: I think you’ve got to have a pretty hard heart not to have a soft spot in it for The Mummy. Tonally, it’s one of the few Hollywood family-action films that doesn’t have any major miss-step. It’s a silly, rather warm-hearted, B-movie action with intensely likeable leads and a series of entertaining set-pieces. Every frame has been shot and framed like an epic, old-school adventure movie – and the plot knowingly runs with its clichés. It’s a film with literally no pretensions, which embraces its status as a piece of entertainment. And, I’d say, it succeeds magnificently at doing that.

It’s helped by a hugely charming performance from Brendan Fraser as a combination of Indiana Jones and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. Fraser’s got the chiselled good looks, but also a great deal of timing. The film gives him plenty of bon mots (“Patience is a virtue” Evie cries while decoding hieroglyphics; “Not right now it isn’t” Rick replies, staring at the hordes of possessed Egyptians heading their way) and he delivers them with a perfect 1930s matinee idol charm. It also helps that he has terrific chemistry with Rachel Weisz.

Weisz plays her part with a sweet comic charm, but adds a growing toughness to the character that prevents her from being a damsel in distress. John Hannah is pretty good value as her comic relief brother, while Oded Fehr makes such a great impression in limited screentime as the representative of a group of ancient guardians, you are surprised he hasn’t had more opportunities since then. Arnold Vosloo plays the Mummy with a tinge of sadness round the edges that humanises a man who is literally a monster.

Stephen Sommers directs the film with a witty sense of visual humour. This ranges from the obvious comedy (a 360 shot that takes in Evie knocking over a series of bookcases) to the satirical (he has a lot of fun with the gun-toting, ill-fated American explorers throughout the film). He also keeps the film barrelling along, without overlooking opportunities for character development. Despite the constant stream of action beats you always feel you understand exactly what motivates Rick and Evie – and their growing attraction to each other feels carefully developed.

Perhaps in a way The Mummy shows how films have changed in the last 17 years. When it was released, it was denounced as a big, dumb action film. However, compared to some of the fast-cut, poorly scripted rubbish churned out now, it looks rather sweet, well structured and focused more on character than on effects. As such it’s a really enjoyable and charming film, miles head of crap like Batman vs. Superman. Release exactly the same film today and I think many would call it a breath of fresh air, without the wearying self-important tone that weighs down so many modern blockbusters.

No it’s not a work of genius and no it’s not perfect. Omid Djalili’s character sails perilously close to racial stereotype. The killing scarab beetles in particular sometimes go marginally too far for its family audience. The special effects look a bit dated at points. Logically of course the plot barely stands up to thinking about: who on each curses someone with a terrible curse that makes them invincible and immortal? Why not just punish Imhotep by killing him badly eh?

Sommers is no master film maker – later Mummy films would largely fail to recapture this magic – but when he gets his boys-own, B-movie style bang-on, as he does here (and in The Rocketeer), he is a wonderful entertainment merchant, who makes engaging, entertaining films. No it’s not going to win any awards or trouble any top ten lists, but it’s always going to put a smile on your face.