Monday, September 25, 2017

Cool Hand Luke (novel), by Don Pearce

Cool Hand Luke (1965), by Don Pearce, was the basis of the film of the same name released in 1967. Pearce co-wrote the screenplay. The essential events of the film are also in the novel, with some minor reordering. Surprising to me, the novel held up well. The main difference between the novel and the film was a matter of tone. The novel seemed to me a kind of folk novel. An unnamed narrator tells the story of Cool Hand Luke, beginning at a table in front of the church where Luke was murdered by one of the prison wardens sometime before. Many of the same characters or character types are present in the novel: Dragline, the man with no eyes, and others. There is no unnamed narrator in the film, of course. The differences between the novel and the film are matters of nuance. This is especially true in the character of Cool Hand Luke himself, who has an actual name. He gains his prison moniker Cool Hand Luke as the result of the same card game that we see in the movie: he wins the game by pretending to have a better hand than he actually has. He plays the move with such coolness that his fellow prisoner Dragline gives him his name: Cool Hand Luke.

We learn more in the novel about Cool Hand Luke's background than we do in the film. He's the victim of battle fatigue, posttraumatic stress syndrome. Though he fought bravely in the war, he gradually suffers the effects of it. His battle with authority seems to have predated his military experience. The war merely exacerbated that tendency. We also learn that in Cool Hand Luke's background was a love affair with a woman that for whatever reason has ended. It's implied he and the woman had a child.

In the novel, when Luke’s mother comes to visit him at the prison camp, she has no evident illness. In the film, Luke knows that she is dying and that her visit will be his last chance to see her. She is not ill in the novel. The novel thus suggests that three events in Luke's past have contributed to his state of mind: his wartime experience, the failed love affair, and his mother's death.

Both the novel and the film make Cool Hand Luke out to a redemptive character who inspires and gives hope to his fellow prison mates. Images of crucifixion and other religious associations appear in both. But in the novel one of the main aspects of Luke's influence on the prisoners is his music. He's an excellent guitar player and a singer and throughout much of the novel he sings songs that linger in the minds of his fellow prison mates. When he learns of his mother's death, he goes to his bunk bed and sings a hymn to himself. In the film the song he sings is not a hymn but is instead the well-known sacrilegious tune "Plastic Jesus." The film therefore makes Cool Hand Luke out to be a more irreligious person than the novel does. In the novel, Luke is clearly struggling with his faith and may have even lost it. This causes Dragline much distress. But in the novel, Luke is not so glib about disbelief. Even though in the film we finally realize that Luke has been struggling with his belief or disbelief in God, in the novel this struggle is made clearer. In fact, Luke seems more angry with God for abandoning him than disbelieving.

Apart from the film, the novel stands on its own. It's well-written, it's interesting, and the characters are well drawn. Like the film, it's a story of the individual struggling against anonymous institutional authority. As with the film, the novel is an allegory of the individual versus society and authority.

The novel struck me as a folk novel. I don't even really know what the definition of a folk novel is. In certain ways, its tone is similar to that of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and of Tom Kromer’s wonderful and depressing depression novel Waiting for Nothing (1935). But even though the characters in the novel are well drawn and vivid, it's tempting to see them as generic types: each of them has a prison name, not her real name. They seem to stand for something greater than themselves. They have no lives outside the prison, they are required to follow prison rules to the letter, they must get permission for every move they make, they even must get permission to get out of bed and go to the bathroom. Any infraction of the rules, any questionable glance at one of the guards, results in their being locked into solitary confinement for one day or more. After his second escape, Luke is treated brutally. They are all victims of in different Power. They are all victims of anonymous authority, of the unsympathetic State.

In the film, we quickly realize that Luke is a man with an attitude. There is no question after the opening scenes that he's going to have issues with the prison authorities, that he's going to rebel against the rules and regulations of the prison camp, and that this is going to be what the film is about. Luke is a rebel, a prankster. In this way, he occupies a tradition in southern culture and letters of the fool killer who rebels against and shows up those individuals who, among other things, take advantage of and brutalize the people over whom they have power. The novel builds Cool Hand Luke into this same kind of fool killer character, but the process is slower, more drawn out, and more interesting. It's interesting because we learn more about the pathology of Luke's background, something that the film only implied.  The film’s most famous line--"What we have here is a failure to communicate”--is not in the novel.

It always seemed odd to me that the members of cool hand Luke's prison camp are all white. The southern chain gang is so intensely associated with the race and racism in most depictions of it tend to show chain gangs composed entirely of black men. Of course, we can think of many exceptions, including the 1932 fill I am a member of the Georgia chain gang, in the opening scenes from old brother where art thou (2000). I think there are two main reasons why the chain gang in cool hand Luke is entirely right: at the time in Florida when the events of the novel take place prison gangs were segregated. White and black prisoners would not work together in the same chain gang. The second, but related, reason is that in the novel, all the chain gang members are white. But from the perspective of 2017, the all-white chain gang still strikes one as odd.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

How Strange to be Named Federico

How Strange to be Named Federico (Che Strano Chiamarsi Federico--2013) is Ettore Scola’s final film, a documentary about the life of Frederico Fellini emphasizing his own friendship with the great director.  It is composed of recreated and dramatized scenes as well as clips from Fellini’s work.  It’s a fanciful homage that in its conflation of life with art summons up Fellini’s films themselves as well as James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.  An aged narrator leads us from one event to another, introducing us to Fellini when as a young man he joined the staff of the satirical magazine Marc’Aurelio before the start of the second world war.  We move through Fellini’s unsuccessful attempts to write for the stage, his collaborations and work with other directors, and finally to the making of his own films.  The narrator tells us that Fellini sought to combat his insomnia late at night by driving through the streets of Rome along with Scola, stopping to gaze at and comment on interesting scenes and people as they encountered them—street painters, prostitutes, and so on.  Often, they would offer these people rides. Characters based on some of these people found their way into the films.

I did not know that Fellini drew sketches, lampoonish cartoons, of characters he was planning for his films—this makes sense, given his work for the magazine that specialized in humor and cartoons.  The film shows many of his sketches and drawings.  We visit the studio where he made his films.  This film has a gentle edge of satire, but is admiring in tone. Impressionistic and dreamlike—like many of Fellini’s films—Scola’s documentary may not give a literally factual account of the director’s life (though the facts cited seem to be accurate) so much as an imaginative and emotionally evocative portrait.  The last ten minutes, a powerful, imagistic pastiche of scenes and objects and people associated with Fellini’s work, are truly wonderful.  I take it that the final view of Scola sitting on the beach, gazing at the setting sun (in imitation of a sketch Fellini drew of himself) makes clear that he knew this would be his final film. Scola downplays his own film career in this documentary, keeping the focus on Fellini.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind (dir. Stephen Spielberg, 1977) last week in a local theater—it was playing in commemoration of its 40th anniversary and had been “restored” and enhanced to 4K clarity so that it could be shown in digital form.  Two other people were in the theatre with me: a woman about my age and a man in his 30s who came in late and chose to sit directly behind me and who breathed and moaned heavily throughout the film, expressing his approval and disapproval as things progressed.  He tried to start a conversation afterwards: he had the appearance of an aging and overweight hardcore video game enthusiast.

I liked Close Encounters a great deal when I first saw it in 1977, but over the years I’ve come to feel that it was (and is) mostly spectacle.  There is nothing wrong with spectacle, to a point. I love how the film riffs on American popular culture obsessions with UFOs (and Bigfoot), but the domestic scenes involving Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and his family are almost unwatchable—is this because they were poorly filmed, or because the sight of a man and his family falling apart is too painful?—probably both.  Spielberg must have thought the domestic scenes were a necessary way of grounding the film and giving a personal dimension to the prospect of UFOs and alien visitors, but they didn’t work for me.  On the other hand, the film builds great excitement around the UFOs and Neary’s obsession with making his way to Devils Tower.  The end of the film is genuinely moving—almost a religious experience.  In this new edition of the film, Spielberg removed the final scenes (added to earlier versions) of Neary entering the spaceship and beholding its internal wonders—that’s better left to the imagination.  The film is basically a fairy tale.  “When You Wish Upon a Star” is an underlying musical theme.  Close Encounters expresses the characteristic optimism of Spielberg’s early films.  He liked to tell stories through the eyes and experiences of everyday people, the common citizens of America. There was a Norman Rockwell element to these early films, a Capraesque optimism.

If and when aliens arrive, I’m not sure there will be such a love fest.  For years SETI scientists have been probing the cosmos with radio telescopes, trying to identify radio signals from other worlds. So far, they have not heard anything. Paul Davies’ book The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence (2010) suggests reasons for this failure. This year a group of scientists began sending messages out into space, seeking to contact alien civilizations.  I don’t believe this is a good idea.

Friday, September 15, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

Reviews of War for the Planet of the Apes (2017; dir. Matt Reeves) praised Andy Serkis for his portrayal of the head ape Caesar, who leads the simian rebellion against humanity.  To me, Caesar looked a fairly credible but nonetheless artificial, digital creation.  Serkis was convincing here as he was in the role of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films—convincing, but never real. He was easy to accept as a character, just as characters in cartoons can be convincing, but he never seemed to be what he was supposed to be: a thinking and talking ape.  The basic premise in this third and hopefully final installment in the revived Planet of the Ape series is that the war between apes and humans has reached a standoff.  War and disease have nearly wiped out the humans.  A spreading virus is causing humans to lose the ability to speak and to think on a high level. The apes are hiding out in the forest.  The humans track them down, and carnage ensues.

This film never suggests that there might be two sides to the story.  Whatever sins they might have committed, it is understandable that the humans would resist the apes who threaten to take over their world.  It’s also understandable that the apes would seek to protect their own welfare.  But there are no subtleties in this film.  Humans are bad.  Apes are good.  Ugh.

Woody Harrelson appears as the commander of the human forces.  Is there any recent film he hasn’t appeared in?  He rivals Samuel Jackson for his number of film appearances.  In this one, Harrelson’s character reminds us of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, and at one point we see the phrase “Ape-pocalypse” scrawled on a wall--some kind of homage?

There’s an Old Testament parallel.  The apes in their search for a part of the world where they can live in peace unmolested by humans are like the Israelites in their quest for the Promised Land.  Caesar is their Moses, and like his Biblical prototype he dies on a mountain top, overlooking the land he has found for his people, before he can actually enter it himself.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Lives Other than My Own (D'autres vies que la mienne, by Emmanuel Carrère

What most struck me about the memoir Lives Other than My Own (D'autres vies que la mienne, 2009), by Emmanuel Carrère, was its intimate intrusion into the experiences and emotions of people under great distress. The first 45 pages of the book focus on Thailand on January 1, 2004, where Carrère and his partner Hélène were vacationing. This is the day of the tsunami, and although Carrère and his partner are only on the periphery of it, they are first-hand witnesses to the grief of other people, especially a young couple who lose their three-year-old daughter. The next section of the novel, which is the main portion of the book, narrates the illness and death of Hélène’s sister, Juliette, from metastasized breast cancer. The writer interviews her husband and her fellow colleague judge Etienne, with whom she has a close but nonsexual relationship.
The sudden and abrupt transition from the tsunami to the death of Juliette is intentional. It's a way of showing that tragedy, disaster, can come in any number of forms to many different people, ultimately to all people.
Carrère's tone is casual and sympathetic, yet at the same time he assumes an attitude of objectivity, not only towards the people he's writing about, but about himself. He makes clear that on the occasion of the tsunami he and Hélène are on the verge of deciding to split up. A partial result of their involvement with the people who suffered loss from the tsunami, and with the death of Juliette, is the strengthening of their relationship. Yet even in the end, despite his near certainty that the relationship will end only when one of the two of them die, he admits the possibility of a premature end due to boredom or illness or wandering eyes.
There are times of great discomfort in reading this book: we learn virtually everything there is to know about the primary characters: Hélène, her sister Juliette and her husband Patrice, her friend Etienne, their children and their parents. He delves into intimate aspects of their lives. Etienne and Juliette both suffered childhood cancer.  Etienne lost a leg as a result, while Juliet was left unable to use her legs due to an error made by her doctor when she was undergoing radiation therapy. This experience held in common bonds them. One of the most interesting figures in the book, perhaps the most interesting, is Etienne, who is talkative, candid, and willing to speak his mind without concern about his listener’s reaction. He answers the author's questions with candor. That is part of the reason for the discomfort that one might feel with this memoir: the details of sex lives, the author’s discovery that the body of the three-year-old girl who drowned in the tsunami is decaying in the hospital and the associated smell, the details of Juliette's last hours and minutes, the interactions of various members of their family. One feels in reading this book that he is intruding on, invading, the most private spaces of the characters’ lives.
Carrère makes clear that he gave both Patrice and Etienne the opportunity to read his manuscript and ask for changes. They asked for few changes, mainly small details.
What will it be like to die, when the time comes? How does it feel to know that one’s own death is imminent? What is it like to lose one's life partner? Or to lose one's child? I do not want to know some of the answers. These are questions Lives Other than My Own investigates.
The translation is excellent, and one never senses that this is a translated work.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017; dir. James Gunn) is, of course, a sequel to the previous film of the same title.  The tone is gently subversive and slapdash, nothing to be taken seriously, even though the fate of the universe is at issue.  The first film concerned itself with the origins of the Guardians.  This second one therefore needs a different plot.  Again, the fate of the universe is at issue. This time it is endangered by a character named Ego (Kurt Russell).  He is important for two reasons: he is an immortal god with nearly infinite powers.  And he is Peter Quill’s long-lost father.  He yearns to take over the universe and destroy all life. As the film unravels the long and detailed story of Ego and his marriage to Peter Quill’s mother, the already incredibly outlandish story grows even more so.  I suppose what we must do is what the film expects of us: forget logic and reason.  It’s based on a comic book series, not one that asks to be taken seriously. Just accept it and be entertained.  I have difficulty with entertainment that abandons logic and reason, or that doesn’t substitute some plausible alternative rules of its own.  This is hardly the only film that abdicates logic and reason, but it does so in such an extensive and fundamental way that disbelief and disorientation result.

Kurt Russell, who hasn’t been in films for a while and who might have been desperate, plays Ego.  For some reason Sylvester Stallone shows up as the leader of a group of space hellions.  Briefly, David Hasselhoff appears, as the childhood hero of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt).  My favorite character was Rondu, a rebel space hellion, played by Michael Rooker. The big question which this multi-billion-dollar budget film raised for me is why all vaguely humanoid space aliens have brightly colored skin—especially blue or red skin that looks dyed. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Essex Serpent

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry (2017), is well written and introduces an interesting if stock set of characters: a country parson and his wife (who is dying of tuberculosis); a recently widowed woman whose new independence gives her the chance to pursue her interests; the assistant who secretly loves her; the brilliant medical doctor who also loves her; the son who is lonely and probably autistic, and so on.  The novel seems to falter about a third of the way through.  Although I kept reading, the remainder never quite lived up to the promise of the first third.
The serpent itself is obviously a symbol.  From the title of the book itself, to the residents who report its supposed appearances, to the main character’s interest in finding a modern-day ichthyosaur, we’re constantly invited to think about its meaning: the serpent is a catalyst.  It causes change and upset, romantic attachments and separations, social dislocation, a return to old superstitions or a loss of moral values.  It’s clearly a symbol of the dislocations and upheavals caused by the approach of the modern world.  But to what end? 
The center of the novel is the friendship that develops between the country parson, William Ransome, and the divorced woman, Cora Seagrave.  Gradually it deepens, despite the parson’s love for his wife and the woman’s awareness of the social factors that separate her life from his.  The parson is devoted to his wife and children and to his vocation in the remote small coastal town where he lives, Aldwinter.  His parishioners expect him to deal in some way with the rumored serpent, in which they deeply believe.  He doesn’t believe, at best thinks the beast is a superstition, but he can’t find the sentiments and words to bring understanding and comfort in his sermons. Their belief, his disbelief, in the context of the Darwinian world of late nineteenth-century England, offers commentary on the nature of reason and faith.  The parson and the widow are different in their views of the world and of religion, yet they share deep-thinking similarities.  In the end, although they have their moment in the woods, it hardly seems to matter.

Blood and Money: The Classic True Story of Murder, Passion, and Power, by Thomas Thompson

Blood and Money: The Classic True Story of Murder, Passion, and Power, by Thomas Thompson (1976), proves that it’s possible to have too much money.  The main figure at the novel’s center, the dermatologist John Hill, devotes himself to having a wonderful life—a beautiful wife, successful practice, a life devoted to music.  His selfishness and vacuity are appalling.  While he allows his wife a small allowance with which to run their household, he spends money on whatever he wants.  He wants the most lavish music studio in the western world.  He lacks any sense of self-scrutiny and instead is apparently able to justify his every action, including the selfish ways in which he spends money, his sudden abandonment of his first wife, his easy return to her.  He’s almost a kind of robot who goes through the motions of the life he lives without any awareness of their meaning. His wife is a pampered only child of a powerful, wealthy father who manipulates and finances every aspect of her life and her husband’s.  When he convinces himself that her husband allowed her to die, either through neglect or deliberate poisoning, he devotes himself to seeing him prosecuted.  When a trial results in a mistrial, he pays to have his son-in-law killed.  Through connections with powerful people in the city, and through his own machinations, he avoids prosecution, even though local police are convinced he’s guilty. 

The main figures in this book would fit comfortably into any number of reality shows.  They’re vapid walking embarrassments.  Oblivious to the world that begins just beyond the limits of their wealth and power and personal desires, they flap, doodle, and meander about like soulless human simulacra. Blood and Money is an example of the kind of investigative literary journalism that resulted in books like Capote’s In Cold Blood and Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.  Despite its fascination with its characters and the prodigious research that went into its making, Blood and Money lacks the human and cultural insights of those works.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Boss Baby

Undoubtedly, the making of Boss Baby (2017, dir. Tom McGrath) involved some moments of imagination and creativity. Choosing Alec Baldwin to voice the boss baby certainly was a promising move. But Baldwin's voice, and his cheeky satirical persona, are poorly used. They are hardly used at all. I think Baldwin was chosen to attract viewers familiar with his work in 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live. Children, young children particularly, may find this film entertaining. As an adult who came to it with some hopes of comedy and satire, I didn't find much. It was a silly film that must've been made mainly in the hopes of large ticket revenues. I don't know if that goal was accomplished, and it really doesn't matter. The motives behind it might involve tax breaks or greed, but they didn't involve the creation of anything truly interesting or entertaining or artful. Would I show this film to a child? No. I wouldn't want to expose a child to such a cynical, crass, low, and exploitative entertainment.

What can I say about this film that's worth saying? I'm thinking long and hard. I didn't like it. I had difficulty staying awake while watching it. I hated it. This film is a good example of why the film industry is in crisis, why really good films are not being made, or only rarely being made. If I compare this film to some of the old Warner Brothers cartoons, I might find a remote connection. But the really good Warner Brothers cartoons were artful, and well made, and entertaining. There's nothing, nothing, in this film that approaches the best of the Bugs Bunny or Roadrunner or Daffy Duck cartoons, nothing, nothing at all. Nothing in this film that comes close to being comparable to the good animated films being made by Disney Studios or by Pixar or by other companies that emulate them.

Step to the Stars, by Lester del Ray

Step to the Stars by Lester del Ray (1954) was the first "adult" book I ever read. I read it in the third grade. I chose it because I was fascinated with the United States space program and with space in general and this relatively short novel about the building of the first space station must have interested me. The plot involves a U.S. company working under federal contract to build the first space station in the early 1950s. In some ways, the novel is prescient. The principles of orbital mechanics that allow a space station to be placed in orbit were already known. There was already discussion about putting a space station in orbit, although it didn't take place for the next 20 years if you count Skylab or 30 years if you count the International Space Station.

In the novel, various obstacles along the way interfere with the building of the space station. A group of hostile nations called the Combine have placed spies among the workers building the station. They explode bombs and commit other forms of sabotage. The Combine itself is attempting to develop an atomic powered rocket that will allow its own space station to be built and placed in orbit. (When the first launch of the atomic rocket ends in an explosion, the Americans set out to rescue the crew members, who by some miraculous means have survived).

The building of the space station itself causes an international crisis. The military potential of the space station is much discussed in the novel, which expresses mixed views about whether using it for military rather than scientific purposes is a good idea. Nearly 70 years have passed since Step to the Stars was written, and in that time many significant technical, scientific, and social advances have occurred. Solar panels power today's space station, while a mirror that focuses the sun's rays on a steam generator powers the one in del Ray's novel. The novel's attitude towards women is old-fashioned, although the presence of a few women on the space station is significant. One of them, Nora, who enters the novel as a nurse, ends up with considerable responsibility and is promoted to pilot status by the end of the novel. The manager of the team building the space station even says that, with a few caveats, women can perform as well in space as men. No people of color, at least no African-Americans, work on the space station. There is one Mexican among the teambuilding the space station. He is repeatedly referred to as "the little man," and he is occasionally described with equivocal language. Yet the main character in the novel thinks highly of him and gives him significant responsibility.

What seems most old-fashioned and wrong about Step to the Stars is the ease with which the space station is built. A fleet of three or four rockets takes off on a daily basis from a spaceport on Johnston Island to ferry equipment and people to the space station. Building this station takes a year's time. At the end of the novel, we’re told that the U. S. government is planning to send a rocket with people aboard to the moon "next year." We know now from our experience with the last 60 years that putting people into space, building space stations, going to the moon, planning to go Mars, is difficult, complex, fraught with difficulty, arduous, and time-consuming. Most of all space travel involves immense amounts of money.

I returned to this novel for reasons of nostalgia and because I wanted to see how I would view it now, from my adult perspective. It was pretty much as I remembered it. It's not the kind of novel I would choose to read today, but it was the kind of book I needed to get me started as a serious reader in the third grade. I read science fiction almost exclusively for the next five or six years of my life, and then moved to other literature.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11, by Joan Didion

Joan Didion's Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11 was published as a booklet in 2003, on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq. The essay it contains was initially published in the New York Review of Books. Didion contends that President George W. Bush and many American politicians used the events of September 11, 2001, to buttress their own political agendas and to transform the identity of the United States and its role in the international world. She sees this as an abdication of reason in the most basic sense, an abandonment of ideals and principles set forth the Constitution and Bill of Rights. She notes attacks on the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech: in the weeks following 9-11 the Secretary of State encouraged Americans not to speak carelessly because their words might serve the interests of the enemy and weaken the United States position. Plays dealing with controversial subjects were cancelled.  People advocating points of view critical of the Bush administration were branded as unpatriotic.  Americans were encouraged to think of the Bush agenda as the anti-terrorism, the anti-bin Laden agenda.  In other words, to be for America, one had to support the goals of the Bush administration.  Dissent was, in effect, forbidden.

In 2001, and in the years immediately following, the national and international situation was more complicated than it is today. We've been dealing for only half a year with Donald J. Trump and his new way of conducting American affairs.  Yet the national environment seems far more poisoned and divided and in danger of collapse that it ever was during the Bush years. Many of the same developments that Didion complained about in 2003 are again evident today. People who speak out against the new president are lambasted as disloyal, as unintelligent, as unpatriotic. (Of course, Trump opponents use similar words to insult Trump supporters). Reince Priebus (before his departure as chief of staff) revealed that Trumps advisers have investigated ways to modify the first amendment and revise libel laws so that Trump can sue newspapers whose stories he doesnt like. The level of discoursein the press, on the Internet, Twitter, Facebook--has sunken to a low far below that of the years of the Bush administration. Facts are disputedalternative facts are presented as equally valid.  We have abdicated reason. We have abandoned basic American ideals – or at least the leaders that we elected have abandoned them (of course, Trump was not elected with a popular vote majorityhe was anointed through the archaic and anachronistic process of the Electoral College).

Didion's concern with America's abandonment of reason, with the hypocrisy, and the blind sightedness of our leaders, and with the basic decline in the levels of ethics, intelligence, and civility that we normally expect our leaders to exhibit, seems in no way dated.  Its directly relevant to our present situation.

Kong: Skull Island

Films should create a world that makes sense. Underlying rules (natural or human-made) and logic should govern the environment in which characters live and make decisions. In the recent film Kong: Skull Island (2017; dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts), an expedition is undertaken to a remote South Pacific island encircled by storm clouds. There are rumors about the island, but no one has ever visited. At least no one who has escaped. An eccentric rich man played by John Goodman believes that huge creatures from prehistoric times still exist there. He convinces the federal government to help him finance an expedition and takes a crew of scientists and photographers with him. One member of his crew is a geologist who believes in the hollow earth theory. This is the films explanation for the various monsters who appear: they live in empty spaces beneath the surface of the earth. Makes a lot of sense, right? The military escort is commanded by Samuel L. Jackson, who has a reputation for being hard-nosed and for never leaving a man behind on the battlefield.

Six helicopters take off from the expeditionary ship and fly through severe weather towards the island. They fly through canyons and over mountains that it's difficult to imagine an island such as this could accommodate. But, okay. We can accept that. What we cannot accept is that when a huge hundred-foot tall ape suddenly begins attacking the helicopters, instead of taking evasive action, they continue on straight towards him, so that within a short time he has knocked all six helicopters to the ground. Many crew members are killed.  Only a few survive. Not surprisingly, the survivors include the principal members of the cast.

Let us call the ape Kong.  No one in the film actually refers to him as Kong, but his name is in the title.  At times in the film Kong seems to be much taller than 100 feet tall. At other times 100 feet seems about right. But the relationship of Kong to the humans who are pursuing him is inconsistent in terms of perspective. Sometimes he is large. Sometimes he is small. At one point he rescues the photographer who's on the expedition (played by Brie Larson, one of the few highlights of the film) and holds her unconscious body in his hand. She's a tiny figure and his hand is huge, suggesting that he should be much taller than 100 feet. But this inconsistency, this point of illogic, doesn't really seem to matter. Obviously, it bothered me.

It's not really clear what the expedition members expect to find on the island. Once they arrive, their main concern becomes survival. They have to reach the north side of the island in three days so they can be rescued. But Kong is angry that they've invaded his space and dropped bombs and shot at him numerous times. Only gradually do the members of the expedition (some of them, at least) realize that he is actually defending a tribe of natives who live on the island. How the natives got there, we don't know. Theyre Asian, they don't talk much, and they cover their bodies with tattoos.

The expedition's military escort, commanded by Jackson, who never leaves a man behind, wants revenge on Kong, who killed many of its men. Jackson sets himself up as an Ahab: the ape is his whale. In various moments, he stares at Kong in the distance with a gaze of intense hatred. He wants to kill Kong. Kong wants to return the favor. The scientists want to save Kong because he is, in the end, only defending himself and his territory and the natives. What does he defend the natives against? Skull-faced lizards, of course--huge and vicious, always hungry, and fundamentally unconvincing: theyre clearly studio creations. Even Kong looks like a man in an ape suit, though the director assures us that he's a digital creation. Maybe the digital creation of a man in an ape suit.

Of the monsters in this film, I noted a huge spider who lives in the forest. Kong fights a huge octopus which lurks in a lake. Dont forget the skull-faced lizard monsters. There is a huge water buffalo, and I mean huge. Pterodactyls fly around at various moments. Maybe I've missed a few creatures. These all came, apparently, from the hollow earth.

This is the kind of film one looks to for mindless diversion. Watching it, I spent my time hating it and thinking of how I needed to go to sleep.