Kong: Skull Island
With the DC comics analogue of the Marvel Cinematic Universe turning out one steaming pile after another, Warner Brothers has been turning to another interconnected movie series to pick up the slack: giant monsters. And so we get Kong: Skull Island as the second entry, following in the oversized footprints of 2014’s Godzilla, with a generous dose of Apocalypse Now in the mix.
Like Godzilla, this film turns an indie director loose on a moody script — Max Borenstein returns as scribe, this time accompanied by Dan Gilroy and Derek Connolly — although in fairness Gareth Edwards’ Monsters was a little more on-point for a giant nuclear dinosaur than Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ The Kings of Summer is for a giant ape. Both movies are infused with a bleak melancholic dread, which flirts with but avoids the worst excesses of the Dark-‘n’-Gritty aesthetic that drags the DC Extended Universe down into self-parody.
Kong does learn one lesson from the criticisms leveled at Godzilla: it doesn’t hide the leading monster. In a big change-up from the classic King Kong storyline, there’s not a long ominous build-up. We get a glimpse of Kong right out of the gate in a prologue flash, and he’s right back in action as soon as our explorers hit Skull Island.
Oh yes, the explorers. The all-but-nameless human characters here are almost an afterthought: the necessary connective tissue to get us involved with Kong and, eventually in some future installment, Kong involved with Godzilla. The same Monarch organization from the previous movie (here represented by Bill Randa, played by John Goodman, and his assistants, played by Corey Hawkins and Jing Tian) is piggybacking on a mission by the newly-formed Landsat (John Ortiz, Marc Evan Jackson, and a host of blue-shirted red-shirts) to investigate the newly-discovered island that was, until the advent of satellite imagery, hidden from the world by a permanent storm system. That last point, for what it’s worth, is a detail cribbed from the 1976 version of King Kong. They enlist a British ranger guide, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and a pacifist photojournalist, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), as well as military support from a helicopter squadron whose leader, Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), is eager for one last mission as they pull out of Vietnam.
I haven’t even named all of the recognizable cast, not to mention those who mostly exist to die on the island, so it’s clear that nobody is really getting a deep character study. They’re sketched out in broad strokes, with little more detail than “capable-but-jaded”, “awestruck by the wonderful world”, “man on a mission”, or “young and scared”, which sums up most of the soldiers other than Shea Whigham’s “infantry philosopher”. But was Carl Denham’s obsession with capturing Kong really any more thoroughly characterized Colonel Packard’s with killing him? This is a story that, at its best, has all the subtlety of a building-sized gorilla.
In fact, this version of the story deserves at least some praise for having the courage to excise some of the more regressive elements of the story. Mason may have no real story-level role to play here besides “the blonde”, but for once she’s not explicitly brought along as aspiring starlet eye-candy. Similarly, the Iwi natives are exoticized, but they’re not nearly the racist caricature that was a product of the 1933 film’s times and which remained out of some misguided sense of homage in both the 1976 and 2005 versions. Indeed, the comic relief falls on Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a long-lost World War II soldier who has found a sort of home among them for the last thirty years.
On the other hand, the movie also abandons some of the greater iconic resonance of Kong as a symbol of a certain terrible grandeur of untouched nature, which human society can only seem to interact with by hunting, enslaving, and killing it. In its place, we get the groundwork of the “MonsterVerse” and its recasting of Kong, Godzilla, and the rest of these creatures as neo-Lovecraftian Old Gods who are the true rulers of the Earth despite their long slumber, and to whom we are at best meddlesome pests. Kong has his true enemy in the Skull Crawlers — Marlow’s term — which Monarch would classify as another kind of MUTO like those Godzilla fought.
Which ties back into the other resonances with Apocalypse Now and its own source, Heart of Darkness, to which the names Conrad and Marlow both not-so-subtly allude. The central dynamic is inverted, with Marlow well-established in the local environment and Colonel Packard the newcomer. And while Packard’s bloodlust mirrors Kurtz’ cynically open embrace of the brutality underlying the superficial gentility of Western imperialism, we see it here as a cause of rather than a response to violence in the native environment.
Conrad and Coppola exposed the inherent violence of an imperialist foreign policy, but Vogt-Roberts suggests that the hubris of imperialism itself creates its own enemies, and subsequently its need for violence. Long before Westerners show up, Kong is involved in his own conflicts that have nothing to do with them, and he only becomes an enemy because they make him one. It’s a neat germ of an idea, though it gets swallowed up in the rest of the movie before it can really develop.
Because, as with Godzilla, this movie is ultimately about the monster fights. And they are spectacularly brutal. The cinematic and literary allusions are all well and good, but they seem to come from a different movie from the bone-crunching crashes that follow Kong swatting helicopters out of the sky like so many bugs. The ideas crop up here and there, only to be crushed underfoot as Kong wrestles everything from a calamari lunch to a hell-mawed lizard beast from the caverns beneath Skull Island.
These fights are really what most audiences are here for anyway, and does this movie ever deliver on its promises. If you go looking for giant ape-on-everything destruction, you’ll get more than your share. And maybe you’ll pick up an idea or a theme along the way, but it’s not strictly necessary.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.