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Film Review – Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island (2017; Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

In some ways, Kong: Skull Island is a departure from the standard-bearing films telling the semi-allegorical cinematic myth of the giant gorilla, torn from the hidden jungle island home where he rules as a god-like monarch and destroyed by an arrogant techno-capitalist empire. This Kong physically dwarfs previous iterations (I’d estimate that he’s 3 to 5 times larger than the ape from Peter Jackson’s King Kong), he never leaves his island realm and does not meet his doom at the hands of military aircraft while perched atop a Manhattan skyscraper (not really a spoiler, though others may follow), and doesn’t really have a female blond-haired American object of unrequitable affection. Indeed, Skull Island leaves out almost any hint of the unruly, often troubling sexual and racial subtexts that defined the ideological implications of prior pictures (and which I’ve written about in great detail in the past, in a fourpart PopMatters feature).

In many other ways, however, Skull Island sees the Kong franchise (as Legendary Pictures is now considering it, alongside and eventually crossing over with its Godzilla films in a so-called “MonsterVerse” movie series) returning to its very oldest roots. As my essays discussed, Merian Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s original 1933 King Kong was essentially a thrilling potboiler of a B-movie whose political subtexts were established deep in its foundations and only rarely rose to the surface. Subsequent versions of the Kong narrative (John Guillermin’s in 1976, Jackson’s in 2005) layered on ideological implications and associations that clustered around the figure of Kong and reflected shifting political and social attitudes to what the ape and its destruction might be seen to represent: the struggle of African-Americans from slavery through Jim Crow and segregation to civil rights and beyond, progressing views of sexuality, and, more than anything, the nature of American global power and the sliding understanding of its moral dimensions. Kong was brought low by that power, a victim of its pitiless, prejudiced imperatives, and the 1976 and 2005 films mourned the great ape as a martyr (as the popular 1960s graffiti declaimed: “King Kong Died for Our Sins”). To be succinct, the symbolic trajectory of Kong ran from spectacle to elegy.

Cooper’s Kong is more than anything an exciting adventure movie that celebrates the waxing might of American capitalist imperialism and its triumph over primitive brutality, as expressed through Cooper’s favoured forms of projecting that power: motion pictures and air power (in addition to his moviemaking, Cooper flew fighter biplanes in World War I and the Polish-Soviet War and commanded the Allied air defense of China in World War II). Kong: Skull Island is a confident, intoxicating, beautiful reconstitution of pure old-school popcorn spectacle in the 1933 Kong‘s long-shadowed tradition, but it’s also the film series’ firmest repudiation yet of the conservative Cooper’s patriotic myth of rising American glory. Set in 1973, the film compellingly invokes the Vietnam War from which American troops were being withdrawn, as well as the zeitgeist films about the conflict that fed into Americans’ roiling doubts about their nation’s greatness and moral rectitude (Apocalypse Now, certainly, but Platoon and others too). Despite this, Skull Island is definitely the shallowest Kong film since the original, the most invested in superficial visceral sensation.

But how superficial is that sensation, really, when it’s quite this sensational? Skull Island, helmed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, is a ravishing stunner of an action-adventure blockbuster, bursting with imagination and clever visual designs and jaw-dropping epic scale. The astounding vision of this otherwise frothy distraction hits home with maximal impact in the great ape’s iconic full reveal, during a calamitous assault on a squadron of Vietnam-seasoned helicopters invading his island kingdom. There’s a dizzy, violently giddy delight to this sequence that, even with plenty of notably fun action beats to come, is singular and memorable. Vogt-Roberts’ direction is positively drunk on the inspired glory on his imagery here, and you can’t wait to tip back your glass until you’re under the table with him.

There’s some rote introduction and exposition to get through before this launch pad moment, mind you. Skull Island‘s opening act is structured in the precise same manner as previous Kong movies (though more efficiently than Jackson’s divisive, protracted voyage on the Venture), with a determined rogue dreamer talking up an expedition to a tantalizing, mysterious unexplored island and leading a team into the uncharted unknown, about which he usually knows more than he lets on. This time, the Carl Denham figure (based in the original film on Cooper himself, who made daring documentaries in exotic locales during the 1920s) is government official Bill Randa (John Goodman), who convinces a U.S. Senator (Richard Jenkins) to allow him and his Yale-graduate geologist protégé Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) to join a private mapping voyage to a skull-shaped island recently spotted by satellites in the South Pacific.

Expecting to encounter something worth protecting against, he enlists a military escort in the form of the aforementioned air cavalry, commanded by Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s reluctant to leave the war in Vietnam behind and is eager for renewed action. Randa also hires former British S.A.S. soldier James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as a hunter-tracker (though he doesn’t say what he intends Conrad to hunt and track), and neither he nor Packard elect to turn away award-winning anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who gains credentials to cover the expedition in the hopes of exposing its dark secrets.

Split up and consigned to travel on foot by Kong’s furious decimation of their seismic-depth-charge-dropping choppers, this ragtag squad encounters a fantastic and often lethal variety of superfauna as they make for a scheduled three-days-hence rendezvous point on the island’s north shore that is their only ticket off this hellish place. Believed to have alighted on the island via thermal vents which connect to vast, unexplored subterranean worlds, these animals are often enormous and sometimes more wondrous than deadly. They have run-ins with a mega-spider with viciously sharp legs camouflaged amidst a bamboo forest; a docile, massively humped swamp-dwelling water buffalo; a giant squid which Kong dispatches and then snacks on; nasty flocks of ravenous pterosaur-like predator birds; a sort of towering stick-insect disguised as a fallen log; and, most dangerously, razor-toothed carnivorous dual-armed lizards known as skullcrawlers. Emerging from the vents to maraud through the island ecosystem, the skullcrawlers are only kept at bay by Kong, who kills the younger ones before they can grow too large for him to handle.

The source for much of this island lore is a stranded World War II pilot, Lt. Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly). Seen crash-landing on the island along with a Japanese fighter-pilot antagonist in the movie’s cold open, Marlow has survived for nearly 30 years there and developed a knowledge of the place as well as more than a mild eccentricity. He dwells with the island’s native human inhabitants, mute grid-painted indigenes that he calls Iwi (a term for a community of Maori, so I suppose they’re Polynesian in origin) who view Kong as a god-like protector and who dwell behind a tall wooden wall to keep out the things nastier than the ape. In the highly fraught history of Skull Island natives, the depiction can be said to have progressed to the level of noble savage, which is certainly preferable to the racist stereotypes of prior movies but still insufficient. Conrad, Weaver, and their group fall in with Marlow and the Iwi, and realize that contrary to Packard’s single-minded rules of engagement thinking and drive to avenge his dead soldiers, Kong is not their real enemy and may indeed prove to be an ally.

While Kong: Skull Island is generally glorious entertainment, the praise does need to be tempered a tad. The script (by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly) pauses too often to remind the audience of the plot goals (find lost soldiers and armaments, obtain proof of the island’s fantastical monsters, reach the rescue site in time) and driving character motivations. While some key characters are well-enough fleshed-out (Reilly’s scene-stealing Marlow gets plentiful backstory, an endearing emotional core, and even a satisfying credits coda) and others work decently in broad strokes (Shea Whigham as a cynically bemused Captain and Toby Kebbell as a Southern Major give you all you need to know about them in limited beats), others still want for added depth. Hiddleston’s Conrad, putatively the male lead, seems to be missing important development beats, and mostly stalks through the undergrowth with gun in hand, urging the others on and discouraging Packard’s single-minded revenge mission against Kong. He is given one showpiece action moment, but it’s an odd one, donning a gas mask to stride balletically through a green toxic cloud slicing purple-blooded pterosaurs in half with a samurai sword.

Larson doesn’t get too much development either (though between her and Hiddleston, both clad in skin-tight undershirts in the sweltering jungle, there is plenty of corporeal aesthetic interest for voyeurs of any orientation), but her capable and compassionate photojournalist can fully take care of herself and even displays some ingenuity in the heat of battle with the skullcrawlers. As the sole flaxen-haired white woman among the party (Jing Tian is the only other woman, as a Chinese biologist), Larson’s Mason Weaver would be the film’s obvious Ann Darrow proxy as the focus of Kong’s yearning affections. Skull Island doesn’t go there nearly at all, though: she and Kong share a moment of empathy over a nature-lover’s protective instinct, and his protection of her figures centrally in the climatic moments of Kong’s closing dust-up with the alpha skullcrawler, but neither the lascivious desire of the earlier Kong/Ann relationships nor the tragic romance of Jackson’s film enter into the picture.

Instead, the voyeurism is turned the other way: Weaver’s 1970s vintage still camera is often the filter for the human gaze viewing and assessing Kong’s world. Additionally, Cooper’s dominant composition of Kong’s fights, with gigantic beasts filling the frame locked in mortal combat while puny human spectators observe from the corner edge of the foreground, is repeated on a few occasions by Vogt-Roberts, re-emphasizing the voyeuristic impression.

This towering Kong is realistically and often thoughtfully rendered, though not transcendingly so. Played via motion-capture by Terry Notary (his heavy gait is recognizable to an eye which has beheld hours of his behind-the-scenes DVD footage on The Hobbit films), Kong doesn’t have the wounded, lonely soul of a grizzled aesthete as he was played by Notary’s mo-cap mentor Andy Serkis in Jackson’s film, but he is given a brief beat of hesitant wonder at a dazzling nighttime aurora australis display. Without romantic facets and no evocation of what has been critically understood as Kong’s African-American symbolic dimensions, however, this is Kong as a nearly pure movie monster, closer to the proud but inscrutable Godzilla than to the sympathetic cousin to humanity and tragic reflection of its flaws that comes through even in Cooper’s film.

This leaves only the questioning depiction of American power standing among the text’s standard political metaphors, and Skull Island gladly provides that. It very purposely and directly invokes the recognizable iconography and sensory detail of Vietnam movies, from its sweaty jungles to the alternating terror and fleeting comradery of green-clad GIs to the carpet-bombing period rock n’ roll soundtrack. There’s even a river voyage on a rickety boat made of salvaged plane parts, and the Apocalypse Now associations were made very literal in the parodic movie poster to the right. Skull Island doesn’t exactly dwell on its ideological message, but is quite clear in its preference for cooperation and understanding in lieu of the self-interested imperialistic realpolitik which drove the disastrous folly of the bloodbath in Indochina.

The screenplay namechecks Apocalypse Now‘s anti-colonialist literary source Heart of Darkness (directly referenced and even quoted, though not unproblematically, in Jackson’s King Kong) through the names of Hiddleston and Reilly’s characters, but digs further into the literary canon for a metaphoric carrier for its broad critique of arrogant American imperial power. As the helicopter squadron flies through the storm-front ringing the island, Col. Packard (in fine Sam Jackson style) relates the Greek myth of Icarus, whose wings of wax forged by a god allowed him to fly but who plunged to earth when he flew too close to the sun and the wings melted. A classical parable of warning against hubristic ambition, the myth is visually recreated in the very first shot of the film, the silhouette of a man (the young Marlow during WWII, as it turns out) falling from above against the hot sphere of the sun.

Packard brushes aside this ancient caution with brash techno-military confidence: the U.S. Army gave his choppers wings of Pennsylvania steel, so he fears no enemy, god or otherwise. Packard refuses to accept that the U.S. lost the Vietnam War; they “abandoned” it, he says, and he refuses to cut and run against Kong in the same way. Skull Island is a new theatre in which he can wage a winning campaign to make up for the dishonour of the Vietnam withdrawal. That the civilians around him, and even his own troops, come to view his insistence on this mission as obsessive madness reflects popular disdain for American global militarism that, despite this widespread hostility, continues to be propagated and perpetuated. Packard’s stubborn refusal to accept that American hegemony could possibly be wrong or fail mirrors that of neo-conservatives, Trumpites, and tenders of the military-industrial complex alike, and his mania for killing Kong and thus upsetting the island’s delicate balance of power reflects the destabilizing application of that hegemony across the globe for more than half a century.

Kong: Skull Island, then, is true Kong in as many ways as it is counterfeit Kong. It evades the thematic traditions of tragedy and mixed ideological messages concerning race and sexuality, and settles instead on standard-issue Hollywood assumptions both political and commercial: anti-war liberalism and skepticism of militaristic empire on the one hand, preserving its showpiece simian for continuing franchise sequelization on the other. But it’s an exciting, impeccably shot, inventively-designed action-adventure white-knuckler as well, which is what the greater mass of moviegoers who haven’t dedicated thousands of words to the deeper meanings of giant ape movies surely expect. Skull Island sees the pendulum of Kong screen narratives swing away from elegy and back towards spectacle, where the enduring cinematic myth began. Something is lost, certainly, but something else is gained, and it’s hard to regard a picture as highly enjoyable as this one as merely achieving a balance. It tips decisively to the positive, despite what it leaves off the scale.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. Max
    April 11, 2017 at 3:01 pm

    Beautifully written.

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