King Kong deserves respect as one of the great fables to come from cinema, as well as for its pioneering special effects. The story of man’s hubris in bringing an incredible force of nature into the heart of the human world and suffering the terrible consequences for their lack of respect is a great parable, simple enough to explain to a child and yet layered with nuance. The story is one of personal arrogance, of racism, of colonialism, even of a kind of early environmentalism. Kong: Skull Island is the latest in nearly a century of re-releases, remakes and rip-offs, and is notable at least for its departure from the original. While it is not the most revolutionary version – which remains Kong’s Japanese excursion, during which he gets caught up in an illicit mining scheme and battles a robot doppelganger in downtown Tokyo – it shifts the focus in an interesting direction. And for left bereft of giant monsters causing ridiculous mayhem, this change is most welcome.
This departure is not complete. There are still definite elements of the conflict between humans and their environment, but this idea is subject to a much more apparent and more political interpretation. Setting this new film in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War and casting most of the human characters as veterans thereof makes an obvious point. A heavily armed force ventures into a strange location that they do not fully understand and immediately begin dropping bombs (albeit in this case for scientific investigation). When the local inhabitants take exception to this kind of treatment and retaliate, the reaction of this invading force, particularly Sam Jackson’s Packard, is spectacularly self-centred and oblivious. He is affronted that the creatures of Skull Island would dare to attack his men, and resolves to take his revenge on the island’s protector, the gigantic ape Kong. This is in spite of dire warnings that Kong’s presence keeps something far worse at bay. The parallels to history are clear. In Vietnam and since, American militarism has generally been characterised by, at best, intense moral ambiguity and, at worst, outright catastrophe. Indeed, the film might be more applicable to Iraq than to Vietnam, insofar as the short-sighted creation of a power vacuum can absolutely give rise to something more monstrous than that which came before.
In spite of these dark allusions to the state of the real world, Kong: Skull Island is characterised more by blockbuster spectacle than sober political allegory. The movie seems to be an almost conscious response to criticisms leveled at Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. That film suffered from accusations that the tone was too dark and sombre, and particularly that the titular kaiju was conspicuous mainly by his absence. Conversely, Kong is a regular presence in his movie, and is allowed ample room to throw his considerable weight around. This is the second-largest Kong ever to appear on screen, having been sized-up once again to ultimately throw down with Godzilla, allowing for the most excessive carnage the immense ape has ever perpetrated. Perhaps none of the action scenes individually equal the V-rex royal rumble in Peter Jackson’s remake, but taken collectively they comprise the best action in any Kong film. The sheer scale of this Kong combined with the big-budget special effects of today make his presumed godhood more easily understandable, though he lacks some of the ancient mysticism that previous incarnations have had. This Kong, again because of his association with the unfolding shared universe with Godzilla, is huge and impressive, but is oddly more grounded as an example of surviving ancient megafauna, and not a fantastical creature.
Kong is not the only giant and bizarre creature on Skull Island. In fact, as a mere 100-foot bipedal gorilla, he is almost pedestrian. The other denizens of this world show a real desire by the filmmakers to make this place truly otherworldly. The over-sized bugs remain, but in strange new guises. If the Vietnam analogy was not already clear, the towering bamboo spider hammers this home; not only are there enemies in the trees, sometimes the enemies are the trees. The isle’s colossal buffalo, sporting horns that could span an airplane, have been called Miyazakiesque, and certainly do account for the film’s few moments of innocent wonder. Gone are the giant dinosaurs, to be replaced by the Skullcrawlers, a worthy addition to the pantheon of giant monsters that, at least, distinguish themselves more than the impressive but over-designed MUTOs of Godzilla. Awful name aside (admitting this in-film is absolutely no excuse), they are a simple and effective design, and a formidable foe for both Kong and the human protagonists.
The creativity of the animal residents of Skull Island sadly does not carry over to the film’s human characters. In spite of a cast full of excellent actors, including multiple award-winners, all are easily reducible to a few bullet points. This is explicable by an appeal to action and excitement over humanisation, but is not really excusable. The best performances come from Jackson and John C. Reilly. Jackson brings his trademark intensity to the ostensible villain of the piece, and is one of the few characters with a consistent and recognisable motivation, his bloodthirsty quest for vengeance. Reilly’s Marlow is a strange presence in the story, more broad and animated than the rest, but he exudes a thoroughly amiable air. This is in spite of the fact that he never quite achieves the appropriate balance between comedy and pathos, or even parity with the overall tone of the movie at any given moment. One could be forgiven for thinking at the outset that John Goodman’s Randa will be much more important than he turns out to be, perhaps even a main character. This rapidly proves to be untrue (shades of Bryan Cranston’s abrupt and unwelcome exit from Godzilla). Instead the torch is taken up by Tom Hiddleston’s Conrad and Brie Larson’s Weaver. (The allusions here seem obvious to the point of slight self-consciousness. The film contains plenty of DNA from both Heart of Darkness and Aliens.) Conrad lacks all definition beyond his compelling introductory scene in a seedy bar, and is essentially engaging only to the extent that one likes Tom Hiddleston. Weaver has the least reason to be involved of any of the characters, offering only vague hints at why she would choose to switch from war to nature photojournalism. Despite being one of only two female characters, and perhaps an obvious analogue, she is no Ann Darrow or Dwan; while there is some connection between her and Kong, it is not truly a focus. This is for the best, as this has been done before and done better.
The weakness of the characterisation might be partially explained by the plot, or rather plots. There are at least two fairly distinct stories running through the film. Packard and his soldiers are battling their way through a blend of Moby Dick and the aforementioned Aliens, as they attempt to fend off monsters as they hunt the beast that decimated their ranks. Conrad, Weaver et al. are part of a more traditional “lost world” adventure, with just a dash of Apocalypse Now, Reilly playing a rather more jovial Colonel Kurtz. Randa’s story, however abbreviated, may also count as a familiar monster movie narrative of the scientist yearning to prove that his mythical creature of choice really does exist. These stories are not integrated well, resulting in a kind of audience whiplash as the movie jumps between plot threads. It feels as though several scripts were mashed together, as each might have functioned as a viable story in their own right.
In spite of these flaws, Kong: Skull Island is towards the higher end of the blockbuster spectrum. While simple, it does not insult the intellect of the viewer, and its action is far from the incomprehensible CG carnage of, say, a Transformers sequel. Kong’s true reveal, as a silhouette against a burning orange sunset, is as good as any in monster movie history and the scale of the destruction on display makes this feel more like a kaiju flick than any prior King Kong, Toho efforts included. As the second installment in the nascent Legendary MonsterVerse, this is a fitting entry. We can certainly hope for more memorable characters as this series continues, but from the perspectives of the eponymous monsters, things look sunny. For fans starved of giant monster goodness this may be junk food, but it ought to stop the pangs for now. For everyone else, this is a fun and frivolous summer spectacular, albeit one that came out in the spring.
Kong: Skull Island
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson