Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Films of 2017: Kong: Skull Island

For an almost-summertime blockbuster, Kong: Skull Island (2017) sure has a lot on its mind, and that’s a good thing in this age of message-free movie entertainment. 

On a very basic, literal level, much of this film concerns cinematic universe-building. The adventures here, on Skull Island, reveal the back-story of Monarch, a monster hunting organization that audiences first encountered in 2014’s Godzilla.  The film’s post-credit sequence sets up Godzilla 2: King of Monsters (2019), and likely, Kong vs. Godzilla (2020), as well.

So there’s plenty of continuity-building for the avid kaiju fan, if that’s what you’re most excited about.

It would be disturbing, however, to report that the entirety of the film is designed exclusively for exposition and fan service, and paving the way for more hype-laden sequels. 

Fortunately, Kong: Skull Island features deeper themes, and subtext too, even as it moves the King Kong myth some distance away from its previous and historical obsessions (namely a beauty-and-the-beast romance, and a statement about mankind “caging” nature, and thus destroying nature). 

In all likelihood, you’ve seen the Apocalypse Now (1979)-styled Kong posters, and this allusion is a key piece of understanding the new film. 

Like Coppola’s film, Kong: Skull Island is set in the Age of Vietnam.

Apocalypse Now is set in 1969; Kong in 1973. In both cases, the war is known (by all but a few) to be a lost cause, Richard Nixon is President, and America is in the midst of some serious soul searching about the purpose of the war, the prosecution of the war, and, finally, the impact of the war on the national psyche.

Apocalypse Now, of course, is a very loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 literary work, Heart of Darkness, whose theme can be summed up, broadly-speaking, by the following phrase: colonialism (or imperialism, if you prefer) causes insanity. 

Specifically, the novel’s madman, Kurtz, separates from his own world (Europe of the 19th century), and in goes off the rails as a kind of (crazy) God figure in Africa, treating the indigenous people like they are mere things to be exterminated. This is also Kurtz’s function, incidentally, in Apocalypse Now, though the story there is relocated from the Congo Free State in the 19th century to Cambodia during the Vietnam Era.

Kong: Skull Island, modifies the theme just a bit.

Although war may be considered a form of imperialism I suppose, I would state the 2017 monster film’s theme in this way: a failed war creates insanity in men, particularly in men like Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), and leaders in Washington D.C.

Having lost this particular war -- a war of uncertain purpose and limited support -- such men have lost their moral compass and, indeed, their grip on sanity. This viewpoint is purposefully countered in the film by the presence of a morally-centered veteran from a “just” or “noble” war, World War II.

To ground this discussion in the film’s details a bit more, Kong: Skull Island’s primary antagonist is a Kurtz-like figure (Packard), who decides to make war against a being -- Kong -- that he comes to hate. Packard is not able to look at the larger picture, and understand how Kong protects the status quo on his island home; protecting indigenous peoples from the fierce Skull Crawlers. 

Instead, Packard wishes to interfere on the island and destroy this enemy, simply to prove his own superiority. If the island should fall to other monsters, then Packard will return with the “cavalry” and kill them too. To Packard, might can make right. America didn’t lose in Vietnam, he reports, the powers that be made his soldiers “cut and run.”

With Kong, he doesn’t want to make that mistake again. He is committed until the bloody, self-destructive end, and if he takes his loyal men with him, well, so be it.

Kong: Skull Island features terrific special effects, and at least one great character (Marlow, portrayed by John C. Reilly), but it achieves greatness primarily on the basis of its deeper meaning, so don't believe the superficial reviews that tell you the movie is just dumb fun.

Kong is a monster, and a danger to man under the right circumstances, yes, but he is one who also serves a purpose on Skull Island. Remove him, and a whole island is de-stabilized.  As intimidating and “monstrous” as he is,  Kong remains a bulwark.

Reading a bit further into this analogy, it’s clear that this idea doesn’t belong in the distant past. A decade ago, America chose to take out a “monster” in the Middle East, and the result, once that bulwark was gone, was great chaos and uncertainty; and the creation of new, even more deadly enemies.

That’s exactly what could happen on Skull Island, should Packard succeed in his mission.

Through powerful imagery (of Washington D.C. at the start of the film, and of a President Nixon bobble-head), Kong: Skull Island conveys well its theme, a warning about imperialism and war. One soldier notes -- and I paraphrase -- that if you bring guns to a new land, you’re going to find new enemies to fight, and new battles to wage.

In this -- the second Kong film of the 21st century -- the old script is flipped. The mighty ape is a great hero dedicated to balance and the custodianship of his home. This Kong is thoughtful and intelligent (capable of using tools, we see in the climax), and man is actually the destructive “monster.” 

“Is that a monkey?”

In 1973, a man from a secretive company called Monrach, Bill Randa (John Goodman) wrangles a military escort to explore a newly-discovered land mass he calls Skull Island.

Leading that escort is Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a solider still upset about the end of the war in Vietnam, and America’s failure to stay and fight what he perceives as a winnable conflict. 

Also along for the ride are Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), an ex-soldier turned mercenary, and war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).

The team reaches Skull Island and after navigating a wall of storms, begins a mapping mission that requires the detonation of bombs.  After several explosions on the surface, however, a force of nature -- a giant ape named Kong -- strikes back.  

With his helicopters destroyed and his forces decimated, Packard plans a counter-attack to kill Kong.

Conrad, and Weaver, meanwhile, encounter a World War II pilot, Marlow (John C. Reilly), who explains to them how Kong protects the people of the island from colossal, subterranean lizard creatures he calls Skull Crawlers. Kill Kong, as Packer wishes, and the island’s natives will be endangered and quite likely destroyed.

A desperate mission by river is launched to reach the north side of the island and signal for help, but Packard refuses to leave Skull Island before destroying Kong. 

Meanwhile, Packard’s use of munitions and napalm fighting Kong awaken the largest of the dormant skull crawlers…

“It’s time to show Kong that man is king.”

At its heart, Kong: Skull Island seems to be a tale about what happens to men -- good men -- when they fight a war that they don’t understand, don’t believe in, or feel is somehow unjust.  

Packard loves and honors his men, those he serves with, but he has totally lost his moral barometer, and therefore the ability to understand what is best for them. When many of his soldiers are killed in an attack by Kong -- in an incredibly tense and well-sustained action sequence -- all he can see is the need to kill an enemy. Packard doesn’t see, for example, that what is goon for his team is to get the surviving men out of danger.  That would be, in his eyes, cutting and running, and he is never, ever going to do that again.

Packard’s understanding of Kong, and the situation on Skull Island, is deliberately juxtaposed in the film with the perspective of Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II veteran who crashed on the island in 1944, and who has come to not only respect the native people, and Kong, but even his enemy: a downed Japanese pilot. 

Marlow -- named after the protagonist of Heart of Darkness -- perhaps because his war was perceived as just and necessary by his people, and by those who served -- is able to maintain his moral compass in a way that Packard cannot.  He is able to understand Kong’s role on the island, and see the giant ape as something other than a rampaging monster. He respects Kong’s role as guardian of the people, and furthermore can explain Kong’s violent behavior towards Packard’s team. 

Packard’s men came to the island and began dropping bombs, with no warning, no prologue. These bombs not only threaten the wild-life on the surface, as we see in several sequences of deer-like animals running from the explosions, but also threaten to awake Big Daddy Skull Crawler from his subterranean slumber.  This monster killed Kong’s parents, but is now quiescent. Packard’s actions are not only harming innocents, but threatening to awake a sleeping giant. 

Marlow says it well, himself: “Kong’s a pretty good king. Keeps to himself, mostly. But you don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs, unless you’re picking a fight.”

Packard has been itching for just such a fight. To prove to himself, and others, that he didn't lose in Vietnam. 

Again, consider these two men in balance. One is able to see the incursion on the island as a provocative move that demands Kong’s response (as king). The other, Packard, believes he is king, and that it is his prerogative to choose the fate of the island.  

And one man comes from a war of honor; the other from a war without any clear overriding moral purpose.  

When there is no clear overriding purpose in war (except to win), any technique, any strategy that keeps one alive, or in control -- napalm, automatic weapons, what-have-you -- becomes justified.

We see Packard’s jaundiced, and unstable view on full display in his arrogant response to photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) when he first meets her. She takes photographs in war, documenting fact. Yet Packard sees her (and the press, by extension) as a threat to him, and to the American people. If only she took photos that supported his viewpoint, maybe the people at home would have supported the Vietnam War better. That’s what he believes. 

Yet it’s not Mason’s job (or the press’s, actually) to be PR agents supporting a war, or supporting a particular political agenda. It’s the press’s job to question power, and show people the truth. Only fools and failures blame the press for their own shortcomings.

America's failure in Vietnam is also played with, intriguingly, in the first approach to Skull Island, by helicopter convoy.  

There is a storm front of catastrophic proportions surrounding the island.  Yet Randa (John Goodman) and Packard make the call to fly through it; to brave the whirlwind without knowing, without understanding, the conditions they’ll face on the other side. Essentially, they are flying blind into a world they don’t understand.  

As the helicopters pierce the veil of gray clouds and lightning, we see a Nixon bobble-head on the dash of a chopper start to spin and shake. Later, when faced with Kong, it spins even more madly, as if experiencing a seizure. It’s as though Nixon, from the vantage point of 2017, is warning the team not to engage, not to go forward into a war that cannot be won.

The film’s social commentary also involves politics, and Washington, D.C. One of the first lines of dialogue in the film is Bill Randa’s assertion that “there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington.” 

Historically, we know this is not a statement of fact. Since 1973, we’ve had the debacle of the Iraq War, (remember when we were going to be greeted as liberators?) and even the madness that has seized the city now; with sinister foreign influences entangling many in the new Administration’s cabinet.  In the film, however, we see the error of 1973 decision-making. The mission to Skull Island is green-lit, only because Russia might get to the island first.

The reason to visit the island is not exploration. It is not discovery. It is not entertainment (Kong 1933).  It is not the harnessing of resources (Kong 1976). It is the quest to win, to get ahead in a global cold war. Consequences and preparations be damned. 

Lives be damned too.  It's a race!

Against this injudicious madness, Kong: Skull Island gives us two approaches.  

One man, Marlow, seems crazy on the surface (having been away from “civilization” for 30 years), but he is actually quite sane. 

And then we have Packard, who on the surface seems reasonable, but is the opposite; he is as mad as Kurtz ever was.

The other characters -- and there’s a fellow here named Conrad, after the author of Heart of Darkness -- are little more than ciphers, in comparison. 

I'll go further. Marlow is the real heart of the film. He is never over-the-top, or cartoon-like. Instead, we relate to his wisdom, and his yearning to see home, and his family, again. Kong: Skull Island's final pre-end credit sequence is so emotionally powerful because Marlow is the film’s heart and soul; a soldier who understands his cause, but also understands his place in the world. He has been judicious for years, turning enemies into friends and learning to respect the rules of the island. And now, as he returns home for a long-delayed reunion, his faith is rewarded.

The film’s central theme, that war causes insanity, is a key strength of the film, but there are others worth noting.  

For one thing, Kong: Skull Island features a terrific sound-design and sound-track, recalling for us the age of Vietnam both through popular music, and the whirring hum of the Bell Huey copter.  The film is an incredible auditory experience, and the sound design dovetail perfectly with the chaotic imagery.  Again, Kong’s unexpected, surprise attack on the copter squadron is a dramatic high-point, a show of American force instantly out-matched by an enemy no one saw coming.  

And that idea, of course, is a perfect metaphor for the Vietnam Age.

In terms of the Kong cinematic myth, a number of historical images are here re-purposed.  The Native Wall re-appears here, though is put to new use.  We learn it was not built to keep Kong out (as it was in in all other editions of the myth), but rather to protect the people behind the walls from the monstrous skull crawlers. 

Another standby, a visual composition I call “in the hands of the beast” (in which a character -- most often female -- is carried in Kong’s enormous fist), also appears here, but greatly reduced in important from previous iterations of the myth.  Mason is picked up by Kong, after having nearly drown, and held for only one sequence. Again, Kong doesn’t hold this woman throughout the film.  Instead, the moment is reserved for just one powerful moment.  The beauty-and-the-beast aspect suggested by this shot is negligible in this film.

Kong does climb mountains in Kong: Skull Island, but he doesn’t fight a battle on a man-made summit (Empire State Building, Tokyo Tower, or World Trade Center).  This deletion makes sense for a couple of reasons.  Kong is no-longer an anti-hero or tragic hero, but rather a full-fledged hero. 

Secondly, he doesn’t die in this film, but lives to fight another day. The writers have thus saved themselves the trouble of figuring out some bizarre, byzantine way of resurrecting him for Kong vs. Godzilla.  

Frankly, I’m relieved.

As in all previous Kong films, the giant ape does face a “contender for the throne" here, some monster that challenges his supremacy on the island.  In 1933 and 2005, he went up against a T-Rex (or pack of them, as in the Jackson edition). In 1976, he fought an over-sized snake.  Here, Kong battles a whole family of skull crawlers, but the cause is more personal.  We learn that Kong's entire family was murdered by the Big Daddy Skull Crawler, and that now he is a lone sentinel on the island, protecting the people.

As a life-long Godzilla fan, I also found it intriguing that some aspects of Toho Kong made it into this re-imagination. Kong fights an octopus here (as he does in King Kong vs. Godzilla), and I swear Kumonga makes a guest appearance too.

I have read some reviews that don’t appreciate these modifications, or that suggest the movie gets Kong “wrong.” 

I’ll be honest about this: I did not need a fourth version of the original King Kong story, and I certainly did not need to see the character fall off a tall building and die for a fourth time.  I believe it was the right call to keep many of the ingredients of the myth, but change up the details and practical application of some story elements.  This movie feels fresh in a way that, perhaps, the Jackson film did not.

After 85 years, it’s about time. 

And since Kong: Skull Island intelligently rewrites the Kong myth to include the theme about war, and madness, I would say it does not lack for vital or relevant meaning.  

On the contrary, this king-sized monster movie deals with a re-thought and re-considered Kong, rather than just reviving a monster from a “bygone era” of movies.


  1. I agree, John, that this rethink of the King Kong legend comes off better, and is a better idea, than yet another retelling of the same King Kong original story with nothing but updated special effects. I would add that my immediate reaction on seeing it was that, besides calling to mind Heart of Darkness, the Vietnam allusions and the way the setting is filmed were also meant to recall the *imagery* of Apocalypse Now in a very direct way! I have always thought the major flaw in Apocalypse Now as a telling of Heart of Darkness is that Brando's Kurtz, is not ambiguous enough: although his reaction to his environment and circumstances may *feel* right given the situation, he is clearly by no means sane, which I think hurts the ability to draw any parallels. Here, Marlow is sane, which makes the parallel with Heart of Darkness more readily apparent.

    It makes me wish all the more that Orson Welles had been able to complete his vision of Heart of Darkness.

  2. John, great review, I am glad too that this King Kong is a revised interesting version. There will be sequels probably to fill the years between the 1973 setting and the present.


  3. I knew you would have something interesting to say about this film! Good review. I wonder about the choice of time period: did they choose 1973 from the start to work in the Vietnam elements or did they choose 1973 as just about the latest date where an uncharted island could still be remotely credible and had that lead to the Apocalypse Kong theme? I also wonder about the choice of helicopters as the vehicle for the expedition: because they are so strongly associated with Vietnam and Apocalypse now or because of the first Kong's unforgettable dislike of aircraft?:-) (I'm a pilot and I can tell you that flying into a storm anything like the one surrounding the island is tantamount to suicide - going in a submarine would have made a lot more sense. But also would have made a much less interesting movie)

    Have to say that Samuel Jackson makes a great Captain Ahab and John C. Reilly absolutely steals the show. I'm not likely to ever forget his line about the ants.


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