Kong: Skull Island
Jordan Vogt-Roberts (2017)
I admit to having avoided Kong: Skull Island, the latest in the long line of remakes dating back to the first stop-action giant gorilla in the classic 1933 original, that pretty much introduced us to “special effects” on the big screen. The two blockbuster remakes of the original story, the 1976 John Guillermin remake, and the Peter Jackson 2005 homage to the original, both won Academy Awards for special effects, while telling essentially the same story as the original, so I assumed that I’d pretty much seen this film already, at least three times, and that the only reason to go to this one would be to see what kind of advances have been made in special effects in the twelve years since Jackson’s contribution. Besides, the story of Kong has always been essentially a “Beauty and the Beast” story—remember the last line Jack Armstrong speaks in 1933 (and Jack Black speaks in 2005): “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast”—and there was another Beauty and the Beast story out there to see this spring.
Those films were all essentially love stories. The Great Ape’s human side was revealed through his love for Faye Wray, for Jessica Lange, for Naomi Watts. In Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ new Kong epic, Academy Award winner Brie Larson (Room) takes on the female lead as photojournalist Mason Weaver, who latches on to an expedition heading for a previously unknown island in the South Pacific. Kong is sympathetic to her—he allows her to actually touch his face, and does save her life at one point. And there is the obligatory hold-the-girl-in-your-gigantic-hand scene, but this Kong has more important things to do than chase skirts, even Oscar-winner ones. He is not just king but god to the native inhabitants of Skull Island, and he has a full-time job protecting them—and, potentially, the whole human race—from monstrous lizard creatures who live in great cavernous places under the earth, who can enter our world from under Kong’s island home.
Nor is Kong heading for New York City this time, so there won’t be any scaling of the Empire State Building or any other human-made structures, so the motif of the bestial at the heart of human civilization that is the flip side of the beast-with-the-human heart theme underlying those previous Kong films is also absent here. And it’s pretty difficult to see how it would be possible to get this Kong home, even if you were able to knock him out and chain him up, since Vogt-Roberts makes him far larger than any Kongs we’ve seen before—how do you ship him home when he’s as big as the ship itself? Here, Kong seems big as a mountain at times, the living embodiment of the natural world, a god conceived as the personification (or gorillafication) of the forces of nature itself.
The film begins strangely, with an image of the sun in a clear sky, and then suddenly, a screaming body falling across it. Turns out it’s an American pilot falling from the sky as his plane is shot down over an unknown island in 1944. His parachute lands him on the island just before a Japanese pilot, his own plane destroyed, parachutes to land on the same beach. Immediately the American fires upon the Japanese pilot, until finding himself out of ammunition, he is chased by the Japanese soldier, and the two end up grappling on the edge of a cliff. At that point, with the sun behind him, the gigantic head of Kong rises from the cliff to stare at them.
It’s a memorable opening, and lets us know, first, that Kong has been on this island a long time, and second, that violence is not going to be any kind of an answer in the face of titanic forces of nature that we cannot control or subdue. And that pretty much sums up the film.
The next scene flashes forward to Washington D.C. in 1973, where Bill Randa (John Goodman) is lobbying a senator to fund an exploratory expedition he wants to take to that unknown island we’ve just seen 28 years earlier. Randa heads a small group of scientists engaged in investigating strange phenomena (in fact the group, called “Monarch,” is secretly trying to explore the existence of monsters, and to determine if those monsters are a threat to humans). He is allowed to piggy back on a larger expedition heading to the newly discovered island to map it. He then tracks down a former British Special Air Service Captain named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), who is a skilled tracker and survivalist, to guide his expedition. They are also assigned the protection of a U.S. army company—a helicopter squadron called the “Sky Devils”—recalled from the winding-down American mission in Vietnam and therefore available to accompany the expedition, just in case there’s anything dangerous to be met with on this uncharted island. It so happens that these troops are led by Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is leaving Vietnam with an oversized chip on his shoulder, telling photojournalist Weaver that “We didn’t lose this war. We abandoned it.”
Since the island is apparently in the eye of a kind of permanent hurricane, the entire expedition must be ferried onto the island by helicopter, and in a scene highly reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, the copters swoop in on the island, dropping bombs in order to allow Randa’s people to use the vibrations to seismologically study the geological makeup of the island (they quickly discover the earth beneath the island is hollow). What they don’t realize is that these explosions will be seen as a threat by the island’s protector—a certain hundred-foot tall ape. On the principle that when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, Colonel Packard orders an all-out assault on the creature, raking him with machine gun fire from the helicopter squadron. The bullets have little effect on Kong, who destroys every one of the helicopters and in the process most of Colonel Packard’s men.
The survivors are divided into two groups, one led by Packard, along with Randa and a few other soldiers, the other by Conrad, along with Weaver and a few others. They need to make it to a rendezvous point on the north side of the island in order to be picked up by their transport, or they will be stranded on the island. But Packard wants to locate another of his men, Chapman, who has crashed somewhere on the island with a copter full of explosives. Packard, it seems, has no intention of leaving the island without wreaking vengeance on Kong. Kong killed his men, and Packard is not letting that drop. He may have been forced to “abandon” Vietnam, but he’s not about to leave Skull Island without destroying Kong. No amount of logic can convince Packard to forego his quest—Kong becomes his Moby Dick, and like a Vietnam-era Ahab, Packard will not rest until achieving his obsession.
Conrad’s group, meanwhile, has come into contact with the native inhabitants of the island, who worship Kong, and with a certain downed World War II fighter pilot named Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), who has been trapped on the island for 28 years, and only wants to get home so that he can have a hot dog at Wrigley Field. Marlow explains how he became friends with his Japanese counterpart—until his friend was killed by the giant reptilian monster that only Kong can keep in check. He also happens to have a boat, constructed from his wrecked plane, that can get Conrad’s group to the rendezvous point in time to escape the island. The names “Conrad” and “Marlow” are no accidents—they recall Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the novel that inspired Apocalypse Now and whose narrator, who pilots a boat up the Congo River, is named Marlow. In the “Skull Island” scenario, Colonel Packard recalls Kurtz, who in both his Heart of Darkness and his Apocalypse Now manifestations is obsessed with the violent destruction of the brutish and the bestial (“exterminate the brutes” he writes in Conrad’s text), in the process becoming the most bestial of all. Kong, meanwhile, becomes the white whale to Packard’s obsessed Ahab: the embodiment of the divine “insidious malice” that hides behind the pasteboard masks of the universe (as Ahab puts it in Moby-Dick). At the same time, Conrad and Weaver speak for the nascent environmentalist cause (1973 was just three years after the first celebration of “Earth Day” gave birth to the modern environmentalist movement), advocating the importance of leaving Kong alone, particularly since, as the natural enemy of the giant lizard creatures, he was the only one keeping them from destroying humanity. Meanwhile Marlow, as a kind of foil to Packard, demonstrates that violence should not be a first response against a perceived enemy, since that “enemy,” like his Japanese compatriot (or, it is implied, Kong himself) may turn out to be the best friend you’ve got.
This may seem a complex theme or set of themes for an old-fashioned giant ape popcorn movie to carry. And most critics who have enjoyed the film have seen it as simply a good old fun action flick. But Vogt-Roberts (whose only previous film was the 2013 Sundance hit The Kings of Summer) and his writers (Dan Gilroy, Max Berenstein, and Derek Connolly) seem to have deliberately loaded this fairly light film with this fairly heavy message.
They’ve also given it a fairly complex plot, with so many strands that I could not begin to unravel them all here—I haven’t even touched, for instance, on the motives of Randa’s fellow scientists, or several of Packard’s Vietnam vets. To try to get all of this into a two-hour movie, and to try to give major stars like Hiddleston, Goodman, Larson, Jackson, and Reilly any kind of equal time is an awfully difficult proposition. Mostly, the big names haven’t much to do. Hiddleston and Larson spend what time they do have looking concerned and not saying a whole lot—there might have been some romantic interest between the two, but there isn’t room in the story for it. Goodman is charismatic as usual, and he finally lets us in on his motives, but he isn’t on screen long enough for us to form any kind of bond with him. Jackson manages to play the psychotic gunman as only he can, but his motives don’t get enough screen time to develop any complexity. Reilly is the one who pretty much steals the show: He emerges from the native village chattering like Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now, but he has all our sympathy from his first appearance through the end of the film where the credits roll over him. In some ways he is a kind of chorus figure, and in siding with the Conrad/Weaver faction as opposed to the Packard/Randa side, shows us where our own sympathies should lie.
I’ll give this one three Tennysons. It’s a new look at Kong, and an interesting one, that could have been better perhaps, if it hadn’t tried to be too many things at once.