If there’s one principle that Hollywood truly believes in, it’s that you should never stop re-trying. The newest King Kong movie, Kong: Skull Island, arriving over eight decades after the idea first came to fruition, is at the heart of that, as studios and film-makers first remade the 1933 original in 1976, and then again in 2005. Kong: Skull Island is more of a reimagining, and models itself after (possibly) the most famous Vietnam War movie of all-time, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. That inspiration is clear throughout the film, from its setting, characters, story parallels, and even how it uses colour.
Kong: Skull Island starts off in the skies over South Pacific, towards the end of World War II, with Japanese and American forces engaged in dogfights. Two pilots – one from each side – parachute to safety onto an island after their fighter planes are downed, and engage in ferocious hand-to-hand combat through the jungle, and up the rocks. But before one can kill the other, they are rudely interrupted by a giant monster that towers over them. It’s Kong, of course. Led by Industrial Light & Magic’s capable VFX team, the mo-cap CGI reincarnation of the famous ape in Kong: Skull Island is massive – far bigger than the ones we’ve been treated to earlier – with hands the size of a tank.
Kong: Skull Island then moves the action nearly thirty years into the future to 1973, after a set of opening credits that showcase the rapid and effervescent rise in technological advances between the end of WWII and the Vietnam War. It’s a deliberate move in more ways than one, as it places the story amid anti-war sentiment, with President Nixon forced to pull out of the East Asian nation, and the impending Watergate scandal that would occur soon after.
Note: mild spoilers ahead.
It’s only natural then that John Goodman – playing a conspiracy theorist named Bill Randa, who’s looking to fund an expedition to Skull Island – steps out of a cab in front of the United State Capitol, and declares with authority: “Mark my words, there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington!” Kong: Skull Island was shot while the Trump saga was still in its infancy, so while it can’t be viewed as direct political commentary, it does feel prescient in some ways.
Randa, along with Houston Brooks (Straight Outta Compton’s Corey Hawkins), are there to lobby a senator, who reluctantly agrees to let them tag along on a mapping mission. Considering they are headed into uncharted territory, they will need a team, which starts with getting a military escort, led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a warmonger who lost his sense of purpose with the Americans losing in Vietnam. Don’t say that to his face though, as he believes they merely “abandoned” it.
Next up is former SAS/ mercenary/ expert tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), who Randa and Brooks find on a Bangkok side-street. They are joined by self-described anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who’s leaving behind the cover of Time in search of a scoop. The eccentric group at the centre of Kong: Skull Island is rounded out by San Lin (Jing Tian), a biologist, and a bunch of American troops serving under Packard – Chapman (Toby Kebbell), Mills (Jason Mitchell), Cole (Shea Whigham), and Slivko (Thomas Mann).
The crew arrives on Skull Island believing they are here in the pursuit of science – seismic charges are dropped to determine if the ground is hollow – but Randa is hiding the truth from them. Their arrival by helicopters, triumphantly scored to the beats of 70s music, is cut short by a palm tree that flies like a javelin into one of the cockpits. Moments later, the tank-sized palm swats another helicopter, before everyone realises the terror they have instigated.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts brings a fantastic sense of style and colour palette to the opening half hour of Kong: Skull Island, with each setting bathed in different coloured hues, from the purples of the bar Conrad is found in to the orange of the Vietnam War, and the enchanting greens of Skull Island. Plus, the early reveal is exciting to take in, be it their approach to Skull Island, or the way it establishes the giant menace they have awoken.
Kong: Skull Island’s infusion of 70s music, from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Run Through the Jungle and The Chambers Brothers’ The Time Has Come Today, is a delightful touch to harken back to the nostalgia of that time.
Kong: Skull Island wants to be taken seriously, which is why it has brought on board a bunch of well-known faces, including Hiddleston, Larson, Jackson, and Goodman, and entrusted them with driving the movie’s emotional core. But ultimately, it’s a monster movie more than an anti-war one, which becomes plainly clear in its presentation after the opening half-hour.
Once all the helicopters are plucked out of the sky by Kong – when simply flying higher could have avoided this catastrophe – the team of explorers is split into two roughly equal groups. And that’s where Kong: Skull Island starts to go sideways. It’s unable to sustain the initial rush, and ends up throwing a Pandora’s box worth of more troubles, be it a giant spider that can camouflage its legs as trees, a water buffalo the size of a commercial jet, an insect shaped like a fallen tree trunk, or just plain pterodactyls.
And that’s before Kong: Skull Island introduces the ugliest creatures of them all. They are called “skullcrawlers”, named by Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), the same WWII pilot from the opening scene who’s been on Skull Island for almost three decades, living with the native islanders. While Marlow’s screen presence infuses some light-heartedness and humour into the film, the monsters – built like a two-legged lizard meshed with the head of an alligator – are blood-thirsty rodents that only exist to create terror among our human protagonists, and justify Kong’s hero status by setting up a climactic battle.
Even in designing that, Kong: Skull Island is utterly uninspired, though some audiences will no doubt lap up the battle between the monsters. At the Indian premiere, the scenes that were cheered on the most were ones that had Kong ripping apart the limbs of Skull Island’s fellow dwellers, in a direct confirmation of why these types of films continue to be made.
For the director, anti-war films such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon seem to be direct influences, and he has said as much. And even though Kong: Skull Island is technically set in the South Pacific, all of this could well just be happening in a Vietnam minus the people. (Parallels could easily be made of the monsters and Viet Cong in American eyes, but the film stays away from any such commentary.) That’s how similar the geography is, with mountains, and a river getting a lot of importance.
In essence, Kong: Skull Island is Vogt-Roberts’ version of a Vietnam movie with monsters, and a homage to other films that he saw and fell in love with as a kid. It’s unfortunate then that he has directed a popcorn-fodder mind-numbing tale in that regard, one which constantly indulges the bone-crunching carnage that its target audience craves, and easily embraces. And it seems the studio know only too well whom they stand to get rich off, with the apparent lack of depth, and sensibility that permeates through the proceedings.
Packard’s ruthless approach, and man-is-king philosophy is displayed more than once with him glaring right at Kong, and the subtext of his words and actions portrays him as a less-refined Kurtz. Meanwhile, Marlow speaks for the natives, who apparently do not communicate verbally – because Kong: Skull Island is about Americans, and they have clearly nothing to contribute. Tian’s inclusion resembles an entirely tokenistic approach, as she gets barely any lines, and seems to have been thrown in to appease the burgeoning Chinese market that counts for so much of Hollywood’s profits these days.
Both the films in Legendary Pictures’ so-called MonsterVerse have returned to what must be a new trope – the giant creature humans fear turns out to be a necessity and a saviour, to save them from even wilder savages running around. It’s an effort to humanise Godzilla, and Kong, and it does seem Godzilla vs. Kong (2020) will eventually have the two fighting even bigger monsters, at this rate. For Kong: Skull Island, that means manufacturing a few moments between Kong and Weaver. Thankfully, it’s not insensitive as with the 1976 remake, where Kong tried to undress his human captive, but here, where the scenes are stuffed in an otherwise by-the-numbers action piece, it generates hardly any long-lasting connection, or semblance of an emotion.
At the end of the day, Kong: Skull Island is ultimately just that – two hours of monster action. With these movies regularly fetching more money outside their home market, the tendency is to keep things as generic as possible, so the message translates universally. In doing so, though, the film’s evoking of its anti-war counterparts falls flat, and feels hollow, much like the island itself.