Kong: Skull Island is exactly what you’d expect from a movie with a colon in the title. It’s large, loud, and—a safe bet whenever the United States is involved—full of explosions. If you’re older that twenty, Peter Jackson’s extravagant 2005 film King Kong still feels fairly recent, and you might be asking, “Isn’t it a little soon for another King Kong movie?” The answer is that it’s never too soon, not for a reboot or remake, and especially when there are millions of dollars to be made. (And make it it’d better; the film cost a reported $185 million to create).
Kong is a grand adventure from start to finish; it’s two hour run time flies by, which is always a good sign. Set somewhere in the Pacific in 1973, the film follows a group of government-funded scientists led by John Goodman, who’s determined to uncover the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle-like Skull Island before the Russians do. They’re accompanied by a military escort, headed by Lieutenant Colonel Packard (a true-to-form Samuel L. Jackson), as well as anti-war photographer Mason (Brie Larson), and impossibly good-looking RAF pilot-turned tracking expert James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston).In a superbly shot scene that felt like being on an amusement park ride from hell, the group attempts to fly a fleet of helicopters straight into the ominous storm system that enshrouds the island. When they finally punch through the raging clouds to the other side, it appears they’ve entered paradise, but only until Kong shows up to smash some planes and fling some bodies (wisely, this happens almost immediately). After that, the island becomes a veritable land mine of danger, one which the now scattered team must navigate while they try desperately to reach their pick-up site alive and on time. Along the way they encounter Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), an eccentric WWII pilot who’s been stranded on the island for over twenty years; a tribe of Kong-worshipping, very silent (and very cliche) natives, and a muscly, two-armed breed of reptilian monsters called “skull crawlers” that dwell beneath the island’s surface.
What works in Kong is everything that usually detracts from big-budget action movies: the scope, the scares, and the special effects. The story and dialogue might be skimpy, but no one came for that anyways. Kong himself is HUGE, like, really, really huge, and this size is largely responsible for his magnificence. It’s important that he stands out as king amongst the other over-sized island species, and he does—when standing erect, his hulking frame literally blocks the sun. Wisely, attempts to humanize him are blessedly minimal; no single tear runs down his cheek, and neither does love for a beauty slow this beast. Rather, we empathize with him for behaviors as simple as washing a wound in the river, or rescuing an animal trapped by a fallen tree. Three past films about Kong have thoroughly informed us that he’s more misunderstood than monstrous, so this choice to keep him remote and raging helps maintain the characters’ (and the audience’s) fear of him.
Visually, the film is stunning to experience. Everything looks and sounds hyper-real; I was half-expecting to start perspiring from the humidity or feel the mist of a waterfall. Yet the lighting is also hazy, bathing everything in a golden glow that looks straight out of a perfume ad. One character describes the island as “a place where myth and science meet,” and this combination of so-real-you-could-touch it clarity and idyllic warmth embodies that description perfectly.
Thematically, Kong tosses a lot of balls in the air for our consideration, but doesn’t seriously engage with any of them. There are some definite parallels to the Vietnam War, what with the setting, the futility of the mission, and fear of the Other held by certain members of the crew. (And the shots of copters in formation and the classic rock soundtrack are an obvious homage to Apocalypse Now.) There’s also a Man vs. Nature thread running throughout, with characters representing both the “respect nature in all it’s awful wonder” point of view, and those who put their faith firmly in man’s ability to conquer nature and desire to flex humanity’s superiority. What’s also interesting is the film’s moral spectrum, which seems to use the same rubric to judge both human and non-human characters. What’s most abhorrent: A desire for violent revenge, no matter the necessary scapegoat? A mercenary’s willingness to pimp out his skills for money? The inevitable casualties caused by a species’ innate struggle to survive? Or the carnage left by a ravenous creature hellbent on the domination of his ecosystem? The spectrum of monsters is wide, and Kong and the skull-crawlers aren’t the only one’s on it.
Another potentially interesting subject that’s left undeveloped is the manner in which people respond to the unexpected events around them. When we encounter those things that have not yet been dreamt of in our philosophies, do we put our head down and get on with it, or do we stand and gape in bewilderment? What do we accept, and what do we combat? After the crew’s first encounter with Kong, everyone begins to immediately collect themselves, except for one young soldier who demands, “Is nobody gonna say anything?! Are we not gonna talk about this?!” As in, an ape the size of a skyscraper just batted military helicopters like they were mosquitos, and you’re going to eat canned beans?!
Not to get too heavy-handed, but this dichotomy of human response—rational pragmatism vs. incredulous amazement—feels particularly familiar in the wake of Trump’s election. Public reaction has been split between, “He didn’t get my vote, but now that he’s president, let’s hope for the best,” and “I will protest his every move until he’s out of office.” There’s a surprisingly nuanced view of human natured hinted at in Kong, even if the particular moment is played for laughs. And the filmmakers (director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and a small squad of writers) are certainly aware of how Kong relates to our current climate.. Early on, one character says (in reference to the Nixon administration), “Mark my words, there will never be a more screwed up time in Washington.” They are well-aware of the rueful laughs that statement will provoke, as well as the cheers that will break out when the stranded John C. Reilly character hopefully asks if the Cubs have won the World Series yet.
And this is why, when all is said and done, Kong: Skull Island works—its massive tongue is planted firmly in it’s massive cheek. All kinds of people go to the movies for all sorts of reasons, but perhaps one of the oldest, purest reasons is for entertainment. And on that front, Kong, in all it’s bigness and beauty, delivers.
Rachel Woldum is barista and bartender currently living in Minneapolis. An MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, Rachel also writes a TV column for Southern Minnesota Scene, and develops comic book scripts for Cartoon Studios.