Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder
Kong Skull Island A Crisis of Kong-fidence
Written Review by David Carter
Movies will use certain historical events and imagery as shorthand to get its thematic through line across as quickly as it possibly can. Especially imagery that comes from different skirmishes and wars that have been fought throughout human history. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy uses the iconography (and J.R.R Tolkien’s experience) of World War I to strengthen its story about a looming, absolute power threatening to take hold of a rapidly changing world and the small yet courageous people who rally to stop it. Directors Michael Bay (Transformers), Zack Snyder (Man of Steel) and Steven Spielberg (War of the Worlds) smear their canvases with the imagery from 9/11. People running around devastated, covered in dust and debris as buildings topple around them, not quite sure or processing whats happening. In the 70’s and 80’s there was a tradition of using the Vietnam War as shorthand for a no win scenario for militarily superior humans, versus craftier and exceedingly dangerous extraterrestrials. James Cameron’s Alien$ and John Mctiernan’s Predator are prime examples of movies about overly confident soldiers being slaughtered by an enemy they greatly underestimated. In Star Wars, George Lucas even takes the conflict and reverses the roles so you root and empathize with scrappy group of guerilla freedom fighters instead of the technologically advanced Empire. What makes Kong: Skull Island so compelling is that it’s using Vietnam War iconography (with special attention to Apocalypse Now) while looking to give you this no win situation for the humans. It’s also having you empathize with both the humans and the monsters of Skull Island. It’s laying bare the pointlessness of the conflict.
Kong: Skull Island is a smash-bang kaiju movie with King Kong at its center. Set in a immediately post Vietnam War world, we see America fresh off of its loss. We follow obsessive and put down scientist Bill Randa (played by national treasure John Goodman) and his colleague Huston Brooks (Corey Hawkins of Straight Outta Compton fame). They work for “Monarch”, a fringe-y science organization whose name may sound familiar if you remembered their presence in 2014’s Godzilla. Bill and Huston have a lead on a previously uncharted and undiscovered land mass given the moniker “Skull Island”. They approach Senator Willis (a small cameo by Richard Jenkins) to get the funding and manpower they need to get to Skull Island before it disappears from satellite imaging again, due to the island being constantly shrouded by storms. They enlist the help of a mercenary/tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston getting a Han Solo style introduction), an anti-war photojournalist named Mason Weaver (the ever amazing Brie Larson), and a helicopter squadron nicknamed the Sky Devils. They’re led by the traumatized and mentally unstable Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (the incomparable Samuel Jackson). Bill and Huston’s plan is to drop bombs on the island to get a geographical survey of the land using the seismic vibrations from the resulting explosions. What ensues is all the imagery you come to expect from a Vietnam war flick: bright orange and red plumes of fire amongst the thick green vegetation of the jungle. Helicopters rolling in like horsemen of the apocalypse, soldiers gleefully surveying their handiwork. Needle drops (sometimes literally) sprinkled with the sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival and David Bowie. And most importantly, the moment when it all comes crashing down for the people who thought they were indestructible. Kong (a physical performance played with majesty fit for a God by Toby Kebbell) doesn’t take too kindly to having his home wrecked by these interlopers and responds with equal measure, demolishing a vast majority of the scientists and military men aboard the helicopters. This leaves the survivors asking questions about what they just saw and why they are here in the first place. Along the way they meet more kaiju, islands natives, and a World War II pilot who crash landed on the Island 20 years prior named Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly showing us why he’s one of the best character actors working today). However, the biggest monsters the survivors have to deal with aren’t necessarily the ones on Skull Island (although don’t get me wrong, those are scary too), but the ones among them. The ones too obsessed and broken to see that Kong may not be their enemy, and that fighting on grounds they have no right to is pointless and destructive in the end.
This all comes through in the characterization in the film, with each character representing a side of the conflict and how they play off of each other. Packard and Randa (Randa knew that there were monsters on the island prior to landing) create dangerous friction as two men too obsessed with their own ego’s to see exactly how much danger they’ve put civilians in, as well as soldiers close to the end of their tours. They have different agendas. Packard is looking for meaning and purpose after fighting a war without any. Randa is looking for proof after so many higher ups have dismissed him as a crackpot. But in the end both men are looking for validation of their misguided beliefs. It’s military and science at their worst, two groups who are supposed to protect and advance the human race. This comes into direct conflict with the hired help.
Conrad is a mercenary and tracker who was once in the military, and didn’t find the purpose he was looking for within the service. He also understands that they (the humans) are the extraterrestrials on this hallowed ground and should approach with caution and respect. When a group of soldiers raise their weapons in fear to fire at a buffalo looking kaiju, he forces their guns down, immediately realizing that this being is peaceful. This is a visual summarization of an anecdote told by a cynical soldier named Cole (played by Shea Whigham) about how the gun he carries is one he got from a Vietnamese farmer during the war. The farmer had never even seen a gun before the war. It drives the point home that some enemies don’t exist unless you make them yourself.
Weaver is an anti-war photojournalist that seeks to end conflict in the most peaceful ways possible, hence why she chooses to carry a camera instead of a gun. For her, photography is an art of empathy and her character has loads of the stuff. Like most of the other past adaptation of the King Kong mythos, she’s a beautiful blonde woman who connects with Kong. This time however, it’s not due to her beauty or the uncomfortable undertones of an exotic other overpowering a white woman. It’s because Weaver is able to connect with Kong on an emotional level (the way she stares into Kong’s eyes), and see past the brutal force of nature Kong is on the outside.
John C. Reilly’s character of Hank Marlow is a reminder of what putting aside your difference can look like. In a prologue that’s very reminiscent of John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific, we see Hank and a Japanese pilot named Gunpie crash land on to Skull Island after a dogfight. We find out that over the course of 20 years of living on the island together with its peaceful, ESP communicating natives, Gunpie and Hank became as close as brothers. When taken away from the petty conflicts of the world, they were able to get past all of their barriers (language, cultural, political) to work together towards something constructive. They could have easily tried killing each other, but what would have been the point?
“What’s the point?” is the question burning in this movie’s mind. You ache and groan as you watch characters make one bad decision after another. Even the deaths that are set up to be heroic are played with a layer of ironic nihilism. The only real hero is King Kong himself. He stands above the pettiness of the conflict and does what’s right by protecting kaiju and human alike. He’s God on this island. Keeping the order and putting the devils at bay.
The Kaiju fights in this movie are as entertaining as anything in a Kaiju movie in the past few years standing right alongside Peter Jackson’s T-rex fight in King Kong and the attack on Hong Kong sequence in Pacific Rim. Kong doesn’t fight like an ape so much as a man engaged in a down and dirty street brawl, using chains, blades and anything at his disposal to get the job done. The kaiju themselves are Miyazaki-esque in their creature design (very intentional on director John Vogt-Roberts part) feeling like gods of their domains within the island. It’s mixed with the prehistoric nature of the island so you get your fill of dinosaur like creatures in the mix as well.
The problems with this movie lie in that for all the chest thumping and anti-war sentiment, the characters admittedly come off as a little thinly sketched. The motivations are present but most of the characters never really get a full arc (Mostly Jackson and Reilly do and that’s because they have the most screen time). The bones are there but there’s no meat. The movie moves a little too quickly for its own good sometimes. We speed past the first act so quickly that it feels like a “previously on Kong: Skull Island”montage set to a 70’s soundtrack. A little more time spent with minor characters would have been welcome. I can’t penalize the movie too hard for leaning on its Apocalypse Now influence too hard considering that this movie isn’t exactly going for subtle (the movie’s as subtle as a 100 ft tall ape) but sometimes I wish the writers dug a little deeper into some of what made the Vietnam War so interesting in American history outside of it being a loss for American morale.
Some may find it’s mash-up approach to storytelling a little off putting, but Kong: Skull Island at least has something to say on top of its thrillride. It’s not perfect but you could do worse in a monster movie with thinly sketched human characters and derivative imagery (*cough Godzilla (2014) cough*). It’s a good time and in my book, any anti-war blockbuster is welcome with open arms.