Long live the King!
Before our adventure begins, I must issue two blanket statements. First, a general warning against spoilers later in this article for those who have yet to see it—the film is now available on digital, demand, Blu-ray, and DVD. Secondly, I would just like to clearly state this is not a review of of the film. I loved Kong: Skull Island, and I agreed with the many critics and artists praising its atmosphere, visuals, acting, and various other fantastic attributes. And, if we’re being totally honest, no review I could ever hope to give could match up to that of Hideo Kojima—renowned video game creator and artist of the brilliantly grotesque—who states, definitively, that “Jordan Vogt-Roberts successfully shows King Kong as a monster in a new light, and at the same time reinvigorates the medium. For me, Kong: Skull Island redefines monster movies, and reinvigorates a story for a new generation.” Thus, debating the high quality of this wild, rock and roll blockbuster film will not be a part of our journey together.
A wise man once requested of his audience, through the tragic voice of one of his characters: “Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of kings; how some have been deposed, some slain in war… some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed… All murdered.” While the particular King we will be discussing is quite different from those this wise man had in mind, his story is just as long, eventful, illustrious, and even tragic. Our King might not be quite as eloquent, either, as the kings written by this wise man—but he has a certain, special quality even those verbose kings never managed to possess.
Admittedly, it would have been really bizarre if one of wise old William Shakespeare’s plays featured a gargantuan ape crushing cities and screaming civilians underfoot (bizarre—but also, probably, incredibly cool). That being said, I like to think that the Bard would have appreciated not only the themes our much-loved King Kong symbolizes—many of which he tackles himself, in his plays and sonnets—but also the simple, undeniable awe and delight inspired by an enormous gorilla traipsing about above our small, human world… Though good old Willy Shakes likely also would have included far more homoeroticism, poetic monologuing, and at least three riotously witty sexual innuendoes in each film version.
Kong has lived and died in many a film—from the 1933 original, all the way to the Peter Jackson-directed movie of 2005. Through all these, he has never been able to escape the inevitable tragedy of his nature: the only one of his kind, ruling on a lonely island populated by strange and unique creatures. Isolation; innate, inexorable tragedy; and the death of a King… a Shakespearean tale if I’ve ever see one. We have, indeed, seen him stolen from his throne and attacked with machines of war; we have seen him die to save a human woman he loves, prompting the immortal line, “Twas beauty killed the beast.”
But Kong: Skull Island is a different tale entirely; not because it is devoid of this sort of tragedy or discussion of Kong as a figure to be respected, not because it lacks any of the symbolism always present in the King as a monstrous Other… But because of the entirely new way in which it frames and structures the tale of its Kong. Jordan Vogt-Roberts, the film’s director, evidences this in his inspirations for the creatures and tone of Kong: Skull Island, which include not only the great classic we are all familiar with, but such unexpected influences such as Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, 70’s classics like Platoon and The Conversation, video games such as The Legend of Zelda series and Pokémon, anime series like Neon Genesis Evangelion, and South Korean films like Oldboy and The Host. It is obvious, from this alone, that this Kong film is tremendously different from those that came before it, while still honoring the spirit of the much-loved original.
Shakespeare is hardly the most obvious parallel to the drawn to the story of King Kong throughout his cinematic journey. In him are embodied far less subtle themes of post-colonialism, race, and man’s endlessly complex relationship with the natural world. Human beings throughout history have created monsters so that they may physicalize and then destroy what they fear. Kong was wrought out of the centuries of Imperialist anxiety, as they faced the “primitive” peoples in the lands they invaded; out of the fear resulting from even the most “modern” man’s complete lack of control over nature; and the constant Western dehumanization and dread of racial others. These parallels and underlying messages are so blatantly obvious, in fact, that Quentin Tarantino (not an man known to possess any excess of subtlety) featured them in a scene from Inglourious Basterds.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts, the director of this excellent new Kong film, seems to have made the choice not only to include these themes, but to update and refocus in on them for our present-day cultural awareness and understandings. Modern audiences are, generally, more enlightened in terms of diversity and socioeconomic understandings of history than those of the 1930’s—not a particularly high bar, mind you, but we have made some progress. The ways in which Vogt-Roberts depicts nature, violence, and the monstrous figure are not only compelling and refreshing, but also very important.
Throughout the film’s marketing campaign, the message has been repeated over and over again: “we do not belong here.” William Randa, the man whose search for the monstrous drives the film, unequivocally states that “This world doesn’t belong to us.” This statement has the thrilling and chilling effect it is meant to have; it is impossible for us as modern humans to deny. In our carefully-controlled, protected world, it is easy for us to forget that we are at natures’ mercy; and frequently, we even deny this simple truth—a fact evident enough for anyone who has ever caught a glimpse of certain politicians discussing the climate on national news. But even as we foolishly forget the raw, unharnessed power of nature, our environment has a habit of reminding us, in everything from devastating natural disasters to animals attacking hikers. The fact that we are so removed from nature creates the illusion that it is no longer a concern for us, that it cannot threaten us, that we have dominated it in some way.
Kong, as a monster, has always symbolized the consequences of believing this illusion—an uncanny, borderline gothic figure emerging from the jungle to remind us how wrong we are. Nature cannot be controlled. Nature has no master, least of all we humans. And all we do to the world has its consequences. Indeed, Kong’s reign of terror in the film begins when the American military—a modern, Western force attempting to conquer—begins dropping bombs on an untouched ecosystem, expecting no resistance. Nature is not malicious or intentionally hateful; it is dangerous, and unpredictable, and can be brutal. The same is true of Kong. The “civilized” men of the Western government, with all their weapons and modern marvels of technology, made a critical mistake—they did not respect the natural world, or any of its creatures. The human struggle with nature, in reality as much as on Skull Island, stems from the refusal to accept our lack of control over the wild things of this world, or to understand and respect it rather than fear and attempt to subjugate it. This conflict, though now updated for our own age, has always been a part of King Kong films. The struggle with nature is the foundation upon which the character of Kong is built. But this is not all Vogt-Roberts’s story holds.
Another wise man—this one still currently living, and authoring one of the most famous fantasy series of all time—has said, in a sentiment proved true time and time again throughout human history, “War makes monsters of us all.” As in any good film, the setting and characters of Kong: Skull Island are carefully constructed—it is no accident that the film is set during the tumultuous Vietnam era; nor that the protagonists are who they are. Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), at the head of the band, though each unique, all have certain things in common. For example, they express anti-war sentiments of varying strength, or have each been otherwise damaged by war’s destructive path. The film itself echoes these patterns, showing how the human war comes to an isolated place and proceeds to ravage it, upsetting the natural balance and ultimately causing only death and destruction. The violence of Kong, for all his power, is always an act of self-defense, done out of pain, fear, or a desire to protect the smaller creatures under his care. He is shown, in his many interactions with the defenseless beings on his island, to be at his core, gentle and fair—wild, but not malignant. Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), though not necessarily a villain, carries the antagonistic role in the film. Fueled by the desire for vengeance, over the course of the film, he becomes transformed by belief in human superiority and a desire to return an act of self-defense with not simply brutal violence, but utter annihilation. “The Cavalry,” as he is called, becomes deaf and blind to reason or morality, a man consumed by battle-lust. Mirroring shots in film—a close-up of Kong’s fist closing at the approach of the helicopters bombing his kingdom early on, and then a later close-up of Packard’s fist closing as he sights his “white whale”—emphasize that war and violence have made the Colonel, not the King, the film’s true monster.
In contrast, heroic anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver is a fierce activist for peace and an advocate for the natural world, determined to save Kong and protect all the creatures of the island. Her compassion, her desire to make the world a better place, drives her. Rarely over the course of the film does she even handle a weapon, preferring to capture moments with her camera. When she does wield a flare gun, it is only to distract a vicious “Skullcrawler” long enough for Kong to regain his footing in the film’s climactic clash of the titans. Other noble figures, like Conrad, Marlowe, and other soldiers in the film, are men who have survived, and been broken, in their own ways, by war—who, at their core, long for home, for rest, for an end to violence in their lives. Even Monarch, the mysterious government organization who set out to find evidence of monsters, is a team of scientists, not fighters—William Randa (John Goodman), San Lin (Jing Tian), and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins). Each one pays for the hubris they hold, or the mistakes they made, but though they initially miscalculate the consequences of their actions, they do not seek to destroy, but to learn.
If the classic “Man vs. Nature” conflict has always been a part of the Kong legend, and overt anti-war sentiments are a welcome addition to the tale, the strong post-colonialist themes present in the story are a mix of both old and new. As Coppola showed to brilliant effect in his iconic 1979 film, and has been recognized by historians the world ever, the Vietnam War was yet another horrific installment in the long tradition of Western imperialism. It is highly significant, then, that Kong: Skull Island should be set in the Vietnam era. Even little things in the story subtly (or not-so-subtly, depending on your familiarity with classic literature or cinema) point to it—the film’s mirroring of Francis Ford Coppola’s famous anti-war epic Apocalypse Now is evident. But so, too, are the references to Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s brutally honest and searing indictment of Western powers’ imperialism in the Congo, published in 1899 and later providing the source material for Coppola’s Vietnam-era film. Again, it is no accident that Tom Hiddleston’s PTSD-ridden, bitter, former British SAS Captain is named James Conrad—interestingly, the real Conrad was a former merchant-marine himself, who also abandoned the military life, in favor of creating classic works of anti-imperialist art. John C. Reilly’s character is even named after the protagonist of Heart of Darkness, Charles Marlow, who is also consumed and deeply changed by his time in the “jungle” of the Congo over the course of the book.
Kong himself has always been something of a symbol for the “noble savage” archetype that is heavily featured in Western colonial narratives, but in Kong: Skull Island, there is something of a shift. Kong is neither a full monster nor a savage who ultimately must die in order for “civilized” man to triumph. He is King on his island, a natural force who owes the so-called “advanced” intruders no explanation; the forces of the modern military are invaders in his home, and all he does is defend it, which the film depicts as not only justified, but totally natural. He is a monster only in his awe-inspiring strength and sublime wildness, but in no way is he malignant or wantonly destructive—that is something saved for the human monstrousness featured in the film. Most importantly, Kong does not die in this film. It is the Western invaders who leave his home, where he remains to reign as a just King. While this is a choice partially made so Kong might be featured in the future installments of the Monsterverse (more on this later), it is also something tremendously significant in the context of this film alone.
As for the Monsterverse, the film’s after-credits scene features not only James Conrad and Mason Weaver, but also their introduction to the organization Monarch—and as it turns out, Kong is not the only kaiju-like beast that Monarch has found evidence for. While it is uncertain if Conrad, Weaver, San Lin, or Brooks will be featured in coming films in this franchise, we are promised plenty more ancient, colossal monsters, with images featuring the likes of Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah. But, perhaps most significantly, we are shown an image of Ghidorah and Godzilla herself, locked in what appears to be some kind of epic death match. At last, we are treated to the unmistakable roar of the King of Monsters, teasing not only the next Godzilla film, set to debut in 2019, but the eventual endgame of the series: King Kong, Godzilla, and all our favorite giant monsters battling it out on the big screen. And if we can expect films of the same caliber as Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s Kong: Skull Island, we are in for not only delectable, massively entertaining treats, but also—more importantly—films with a great deal of heart to match the titanic size of their monsters.
Kong: Skull Island is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, digital, and on-demand.
(Anna Strauss – @citzncinematrix)