KONG: SKULL ISLAND Both Succeeds and Falters – But it Does Make Monsters Cool Again

Beyond Twitter and my own internal narration, I rarely get the chance to properly discuss films. Most of my friends either aren’t particularly interested, or are interested, but the conversation devolves to repetition of phrases such as, “yeah that’s good,” or, “nah I didn’t like that one.” Discussing film should never be emotionally vacuous, but modern discourse tends to be – not just about film, either.

Therefore, the only logical conclusion I can reach is that creating an echo chamber revolved entirely around myself and my thoughts will satisfy my urge to analyse and review film.

So I’m gonna write my first review in over a year – let’s talk about Kong: Skull Island!

I’m a firm believer that a film should be judged on what it’s trying to achieve. To put it simply, it’s not fair to say Transformers is bad because it’s not like Game of Thrones.” Reviewing a film based on its intention can be tricky, as the true intention behind the filmmaker is locked within the mind of said filmmaker, but you can make a fairly good guess based on the film itself and its cinematography, tone and script. It’s why I took issue with a lot of the negative coverage of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (I did hate it), which mostly revolved around the film’s dark tone, lamenting that it wasn’t colourful. Literally, nothing about that movie even hints that Zack Snyder and co. were interested in a colourful superhero movie, so why say that a film it’s bad because of something it’s not?

But (and this is a big but(t)). As film is all about wish fulfilment, I think it’s natural that we project our own desires onto a film, both prior to and post-release. I also think it’s entirely fair to start talking about what a film should be if the film fails in its intentions – like Batman v Superman did – particularly if there’s a more interesting story hidden underneath, and you can make a convincing enough argument for your pitch. To be honest, one of the most common things I do after watching a movie is think how I would have done it differently.

Which brings me to Kong: Skull Island. It’s clear that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts had very aesthetic intentions when making this movie. In an interview with /Film, published yesterday, he talks about the influence of video games and anime on Kong, mediums which are defined by their aesthetic. The film is dripping with aesthetic revelling, drawing pleasure from iconic imagery such as Kong himself, as well as the very primal attraction we have to grand, sweeping visuals – such as a lost island. Once the characters reach said island, the film doesn’t go 5 minutes without reminding us of the forgotten monsters who dwell there; giant spiders, giant stick insects, giant lizards, giant moose, and, of course, a giant monkey. Not only that, but setting the movie in the early 1970’s means it’s inundated with period visuals; these are mostly references to Vietnam and President Nixon (there’s a fun little bit with a Nixon bobblehead in a crashing helicopter, with the subtle implication that he was insane), however Brie Larson’s photographer character also allows the film to relish retro film photography. Given that Vogt-Roberts looks like the most millennial person ever, it’s not surprising that his interests stray towards celebrating the aesthetics of the past – another hallmark of today’s society.

Kong: Skull Island‘s sensory overload continues through its use of music, which is also profoundly retro (or at least sounds like it). The tracks chosen aren’t necessarily classics, but they’re fun enough for the viewer to associate them with the time period. There’s even a 1940’s song near the end. I’d compare it to Guardians of the Galaxy‘s soundtrack, although this one isn’t a plot device in itself.

And of course there’s the giant monster fights.

“Hendrix is playing and choppers are flying around and a fist is coming out of the sky and smashing these things down. And then suddenly, I was like, wait a second, I’ve seen plenty of monster movies. I haven’t seen a Vietnam War movie with monsters. And I haven’t seen something that is riffing off of Apocalypse Now with monsters. And that had a bunch of thematic reasons, beyond it being like an incredible genre mash-up of me thinking like I would wanna see this movie. I feel like people would, like you, would wanna see the film.

So I find it difficult to just think about it as a Kong story and what was interesting to me was this idea of being like okay, this is more of a Kaiju film and more like a creature feature. And to me, if you’re gonna do that, you gotta go balls out. Every time one of these big movies comes out these days, they say, a week later… They’re like “There’s only 10 minutes of Batman in this movie.” Or here’s five minutes of this thing.  Beyond me initially wanting to like put Kong in scene one, I just wanted to send a message that like this is not the movie that’s gonna string you along and hide it from you. As a nerd like you, I’m sure you wouldn’t be unreasonable for you to agree that generally less is more, with monsters, with villains, things like that.

But this was something where it was in your face. Here we go, this is the world. We’re not gonna be afraid of showing this thing. And the cat’s out of the bag in scene one. So we take our time and do our crazy stuff with our reveals and make sure those are cinematic and have weight and things like that.  But like I think people wanna see these things fight.”

-Jordan Vogt-Roberts (in another interview with /Film).

Basically, what I’m getting at is the main intention with this movie seemed to be about aesthetic, sensual enjoyment. On that, it absolutely delivers. Kong: Skull Island is tremendously fun, the monsters are expertly designed, the fight scenes are brilliantly choreographed, and it’s just a great thing to behold. On that level, I liked the movie very much.

However, there’s also another clear intention of Roberts’: a portrayal of Vietnam-era America. A thematic undercurrent of war and primal, human aggression, what that does to the soul, and what mankind looks like when that need for violence is removed.

“But then there were these elements of… You look at what was happening in the ’70s and the late ’60s, political riots and racial revolutions and distrust of the government and it’s like a complete mirror of what’s happening right now. And it was like there were so many things where it felt like right now, our entire generation is people with one foot in the old guard and one foot in the new guard, uncertain of how to move forward. As it was then, too. So I love the idea of taking these like disillusioned, confused people and thrusting them into like the unknown and confronting them with gods and myths.”

I’m a filmmaker, so I know how hard it is to make a film. I cannot imagine how hard it is to make a film with a budget of $200m, and thousands of jobs depending on you and your talent. As such, I don’t like being too vicious towards films – unless I really hate them – and I don’t want to be towards Kong. Like I said, I enjoyed it. But the intention which Vogt-Roberts lays out in the above quote isn’t really reflected in the final film.

Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly undoubtedly inhabit the best characters of Kong: Skull Island. They bring an energy to the film which is lacking in much of the rest of the cast (particularly Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson, unfortunately – although Jason Mitchell and Corey Hawkins do some great work; Straight Outta Skull Island?), elevating its sense of fun in the process. Reilly has been called the heart of the film, and that’s certainly true. As the antagonist, Jackson isn’t exactly working for laughs, but his steely determination is effective. Perhaps the lesson here is that only actors who shorten their middle names to a single letter can do well.

Besides from that, they’re great because they lay the foundations for some concrete meaning related to Vietnam. Unfortunately, it’s just that – laying the foundations. The movie doesn’t deliver on its thematic potential when it comes to the nature of war and aggression, which is a tremendous shame.

Colonel Packard (Jackson) and Hank Marlow (Reilly) are two sides of the same coin: both soldiers, but connected through different wars. However, the key difference is that Marlow has learned to see more to life than simply war. The film opens with him crash landing on Skull Island in 1944, along with a Japanese soldier. They pursue each other, and then Kong appears, and we’re led to believe that the Japanese soldier got eaten and that was that. The movie does a U-turn with that when we meet Marlow again – when he’s shape-shifted into John C. Reilly – and he reveals that the two actually became “like brothers” after that.

“When you strip away the uniform and see the person underneath…”

Packard, on the other hand, is suffering an internal crisis. Nixon announces that America is pulling out of Vietnam right at the beginning of the movie, which clearly bothers Packard in his first scene, even if he doesn’t admit it; when he meets Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver, he snaps that people like her are the reason they had to “abandon” the war (people like photographers and peace activists). It’s key that he doesn’t say America lost the war: like many soldiers, he can’t see any other way to life than to compete and come out on top over something. Now that he can’t fight in Vietnam, what’s he gonna do? His arrival on the island, and Kong’s massacre of many of his soldiers, gives him a newfound purpose of killing the ape. While he says it’s revenge for his dead men, there’s this underlying sense that Packard is really searching for one more thing to fight.

Now, let’s go back to what I was saying earlier about this being a monster movie and aesthetic enjoyment. Aside from fun destruction, the purpose of monsters in cinema is to reflect our innate primal, aggressive tendencies, often comparing the monsters with the man. Given that this film is named after a monster who is a giant ape, man’s predecessor, this comparison becomes all the more potent.

A villain who doesn’t know how to stop fighting? A supporting character who has learned that we’re all just human at the end of the day? In a monster movie, where the immediate appeal is primal aggressive violence?

Kong: Skull Island is a missed opportunity to properly reflect on our inherent attraction to war and violence, rather than paying lip service to it. Is it possible for us to overcome it? Are we ultimately consumed by it? I’d go further to say that the god-like nature of Kong could have impacted this debate even further. Aggression provides instant gratification and makes us feel like a god. It’s for the realm of the internally weak, those who are insecure within themselves. What happens “disillusioned, confused people” are “thrust into the unknown” and “confronted with gods and myth”? What does that do to the soul? What happens when the god we discover is also a being of violence? I’m genuinely surprised there wasn’t a religious character in this movie.

I think these are ideas which Jordan Vogt-Roberts and the rest of the team were certainly interested in, but they ultimately become lost behind the raucous feast of monster mashing. I stand by what I said at the beginning of this post – that you shouldn’t judge a movie for what it’s not – but I think there’s enough in this movie to suggest that Vogt-Roberts at least tried to execute these ideas.

Even though it’s a movie of missed thematic potential, I still have great interest in Vogt-Robert’s filmmaking. I really loved his first film, The Kings of Summer, which ticks all your boxes for coming-of-age Goonies-esque drama movies, and there’s certainly enough to like in Kong: Skull Island to both enjoy it on its own and look forward to this burgeoning monsters universe. I’d watch it again. And I’m still excited to see King Kong fight Godzilla in 2020, which, let’s be real, is gonna be super fucking cool.

Don’t forget to stay through the credits!


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