Even with a talented cast, featuring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Goodman, everyone knows that the star of Jordan Vogt-Roberts‘ Kong: Skull Island is going to be the big monkey. What everyone may not be expecting is John C. Rielly stealing the show and the clever use of themes–Vietnam, Watergate–derived from the 1973 setting.
Kong: Skull Island follows the story of a scientific survey of an unmapped island into which two government agents, from a department called “Monarch,” insert themselves. The Monarch agents require additions to the expedition, such as an expert tracker and a military escort, but they offer no concrete explanation of what they are searching for. The agents are escorted to the island by helicopter and drop seismic charges onto the island, which they claim to be for a geological survey. The charges are really meant to draw out anything that may be hiding underground, which the agents hope to be monsters.
As they are bombing the island, the helicopter crew plays rock and roll music, creating a scene reminiscent of Apocalypse Now’s “Ride of the Valkyries” scene. However, the victims of the assault are forest animals, and the scene ends with the Kong striking back. The Kong creature appears in parts at first, but he is finally revealed in total, blocking out the sun, in a shot bathed in red and yellow light (red and yellow lighting being another nod to Apocalypse Now). Kong swats the helicopters down like the biplanes of previous iterations of the King Kong story, and all surviving humans are grounded on the Island.
The story then becomes a survival tale of man versus nature, with the characters battling the island’s dangers. They are broken up into two groups, one of all soldiers and one of mostly civilians, including Tom Hiddleston as a former SAS officer turned tracker, and Larson as an anti-war photographer. Jackson’s Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard leads the soldiers, and it becomes apparent that his main objective is not the safety of his soldiers, but to kill Kong.
The civilian group led by Hiddleston’s James Conrad (the name a nod to Joseph Conrad the author of Heart of Darkness, which was the source material for Apocalypse Now) encounters the natives of the island, who appear hostile. The tension is diffused by the comedic talents of Reilly, who plays Hank Marlow, a fighter pilot who crashed in the film’s World War Two opening sequence. Marlow has been living with the natives since his plane crashed. He plays a similar role to Heart of Darkness’s Joseph Marlow, as a guide to a unforgiving jungle and critic of the visiting explorers. Many reviewers have declared that Reilly’s portrayal was the best aspect of the movie. He humanizes the movie in a strange and hilarious way. Reilly plays the man who really understands the Island while simultaneously being a clown/wild man.
Marlow reveals that Kong actually protects the natives of the island from lizard monsters that he has named “Skull Crawlers.” He also points out that “when you come into someone’s house dropping bombs, you’re looking for a fight.” This opinion is mirrored by a soldier who tells the story of how he received his AK-47 from a NVA combatant who had never picked up a gun before the Americans arrived in Vietnam and bombed his village. The soldier says “Sometimes don’t find an enemy until you go searching for one.” The theme of what defines an enemy is explored in depth. The backdrop of 1973 adds to this theme by virtue of the political climate. The films presents the post-1960s view that America’s ideal as a utopian city on a hill has been shattered by Vietnam, Watergate, and nationwide media coverage of civil rights abuses. The government is no longer a trusted source of information on who or what to fight. Lt. Colonel Packard claims that “[he] knows an enemy when he sees one,” yet he hunts Kong, who only attacked when provoked.
Movies can mirror other movies for thematic effect, and Kong Skull: Island takes full advantage of this. The movie uses the themes of the films it references to create a story of a misunderstood hero trying to protect his home. It utilizes the concept of a human-like monster that was explored in other Kong films. It also employs concepts from Apocalypse Now, like what a true enemy is. One idea derived from Apocalypse Now is that men dedicated to war, like Captain Packard, cannot end a fight without feeling like they have won or died in the effort. His (again Apocalypse Now-inspired) descent into obsessive madness could be seen as a criticism of the idea that the United States should not have given up on the war in Vietnam, because it meant we lost.
The idea of making Kong: Skull Island a Vietnam-era movie (akin to Apocalypse Now) came to Vogt-Roberts when he began to think about why he loves King Kong. Kong is an essentially human monster (he was defeated by love in the original telling of his story) who in this movie is simply protecting his home, and the use of him as a stand in for the Vietnamese fits in with most modern interpretations of the Vietnam War as unjust. Some, however, feel that the movie can not handle being a metaphor for Vietnam. They claim that the movie lacks perspective and simply uses the Vietnam War setting as a means to an end. While I agree that the film “uses” the Vietnam War, I do not believe that it simply uses it as “fodder to get to the smashy-smashy action scenes.” The movie uses the Vietnam War to conjure ideas about unjustified conflict, as well as other themes explored in media surrounding the war. The use of setting to convey themes is akin to typecasting an actor in a role for more efficient characterization.
The role of nature is more complex in this film than in previous Kong movies. The helicopter squadron deftly maneuvers through a storm while Packard recites the story of Icarus. The storm serves as a distancing effect between the “real world” and Skull Island, much like the tornado in Wizard of OZ. Shortly after they begin to bomb Skull Island, Kong, who has been a symbol for the force of nature since his debut film in 1933, destroys every one of these helicopters. Later it is revealed that the true monsters of the island are the skull crawlers, with Kong being the protector of the humans. Nature has the dual role of being provider and destroyer of humans.
Kong: Skull Island is incapable of unseating the original King Kong (1933) as the best Kong movie. However, for a modern giant monster fight movie, it is one of the best in recent memory. It explores themes deeper than expected, and despite very little character development, it still manages to entertain and even make a viewer think.
Featured image courtesy of Legendary Entertainment and Warner Bros.