This review contains basics about the movie plot that are shown in the trailers.
Sometimes monster movies aren’t really about the monsters; they’re about our own fears. “Kong: Skull Island” continues this tradition by reflecting the fear that many Americans have about our place in the world. Perhaps we have gone too far in imposing our will on everyone else. Perhaps we act like this world belongs to us. Perhaps we intervene in situations before we really understand what’s going on. Perhaps we’re making the same mistakes we’ve made before.
“Kong: Skull Island” is set in 1973 as America winds down its operations in Vietnam, a conflict that came to define our fears concerning intervention. The movie begins with John Goodman’s Bill Randa putting together a team to explore an uncharted island in the South Pacific.
Tom Hiddleston stars as James Conrad, the former British officer who acts as their jungle guide, and Brie Larson plays a photojournalist who comes along for the ride because every Kong movie needs a blonde girl. Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Packard, who’s tortured by the reality of losing the Vietnam War, leads Randa’s military escort. Corey Hawkins plays the team’s geologist, and Tian Jing plays a beautiful biologist whose sole purpose is to ensure this movie turns a profit by attracting audiences in China.
The team sets off some explosives on the island in the name of science, but Kong shows up and stops them with extreme prejudice. As the survivors try to escape the island, they find John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow, who tells them Kong isn’t the real menace. The island is infested with skullcrawlers, which turns out to be as bad as it sounds.
Compare ‘Kong’ to ‘Heart of Darkness’
That synopsis might sound like a remake of past Kong movies, but actually the filmmakers use Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 “Apocalypse Now” as their source material. In “Apocalypse Now,” a team of American soldiers with conflicting objectives search the jungles of Vietnam for Kurtz, a warlord who’s cobbled together his own tribe. In “Kong: Skull Island,” if you replace Marlon Brando’s Kurtz with a giant gorilla, you have almost the same movie.
Coppola in turn based his film on Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel “Heart of Darkness,” and “Kong: Skull Island” pays tribute to Conrad as well. I noticed allusions to at least three different novels by Conrad, and trying to track down the literary Easter eggs will be fun for the English majors among us.
Keeping with its source material, “Kong: Skull Island” questions America’s role as the world’s police force. Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” can be read as a critique of European colonialism, and Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” criticized American interventionism. This movie carries the same message.
Early in the movie, Jackson’s character says America didn’t lose the Vietnam War, we abandoned it. That might be true, but the movie implies he’s begging the question. The real issue is whether we should have been there in the first place. One of the soldiers says, referring to the Vietnamese, that sometimes someone isn’t your enemy until you make him an enemy. Similarly, Marlow says about Kong, “You don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs unless you’re picking a fight.”
It’s easy to believe the filmmakers want us to see these lines as referring to America’s latest military interventions, rather than the one’s depicted in the movie. Did we lose in the Middle East, or did we just abandon it? And what were we hoping to accomplish in the first place? Marlow warns the Americans they shouldn’t try to kill Kong, because he’s the only thing keeping the much more nasty skullcrawlers away. Are Kong and the skullcrawlers a metaphor for Saddam Hussein and ISIS? The mantra repeated throughout the movie is that “this world doesn’t belong to us.” Given the movie’s source material, it seems that this is a reminder that we Americans can’t just do what we want.
‘Kong’ Could Have Been Much Better
Antiwar propaganda and literary criticism aside, does this latest Kong movie work as a movie? From a technical standpoint, it’s not perfect. There’s plenty of action, but the movie tends to drag at the beginning and seems a bit rushed at the end. The dialogue is contrived at times, and the movie has trouble juggling its large cast. We know we’re supposed to care about these people as they get picked off by the dangers of the island, but the movie rarely gives us a reason to.
Despite these issues, it’s a frightfully entertaining popcorn movie. The effects are spectacular, and you’ll feel your chest reverberate when Kong roars. Hiddleston is always worth watching, and Reilly ably provides the comic relief.
Even so, the movie could have been so much better. “Kong: Skull Island” has the same problem that “Batman V. Superman” had last year. In that movie, we had some great conflict, with two men who had competing visions of how the world ought to work. Instead of letting them really work it out, the filmmakers took the easy road and found Batman and Superman a common enemy so they could stop beating up each other and still have a gigantic final battle.
“Kong: Skull Island” does the same thing. Instead of pitting the humans and Kong against each other and really dealing with the underlying theme of whether Americans can do whatever they want to whomever they want, the skullcrawlers show up and ensure the two sides put away their differences, which means those differences aren’t resolved. This ending undermines the movie’s message. Perhaps America can keep intervening in areas of the world that don’t have skullcrawlers and ISIS lurking under the surface.
The movie would have been much better had it eschewed the easy ending and faced “the horror” like “Apocalypse Now,” but the studio’s financial health dictated a less powerful ending because Kong must return in 2020 for a planned showdown with Godzilla. It’s time to face your fears. A new monster franchise has been born.