March 15, 2017

Skull Island Puts the King in Kong

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Despite the fact that King Kong can boast three movies to his name, their respective plots are largely formulaic and predictable. Though individual directors imbue their own style in their interpretations, the essential tenets remain the same throughout: rapacious executives go to a mysterious island that proves to be full of deadly creatures. They find Kong and bring him back to New York, where, after romancing a blonde, he is gunned down by military planes. (A rendition of “it was beauty that killed the beast” usually follows.) The latest installment in the franchise, Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts has all the same ingredients. Brie Larson plays the blonde, Kong is as ferocious as ever and the island of which he inhabits is full of terrifying monsters. But, whereas a novice director would have been pressured by Hollywood’s mandate to reboot classic films with none of the heart and soul that originally made them successes, Vogt-Roberts is no push over. He subverts the traditional recipe and puts his own unique spin on the great ape, swapping out damsels in distress with belligerent and strong-willed soldiers, and Empire State Buildings with a vibrant and treacherous landscape of Skull Island. He layers his social commentary thoughtfully, without losing a sense of awe and wonder during the breathtaking fight scenes. The result is an engrossing and exhilarating film that contains all of the wonton monster destruction one would want, but also acts as a pensive period piece that firmly cements Kong as the king of monsters, showing the colossal gorilla in all of his glory and splendor.

Vogt-Roberts departs from the classic source material by setting Skull Island in the backdrop of 1973 (in contrast to the Great Depression era of 1933 in past movies). The soundtrack largely consists of 70s rock-n-roll tunes that help ground viewers in the time period. In historical context, the United States had recently withdrawn from Vietnam and was at the height of the Cold War. Government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) and geologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are members of a secret agency, Monarch, which specialized in the hunt for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms. Monarch is on the verge of economic collapse, and in a last-minute attempt to get funding, Randa travels with a military escort lead by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) to the enigmatic Skull Island, alongside expert tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weavers (Brie Larson) to document and prove that monsters exist. As soon as they arrive, they are attacked by the mighty Kong who strands them on the island. The group then meets Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II pilot who crashed on the island in 1944 and who has been living with the Iwi, the island’s indigenous people group, ever since. The group then learns of the malevolent Skull-Crawlers, powerful predators who wiped out Kong’s descendents, and strive to escape from the island while preventing a vengeful Packard from wiping out Kong in retaliation for killing his men.

With the basic plot outlined within the film’s first act and clocking in at just under two hours, Skull Island moves with alacrity that was largely absent in 2014’s Godzilla (another monster film set in the same cinematic universe). Ironically, it is Vogt-Robert’s idiosyncratic and jarring camera transitions from scene to scene that help flesh out the larger themes and motifs, giving the audience an opportunity to think amidst the bustle onscreen. For example, just as a soldier is about to fall into Kong’s mouth, the camera cuts to a soldier crunching into a peanut butter sandwich. The abruptness and absurdity of the scene calls into question the insatiable “appetite of man,” especially when it comes to the uncharted area of nature. Likewise, as helicopters are flying over Skull Island, the camera centers on the expressions of awe and wonder that each character displays, in addition to showing the impressive visual splendor of the terrain. Yet, viewers see the helicopters dropping bombs on the lush landscape of the island to draw out Kong. It is a simple scene change, but one that speaks volumes to human greed and the unfortunate reality that rather than taking time to marvel at the presence of a new land, humans begin to exploit it for profit and subjugation. With these transitions, Vogt-Roberts is flawlessly able to balance subtlety and pertinence. Whereas Godzilla was overtly ostentatious in its commentary, often at the expense of fun, Skull Island retains an introspection about itself that never feels forced or dogmatic.

Likewise, fans who disliked Gareth Edward’s judicious approach to Godzilla’s screen time in Godzilla, can rejoice that Vogt-Roberts is much more munificent. He puts Kong front and center in Skull Island. This is the first time that viewers can see Kong’s narrative as a “coming of age” story. Although he is already an established character on the island, only Marlow and the Iwi tribe see Kong as King, giving him respect and cordiality he deserves. The rest of the crew merely sees Kong as an oversized ape and not one worthy of veneration or reverence. As such, Kong justifies that he is worthy of such a regal title through his brawls with the island’s most fearsome predators. Vogt-Roberts gives a lot more personality to Kong than previous renditions, portraying him dichotomously as both the cranky old man who wants youngsters to “get off his island” and as an omnipotent, lonely king who is fiercely protective of his land. In addition to Kong, Skull Island itself is given much more development than in past films. Its location is meant to be Edenic, or as Randa states “where God did not finish creation,” and Vogt-Roberts shows long, encompassing shots that capture the nobility of the island, while also zooming in on details (such as a dragonfly resting on a leaf). Yet, its majestic location is undermined by the hostility of its inhabitants, and the director makes it clear that one should not buy into the false sense of security that the opulent mystique of the island emanates. While there are innocuous stick bugs and water buffalo, there are also miniature, carnivorous pterodactyls that shred apart soldiers with their serrated beaks, gigantic spiders whose legs are like spears and the fearsome Skull-Crawlers: pale, reptilian beasts with two muscular forearms and elongated serpentine bodies. Kong brawls with the majority of the island’s most loathsome inhabitants, and these scenes make for some of the best monster vs. monster fights in recent memory.

Indeed, while Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong boasted an impressive action scene where Kong fought off three Vastatosaurus Rexes, Skull Island can rival it with two sequences. The first is when the humans first make contact with an enraged Kong and begin to fire at him. Vogt-Roberts immediately immerses the audience with the sense of scale, specifically focusing on how gargantuan Kong is. Multiple slow motion shots focus on his clenched fists, which are like boulders that have been infused upon his hands. Similarly, his piercing, bloodshot eyes drip with malice and fury. Kong pulverizes the helicopters, swatting them down as if they were mere nats. The second noteworthy fight is when Kong battles the leader of the Skull Crawlers. While Kong relies on his fists and brute strength, the Skull Crawler is a much more deceptive fighter, preferring infrequent but vicious attacks with its claws and teeth. It’s a smackdown at its best, as the two giants tussle and battle all around the island, as if it is their playground. It is exciting to see both of them attack each other with their different fighting styles. Kong also makes use of the landscape around him, at one point using a tree as a baseball bat to smack the Skull Crawler across the face.

The abundance of action sequences, focus on Kong and the expansion of the island’s mythology are the film’s greatest strengths. Not much development is given to any of the characters, which is a shame because Skull Island managed to rope in a variety of talented actors and actresses. Tom Hiddleston’s James Conrad comes off as a headstrong character who never seems particularly excited or phased by the events that go on in the film. Although Brie Larson does share her special moment with Kong, she rises above the trope of being a character always in need of saving. John Goodman plays the scheming Bill Randa with an appropriate level of mystery and determination, but the role seems too shallow for an actor of Goodman’s talent. The two standouts, by far, are John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow, whose banter and wit clashes with the austere ambience of the rest of the soldiers, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard, who seeks to channel his unrequited belligerence and frustration towards Kong. Ultimately, the characters are a secondary concern; this is Kong’s movie through and through. Audiences coming to Skull Island in search for well-fleshed out characters will need to temper their expectations.

Although Kong: Skull Island is part of the larger Legendary Studios and Warner Bros. “MonsterVerse,” the film succeeds on its own, never taking itself too seriously and still having substance amidst the carnage. King Kong was always portrayed as nature’s response to humanity’s avarice; no matter how hard humans try to control the Earth, Kong cannot be controlled. At the same time, Kong was not always meant to be warring against humans; later in the film, Conrad and Mason are able to share an intimate moment where they admire Kong’s power and Vogt-Roberts makes it clear that humanity ought to take a step back and admire nature for what it is. With this timely memorandum, Kong: Skull Island turns from a mindless smorgasbord of CGI effects and turbulent action sequences into a mindful and highly entertaining creature feature.


Zachary Lee is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].