In an era where many Hollywood studios have made attempts to recapture the same magic that has allowed the Marvel Cinematic Universe to thrive with their respective franchises, from Warner Brothers’ DC films and the upcoming King Arthur films to Universal’s new revamped Monsters franchise starting with The Mummy coming later this year. Legendary is now starting to play their cards after the success of 2014’s Godzilla by announcing a new King Kong film, followed by a Godzilla sequel, and then a crossover. And as cynical of a move it might be on paper, I think it works with the inherent colorful qualities of this type of material. It wouldn’t be the first time the two giants crossed over.
With Kong: Skull Island, we get a whole new introduction to the king (with an extra dose of Vietnam imagery, in case you thought we needed more of that). The film involves a mapping expedition crew made up of scientists, a tracker, a photojournalist, and a handful of soldiers who make their way through an uncharted island only to find themselves confronted by mysterious creatures, creepy inhabitants, a stranded loony WWII pilot, and of course – Kong.
On the surface, the film is very much the perfect antidote to Godzilla, specifically for the people who didn’t like it very much due to the lack of the title character. After all, Kong is seen literally minutes into the film, and comes back in full glory after we’re introduced to all our human characters and set up their mission. Even when Kong isn’t on screen, the film brings on new creatures, new threats for our characters, as their numbers begin spiking downward with each encounter with the sometimes nightmarish scenarios they find themselves in. Tonally, the film is also more “overtly fun” than Godzilla, which was much more atmospheric and ponderous (a quality I liked but that’s neither here nor there). The film has a offbeat sense of humor, combined with lush visuals (courtesy cinematographer Larry Fong), and a delightfully on point soundtrack that makes a great use of Vietnam War era music without going for the super obvious choices. Frankly, I want to give director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, a big hug for not using “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival at any point in the film.
However, despite those differences, Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island are more thematically tied than I originally thought. Godzilla, in many ways, is about bringing humility to humanity. It’s a film that explores human egocentrism as a way to expose our own insignificance, especially in the face against the majesty of these God-like creatures, where our own individual perils feel laughably banal, despite resorting to the same storytelling device in films about global catastrophes. We are mere bugs, or as George Carlin once put it, “a bad case of fleas.”
This theme actually continues on through Kong: Skull Island, but it utilizes it in a different context. The fact that this film takes place on the tail end of the Vietnam war is no coincidence, and not simply an excuse to repeatedly homage Apocalypse Now (which certainly isn’t a bad thing). The conflict found opposition from the public, the idea of our servicemen going out to fight for the greater good was gone after WWII, it felt like we were wasting the lives of many young men for reasons that were never really clear.
In comes Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Lieutenant-Colonel Preston Packard, who clearly holds a resentment to the fact that the United States is simply abandoning Vietnam, he takes it like he lost, and he doesn’t like that. He’s old fashioned when it comes to war, there’s a certain honor, a code that he lives by, he’s a man who holds a greater meaning to war, and his place in it. He doesn’t want his men to die in vain, so when he gets the call asking for a military escort for a mapping expedition, he jumps on the opportunity to get out there one more time. Obviously, things immediately turn sour, more men die, and those inner anxieties about trying to find personal meaning in the chaos and messiness of war manifest themselves into an obsession to destroy King Kong. To him, killing Kong would be that taste of American victory that was denied of him with Vietnam.
But that’s the thing with war, especially with ones like the Vietnam conflict, when it’s all said and done, countless lives are lost, and nothing is gained. It’s represents the futility and fragility of our own ego, because – as exemplified with Godzilla – we are nothing in the grand scheme of things. The film is quick make references to humans as bugs. One gorgeous image in particular shows various helicopters fly over the landscape, only for the camera to focus on a dragonfly landing on a leaf. And of course, the monsters our characters encounter are so large that they practically reduce us to being bugs. In fact, one monster they face is literally a giant spider that picks off soldiers like they’re flies. We mean nothing to these creatures, they don’t care about our lives, they don’t care if we have a family waiting back home, so the film keeps it on that level. The film will spend time exploring the history of certain characters, and the things that are waiting for them back hom, only to kill them off in the most laughably brutal and unceremonious ways possible. You don’t matter. The world doesn’t care about you. So, why should the film?
That’s why I’m not particularly bothered by the fact that a good chunk of the characters are kinda flat. That’s why you get capable actors like Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, and many, many other great performers. They’re just not a huge focus, they’re left to do what they’re good at, and instead the film instead revels in showing off its creatures, putting them up against Kong, and those moments are where the film really shines. This feels like the kind of movie you’d see if Jack Arnold, Nathan Juran, or Larry Cohen made a film with today’s technology. This is an unabashed, unapologetic B-movie in every sense of the word, with the gloss and shine of a big budget Hollywood picture.
I dug the hell out of Kong: Skull Island, and my feelings for it have only grown since seeing it. It’s the kind of weird and nutty creature feature I would’ve worn the VHS tape of back when I was a kid. It moves fast, it doesn’t waste its time in getting to the good stuff, and the monster fights kick a whole lot of ass. Despite the tonal departure from Godzilla, I think it continues the thematic thread of man’s futile search for meaning and significance, and it does so with a vibrant panache. I’ve been waiting to see what Jordan Vogt-Roberts would do for his follow up to his indie debut, Kings of Summer (great film if you haven’t seen it), and I’m glad he was able to transition to big budget territory with a sense of style and personality with Kong: Skull Island. And it’s also one hell of a return for one of cinema’s greatest characters. It’s good to be the king.