…especially when said head belongs to a lonely gorilla the size of a building who can’t seem to catch a break.
[There will be some spoilers for Kong: Skull Island (2017) here. If you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want the details, well…um…go away, then, right? If you want a short recommendation, I say: go see it! It’s more fun than you might expect, and it does some interesting things!]
King Kong stories come in a lot of different flavors, routinely reflecting the times in which they are made. The 1933 Fay Wray vehicle, of course, set the archetype for the story in which “’twas beauty killed the beast,” featuring (improbably) a giant gorilla with no lines as the central sympathetic character. Kong was made sympathetic in part by being put in a decidedly odd relationship with a human woman (specifically an actress), two exploited bodies put on the same team by their shared exploitation. It’s really a rather sad story all things considered, a tragedy wrapped up in an adventure built around impressive visual effects (those effects also being part of the point of getting the film made in the first place).
In the 1933 film, the audience is put in the place of Kong’s creator, Merian C. Cooper (a soldier and adventurer in his own right) through the on-screen character of Carl Denham, the exploiter who nonetheless comes to regret what he’s done. It’s a fittingly ambivalent place to stand, as stories go, for a man whose actual life was as big an adventure as anything he ever helped to put on screen; this is the dark side of adventure, the what-happens-after made the core of the narrative and built around its greatest victim as its main character. The 1976 version (Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange) moves from the purer explorer/adventurer/artist-as-exploiter model of the original to an even more plainly commercial form of exploitation — the explorers who come across Kong are looking for oil, and take up the great gorilla as a sort of epic side hustle. Peter Jackson’s 2005 version of the Kong tale explores a different sort of exploitation — it reverts to the plot drive (getting a film made), character names (Carl Denham, Anne Darrow, etc.), and time period of the original and turns on the exploitation of adventure itself for the sake of telling a story. Jackson’s film — deliberately connected to the original in as many ways as possible, including art design, music, etc. — functions as a critical commentary on and challenge to Cooper’s ambivalence, simultaneously indicting and admiring Denham and laying bare the ways in which stories both shape and fail to live up to an often brutal reality.
All of which is a really, really wordy prologue for what I have to say about Kong: Skull Island (2017), which was a) a movie some people clearly had a huge amount of fun making, b) well worth the ticket price, at least in 2D, and c) a really interesting way to take up the critical challenge that the Jackson film threw at the original.
Most of the action takes place in 1973, with occasional flashbacks to 1944. There’s a deliberate juxtaposition here of pop-cultural tropes connected to World War II (a sense of moral clarity in victory) and the just-ended Vietnam conflict (cynicism and frustration at a defeat-that-isn’t-supposed-to-be-a-defeat). There’s also a kind of deliberate stripping away of nostalgia built from that juxtaposition. The film’s beginning transitions from a flashback to 1944 to an extended montage of archival film and radio clips that move the action to 1973, specifically emphasizing the ways in which technology has changed the limits of the world (space as the new ocean). Skull Island, long lost to navigators at sea, is rendered visible in a clear satellite image. We needn’t wonder how to find it anymore — its mystery can be stripped bare by mechanical eyes in the heavens, and it’s only a matter of time before someone gets there to exploit it.
Yet exploitation isn’t really all of the heart of this particular Kong story, and the great ape never leaves his island realm for points Empire State-ward. Kong: Skull Island is a more political tale, and its beats between WWII and Vietnam suggest a never-resolved conflict between (once again) good story and hard reality (and between the “good war” and the cold war). Bill Randa (the Carl Denham character this time around, ably played by John Goodman) isn’t looking to make a buck, he’s looking for the truth, even if he’s still hustling people to get it. He doesn’t come to Skull Island wondering what he’ll find — he comes to Skull Island to prove to others what he already knows to be true. Randa’s world hasn’t actually shrunk much with new technology — it’s just easier to see the horrors that have always been behind the curtains now (a thing we can also say about WWII from the point of view of a world after the Vietnam conflict).
It’s not an accident, I think, that no one in this version of the story suggests that it would be worthwhile (or even possible) to capture Kong, and having encountered the island’s exotic flora and fauna (especially the megafauna), no one seems especially interested in hanging around to explore and/or exploit the place. One finds there only what one brought along. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who goes there longing for the victory in battle of which he was deprived in Vietnam, finds only the defeat he’s trying to escape. Tom Hiddleston’s James Conrad, who goes to the island a man who can’t go home from his war, comes to a certain amount of clarity (perhaps) about why, but he is not the character who really gets to go home — that fate is reserved, on-screen anyway, for WWII island castaway Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly). Mason Weaver, the “anti-war photographer” played by Brie Larson, captures a wonderful story in images, but cannot share the truth (part and parcel of her dispute with Packard when they meet — he accuses her and other photographers of losing support for the war at home). Interestingly, Kong himself is made sympathetic through the eyes of several different characters, not just the expected woman. He is home, and his war can never quite end, because he is the last living creature able to fight it.
As a piece of filmmaking, Kong: Skull Island has its moments, although it’s not exactly a shining example of skilled editing (it’s no Mad Max: Fury Road, obviously, although the comparison may be a bit unfair). It’s a tight bit of almost constant action for most of its 118 minute runtime, but it seems to have gotten there by making some dodgy transitions. One expects the extended Blu-Ray/DVD release will reveal quite a lot of material that probably needed cutting, but that could not be cut with much grace. The dialogue works reasonably well, and the script (thank the gods) for the most part shies away from excessive expository nattering. The native people of Skull Island, in fact, do not speak at all, communicating in dignified gestures and elaborately painted symbols in a way that barely requires the Reilly character’s translation. The use of archival footage at the beginning is nicely tied together with simulated archival footage of Reilly’s return home at the end (perhaps the only one in the film to truly return from his war, transformed by the island rather than defeated by it). The repeated transitional device of closing in on reflections in eyes turns out to be surprisingly effective in use, if at first a bit jarring.
While Jackson’s version of Kong may have been more stylish in some ways, I think Kong: Skull Island does a creditable job of taking up Jackson’s critique of the story’s exploitative center and very nearly redeeming it — Cooper the adventurer’s ambivalent stance becomes better fixed as the not-quite-home-again feeling of looking back at one’s own war from the outside and knowing that the fanfares were never as loud as the guns.