Kong: Skull Island
War is hell, but peacetime may even be worse according to Kong: Skull Island. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ violent new entry into the giant ape canon takes place in 1973 as U.S. forces reluctantly pull out of Southeast Asia and western governments face a deepening cold war with Russia. All sense of adventure represented by earlier King Kong iterations is replaced with the destruction of combat and the brutal reality of young American soldiers dying for no reason in far-off jungles.
Bureaucratic chaos in Washington finally allows private contractor Jack Randa (John Goodman) and his team of scientists an opportunity to visit the titular South Pacific land mass under the guise of exploration and discovery. Such a mission also provides hardened military officer Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his young team of helicopter pilots one last heroic hurrah to make sense of their sacrifice in Vietnam. Former SAS badass James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and activist photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) join the mission for self-serving reasons that are never fully fleshed out.
Kong: Skull Island doesn’t waste any time throwing its human interlopers into the shit. After carpet-bombing endlessly lush valleys in an effort to chart geographical density, the king himself angrily appears and starts swiping helicopters out of the sky. The action sequence is unflinching and at times incoherently shot, leaving the audience grasping for a sense of balance and proximity. After the dust settles, Col. Packard and a small contingent are left stranded at one end of the island with Conrad and Weaver’s crew on the other.
From here Vogt-Roberts has a blast picking off characters one-by-one, essentially seeing the island’s many types of monsters as symbolic booby traps in a guerilla war that’s been going on for centuries. Spending more time on the island gives some characters such as Conrad and Weaver a different perspective on who exactly is the true enemy. On the flipside, Packard’s reckless and psychotic hatred of Kong grows increasingly fundamental; he’s quite obviously the film’s Kurtz.
Kong himself is a victim of attempted genocide, with his entire family falling victim to a species of underground dwelling lizards that threaten to turn the island into a killing field.
Right when it needs it most, Kong: Skull Island injects some much-needed energy with the introduction of John C. Reilly’s marooned WWII pilot Hank Marlow, who has been stranded after crash landing three decades before. He explains all of the backstory in hilariously unhinged fashion, yet with the kind of nuance one might expect from an experienced ambassador.
Of course, Marlow’s advice is often unheeded causing more unnecessary collateral damage. With references to Apocalypse Now and countless other war films, this does seem to be Vogt-Roberts’ core and profoundly unoriginal argument. Turning Skull Island into a proxy war for Vietnam sounds good on paper, but the dire implications of America’s devastating foreign policies deserves more complex treatment than the film can muster.
Paradoxically, the overt and simplistic political underpinnings uncomfortably align with the film’s flashy pop style, which Vogt-Roberts has seemingly derived from the Michael Bay playbook on directing. Hypnotic sunsets background mighty war machines captured in stirring slow motion. American flags wave and soldiers stoically salute. Classic rock songs play in the background, simple hangout jams as opposed to anti-war statements. The colors are crisp and the jokes are snappy. Wasting a life or a country shouldn’t look this good.
But despite its tone deaf aggrandizing, Kong: Skull Island is not an insulting disaster. There are many affecting moments that deal with the lingering cost of war and the possibility of peace over profit. Despite being a supporting character, Reilly’s Marlow comes to embody the film’s best and most hopeful qualities. Through his eyes, Kong’s necessary place in this world starts to make a lot more sense.