Flying through a torrential thunderstorm surrounding Skull Island, Lieutenant Colonel Packard recounts the myth of Icarus, whose hubris mislead him too close to the heat of the sun, melting the wax of his wings. Packard assures his men that Uncle Sam, unlike Daedalus, has saw fit to give his sons wings of Pittsburg-forged steel on which to fly – that their pride will not be their downfall, not for lack of pride, but thanks to superior technology.
Like the Garth Edwards’ Godzilla film with which it shares a cinematic universe, Kong: Skull Island is a condemnation of Man’s technological hubris and his corresponding conflict with nature – that whether he makes himself wings of wax or steel, he remains, every bit as much as Icarus, at nature’s whim, the solution to which is not winning the war on nature but recognizing that there’s no need to fight.
Towards that end, Legendary has set this latest reimagining of Kong circa the Vietnam War, which much of its American audience would regard as having been equally unnecessary, and during which most civilians stateside called to withdrawal instead of win. Moreover, Vietnam has be mythologized by filmmakers such as Coppola and Lucas as an instance where a primitive people more closely attuned to nature was able to defeat and humiliate a technologically advanced adversary. In acknowledgment of their precedent, Kong takes numerous narrative and visual cues from Apocalypse Now, from the jungle locale to the frequent juxtaposition of military members and hardware silhouetted by the sunset. Samuel L. Jackson’s Packard is equal parts Colonel Kurtz and Captain Ahab, Skull Island his Belgian Kongo, a jet black Gigantopithecus his White Whale.
Unlike 2014’s Godzilla, which – true to the King of Monster’s traditional usage – cast a critical eye on nuclear technology, Skull Island specifically condemns the military-industrial complex. Petrified by the prospect of peace and purposelessness, Packard (as a stand in for the American military-machine) is in want of a war, jumping at the opportunity for even one last mission, one last excuse to let loose some explosives. After the initial ill-fated encounter with Kong, Packard spends most of his time on the island obstinately in rescue of Major Chapman, but is in actuality interested primarily in pursuing the weapons which were also aboard Chapman’s downed chopper. Even after photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston, whose character’s name is a clear reference to Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad) informer Packard of both Chapman’s demise and explain Kong’s actions as purely defensive, the Colonel is unrelenting in his lust for war and his acquisition of the weapons with which to wage it.
The metaphor of the film is clear: the American empire is entrapped in a violent cycle of developing new weapons technologies in order to win wars and engaging in new conflicts in order to justify its arms buildup and bloated defense spending. Packard’s ignoble Ahab-esque end – failing to fell the beast even as he dies trying to do so – suggests the filmmakers are incredulous of America’s ability to curb its interventionist tendencies and contract the global hold of it hegemony.
The technological hubris represented by the character of Packard is contrasted against the indigenous inhabitant of Skull Island. Unlike in Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong – in which the native peoples were portrayed with a fearsome visage and feral demeanor (suggesting that, absent the twin flames of technology and civilization, mankind descends into brute animality) – 2017’s Skull Island depicts such according the the tired trope of the “Noble Savage.” Their ways are quirky to Western eyes, but they nevertheless exists in an enlightened equilibrium with the world around them, not despite their cultural and technological primitiveness but because of such.
Likewise, Larson’s Mason Weaver takes on a far different tone than Watts’ Ann Darrow. Both actresses inhere an effortless and entirely natural beauty – the kind that even Kong can recognize and respond to – but whereas Watts accentuated her feminine fragility to play the part of the distressed damsel, Weaver’s femininity is deliberately understated, both by the script and by Larson’s portrayal. Such is perhaps period appropriate, with the era of the early ‘70s, like our own day, being notable for the rapid advancement of feminist agendas, but nevertheless is indicative of our inability to no longer tell a certain species of story under the vigilant watch of the Third Wave.
This is particularly unfortunate in the case of King Kong, which was from the first a retelling of the classic fairy-tale of La Belle et la Bête. If both Beauty and the Beast and King Kong alike are abut anything they are admonitions forewarning the ineffectiveness of acts of aggression (whether in the form of pitchforks, bi-planes, or napalm) as a response to the ills of beastly hypermasculinity (as represented by the Beast/Kong), suggesting that the only antidote to an overemphasis of the strong virtues is instead an equal measure of the soft virtues – specifically feminine beauty. It is for that reason that by each story’s end, “It was Beauty killed the Beast”[ly nature]. Kong surviving at Skull Island’s end was primarily due to the need for the character in the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong, but undoubtedly also attributable to the filmmaker’s deliberate deemphasis of the Beauty and the Beast motif in the current social climate.
Where Skull Island does unabashedly emphasis aesthetics is in nature. Such is evident is seeing Kong tranquilly transfixed to an aurora, but also in the film’s loving and lingering panoramics. In these the cinematography displays a superb sense of scale. Whereas Godzilla achieved a sense of the smallness and insignificance of Man by aping techniques pioneered in found footage films, Skull Island accomplishes the same effect through exactly opposite means. On multiple occasions throughout the film, shots taken in perfect profile are framed in such a way that the monster extends nearly to three sides of the screen, with a man-shaped speck occupying the fourth.
For all of it’s polarizing and politicized polemics – the luddite technophobia, the anti-interventionism, kowtowing to the Third Wave – agree or not, audiences on both sides of the aisle can easily agree Skull Island evidenced a much smarter script than its trailers suggested, and, more importantly, that the film itself was wonderfully realized, benefiting immensely from its gorgeous cinematography. It comes nowhere close to displacing Jackson’s King Kong as the definitive version of the megafaunic ape, but if all of Universal’s monster movies are up to the same caliber, they’ll rank right alongside Marvel as a cinematic universe whose every entry is a must-see.