Rooting for the Monsters

The monsters of Kong: Skull Island are as brilliantly rendered as its politics are muddled and queasy.

The Kong: Skull Island trailer. YouTube

The opening scene of Kong: Skull Island tells audiences everything they need to know about the movie. It’s 1944, somewhere in the South Pacific. The camera follows first an American, and then a Japanese plane as they crash on a pristine beach. The enemy pilots continue their battle on land, locked in hand-to-sword combat, and they eventually stumble into the nearby jungle. The two grapple one another to the ground by the edge of a cliff, where, just before the American is about to feel cold steel pressed through his forehead, their fight is interrupted by the hands and face of an ape thirty stories tall.

As the shot pulls back, giving a full view of Kong, moviegoers (and the screenwriters) forget about any questions the preceding events may have raised, focusing instead on the king of the apes in all of his gargantuan computer-generated glory.

Similar sequences recur throughout the film, and, as a result, anyone setting out to evaluate Kong: Skull Island using a rubric suggested by the standard conventions of intelligent filmmaking will be forced to admit that it is a hot mess. The plot has more holes than a teenager in a slasher movie, most of its characters exist for no other reason than to be smashed or dismembered by Skull Island’s megafauna, and its political message is as incoherent as Trump’s twitter feed.

Still, none of that really matters because the movie delivers on what it knows is most important: monsters. Genre enthusiasts have long come to terms with the fact that we care more about the freaks, giant lizards, aliens, mystical beasts, and composites that populate the media we love than we do the humans with whom they share the screen — even (and maybe even especially) when those humans are meant to be the protagonists. That Skull Island understands this essential truth of geekdom is one of its greatest strengths.

The wizards at Industrial Light and Magic brilliantly render Kong and the other denizens of the titular island with such subtle detail that they look more convincingly tactile than anything since muppet monsters went out of style. Think Ray Harryhausen with computers. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts isn’t ashamed to let his monsters shine, and delivers numerous scenes that linger on Kong’s expressions or do little more than showcase other creature designs.

Vogt-Roberts gives fanboys and girls exactly what he thinks we want, even when what we want doesn’t make much sense. A small sample set of this fan-servicing includes (but is not limited to): a brilliantly choreographed death match between Kong and a giant cephalopod that serves zero storytelling purpose; a scene in which Tom Hiddleston’s James Conrad (more on that nod, below) dons a gas mask and wields a katana to cut down his enemies; and Kong’s use, during the final confrontation, of an improvised flail made from a cargo-ship propeller and a chain. All of this is a testament to the fact that B-movies can be pure gold when produced with a $200 million budget and a wide breadth from the studios.

Given the thin gruel of uninspired, soulless creature-features kaiju fans have had to subsist upon in the past few years — notable exceptions notwithstandingKong: Skull Island feels like just the rush of salt, fat, and special sauce the starving body desires. For those with even the slightest sympathies for the monstrous, Kong: Skull Island is a must-see.

Yet like the nether-spawn of corporate-driven fast-food focus groups, as a movie engineered to appeal to the already converted, it might revolt those not already lured by the kaiju genre. Put differently, while many — this reviewer included — will think that Skull Island is undoubtedly better for indulging its special-effect-driven excesses, those for whom the presence of great monsters isn’t sufficient reason to watch something will probably find the movie’s shortcomings a bit much to bear.

None of which is to suggest that there is nothing for those more invested in humans than monsters. Kong is accompanied by a cast of celebrated red-carpet notables, including Academy Award winner Brie Larson (who, it is safe to say, will not be receiving any nominations for her roles in this film). John C. Reilly offers a particularly delightful turn as the pilot from the opening scene — haggard and weather-worn after twenty-three years spent stranded on the island — stealing the show from everyone save his top-billed simian co-star.

Unfortunately — at least for those who prefer their cultural tastes to align with their revolutionary views — the politically minded will find the movie throws up more than a few problems that need to be confronted. While repeated inquiries have failed to confirm or deny whether any giant elk-horned water buffalo were harmed in the making of the film, Skull Island’s treatment of its monsters is one such issue.

From their cinematic birth down to the present, monsters of all sorts have always screamed for audiences to recognize that they mean something. Moviegoers in Japan saw echoes of Hiroshima in the destruction wracked by the original Godzilla and wept in their seats. Cineophiles in the 1950s saw communists lurking beneath the rubber masks of aliens, insects, and unassuming citizens. And yet, it is also something of a truism among those who think about them that the most interesting (and usually the most effective) monsters are the ones whose meaning is impossible to pin down, and with whom we identify despite ourselves.

In his 1933 debut King Kong was the example par excellence of both this open-endedness and the ability of movie monsters to evoke audience sympathy no matter the scale of death and destruction left in their wake. Here was a giant ape who is brought in chains from his jungle home to New York City where he smashes cars, swats planes from the sky, and even goes so far as to capture a white woman before climbing the very symbol of American prowess, the Empire State Building.

All of the might of civilization and modern technology proves incapable of taming the prehistoric beast, and is barely enough to destroy him. Stir together the narrative, which (intentionally or not) draws on the myth of the black rapist for much of its drama and tension, with the chains, the jungle, and the omnipresent Jim Crow era portrayals of black people as apes, and we can see a less-than-subtle racist subtext to Kong’s meaning.

And yet, when he finally falls from the top of that skyscraper it’s hard to not view him as the tragic, misunderstood hero of the film. So, was Kong a racist metaphor about the dangers posed to civilization by the backwards, dark-skinned masses? Or was he the anticolonial embodiment of the horrors sown by crass, profit-hungry empire builders? Clearly the only correct answer is yes.

By setting most of Kong: Skull Island in 1975, just days after the end of the war in Vietnam, and by enlisting a Marine Corp helicopter regiment to transport a band of plucky scientists to the uncharted Skull island, Vogt-Roberts makes very clear that he’s not just making a monster movie. Not much for subtlety, the movie practically bludgeons us with its intention to do politics. Its marketing material, its inclusion of a character named after Joseph Conrad, and its plethora of lines aspiring to profundity (“What was this even for?” asks one of the soldiers; “We create our enemies” opines another; “You never come home from war” Hiddleston waxes during a pause in the action) all serve this purpose.

Vogt-Roberts thinks he’s riffing on Apocalypse Now, or maybe Heart of Darkness more directly, and it’s obvious that Kong is supposed to figure in his allegory somehow. But our king of the jungle’s symbolic content is more confused than it is polysemic. By Skull Island’s conclusion there is no question that viewers are supposed to be rooting for Kong as he does battle with both the skull crawlers and Samuel L. Jackson’s deranged Col. Preston Packard, but whether he represents the Viet Cong, or nothing other than himself, is anyone’s guess.

It is also worth noting that while it’s not possible to read this version of Kong as a metaphoric stand-in for black men, the movie has hardly escaped the racism present in earlier incarnations. In fact, this very comparison slips back in by way of the decision to pit the entirely sympathetic giant ape against an ornery Sam Jackson hellbent on revenge. During their showdown the camera zooms in on the furrowed brow of Jackson and then of the ape, asking us to question which them is truly the monster.

And then there are the island’s indigenous inhabitants who get neither names nor lines — though, admittedly, their portrayal is less outright offensive than in the original (which is not saying much).

So, should socialists reject Kong: Skull Island for its inability to shed the racism inherited from its source material? And if so, does this undermine the allure of watching Viet-Kong smash down American attack helicopters? Others have addressed the issues of how to approach contradictory and even downright reactionary works of art more eloquently and at greater length than can be accomplished in this review, so I won’t attempt an answer to these questions.

Suffice it to say that if one goes in to this movie looking for a political perspective to get behind it will sorely disappoint. If, however, you go in looking for giant monsters fighting other giant monsters, Kong: Skull Island will more than meet expectations.

Despite several attempts — some valiant, some embarrassing, and some featuring inspired scenes featuring Godzilla discharging its electric / radiation / whatever breath directly down a gargantuan adversary’s gullet — Hollywood has so far failed to return the genre to its former glory. It is the hope of this humble reviewer that the coming flurry of giant monster movie franchises take their lead, in tone, scale, and design from Kong: Skull Island.