Growing up there’s one thing I always wanted to do. Stomp around a cardboard city in a monster suit, roaring and crushing cars and buildings beneath my giant rubber feet. It may seem like an odd ambition to some, but I grew up on Godzilla movies, the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers Zords and Honey I blew up the baby. The cardboard city was a thing to me. As I grew up I sought out giant monster movies more and more. I’m older now and the cardboard and rubber has been replaced with CGI, but the excitement is still there.
So when I heard that there was going to be a new King Kong movie coming out my inner child starting doing lunges in preparation of some good old city stomping. I saw Kong: Skull Island the other evening and I have to admit, I was just a little bit disappointed to learn that the movie makers had decided to shrug off the classic “capture Kong and release him in a major city” plot but I guess when five of the last seven Kong movies have done that it may be time to give it a rest.
But boy am I glad they did. In setting Skull Island entirely inside Kong’s territory, the movie manages to shrug off a lot of the baggage that previous outings have suffered from.
The original 1933 film was by modern standards an uncomfortable metaphor for the average moviegoer’s opinion on interracial relationships at the time. Kong, the metaphorical black man, is a predatory villain who steals the blonde, porcelain, screaming Anne Darrow away. Ignoring her protests and fear. In bringing him to civilisation, Carl Denham endangers New York and all the helpless (white) people in it. Kong tries to climb the societal ladder of the Empire State building and finally the heroic biplane pilots come and kill him, rescuing Anne in the process and allowing her to go off to marry Jack Driscoll, as she should.
The 2005 remake by Peter Jackson tried to paint a more palatable picture by humanising Kong and showing him as a sympathetic character who respects and protects Anne and who only tries to live in peace, while Denham is shown more as the villain out to exploit him. At the climax of Jackson’s Kong, the biplanes are not heroic rescuers. They are an inescapable tragedy that cuts down a gentle giant.
I was ready for Skull Island to dive right back into the race metaphors but surprisingly, the new Kong is an entirely different beast. Cosmetically, he’s been scaled up somewhat, standing easily 100ft tall now (the largest he’s ever been). He moves less like Jackon’s Kong whose movements were based on actual gorillas and is closer to the more upright, humanoid Kong of Merian C. Cooper’s original.
This Kong is neither villainous nor friendly. He has an air of authority and seriousness. “Kong is king around here” per one of the film’s characters and that shows in his attitude. Kong is regal, with a sense of honour.
The metaphor of Kong as black man seems to be completely gone and instead, if anything he seems to fill a role not unlike 2014’s Godzilla did; as a force of nature and God. The chief conflict of the film is not that Kong will destroy the human characters, but that the humans may kill him.
Skull Island sets itself in 1973, right at the end of the Vietnam war and the comparisons between that war and the events of the film are obvious. A jungle environment, an overly confident American military force and a surprisingly dangerous enemy who just wants them to leave.
Samuel L Jackson fills the Captain Ahab-like role in Preston Packard, a United States Army Lieutenant Colonel hired to escort the scientific team searching for Kong. Coming off the back of the Vietnam war and having had the shit thoroughly kicked out of him, Packard is a psychologically fragile man at the start of the film and when Kong kills several of his men, Packard sets out to take revenge. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson fill out the “needlessly attractive civilian” slots on the team and take the more balanced view that killing Kong is probably not in their best interests, seeing as he seems to be the only thing standing between the world and the island’s other main monsters; the Skullcrawlers.
The plot follows largely predictable beats but it’s the small details that make Skull Island truly enjoyable. The balance of humour and seriousness is spot on, light moments are few enough and properly placed that they counterpoint the darker points of the film without detracting from them. You can laugh at a helicopter pilot’s dumbfounded “Is that a monkey?” one second and be properly afraid for their lives the next as Kong tears through them.
Now it’s not a big secret that Legendary Pictures are trying slice themselves off a piece of the Cinematic Universe pie that everybody seems to be after ever since Marvel started theirs off in 2008. Skull Island is technically the second in their combined universe, being set in the same universe as 2014’s Godzilla (though removed enough in time and setting that there is barely any crossover and you don’t need to have seen Godzilla to enjoy Kong). Legendary have bought the rights to several classic Toho Kaiju monsters including Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah and they have already announced Godzilla 2 and Godzilla vs Kong to be released in the next few years. To their credit, the filmmakers avoid falling into the trap that DC did which was over-enthusiastically forcing all of their characters into one film without proper set up. Kong: Skull Island is a King Kong movie and nothing else. The slight bit of world building done is confined to a post-credits scene.
Kong: Skull Island is exciting, visually stunning and has managed to side-step the awkward metaphors Kong is normally shoved into. It is at times funny and at times scary without either emotion cancelling out the other. It does a fantastic job of setting up the Legendary monster universe while remaining a solid standalone film.