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Kong: Skull Island omits the most important part of King Kong’s story

Let’s list three big things this occasionally fun, mostly frustrating monster movie badly misunderstands.

Kong: Skull Island
U mad, bro?
Warner Bros.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

King Kong towers in Kong: Skull Island.

The first time we see him, it’s as a couple of giant, furry paws, then a massive face the size of a Macy’s parade balloon. The next time we see him, his enormous figure all but blots out the sun. He stands next to mountains, and seems like he might be of the same species. In his prior screen incarnations, Kong has climbed skyscrapers; this Kong actually is one.

The approach used by Skull Island director Jordan Vogt-Roberts; the film’s studio, Warner Brothers; and its production company, Legendary Entertainment, aims to restore the primacy to the giant movie monsters of old. In 1933, King Kong was the only game in town. Now, we’ve grown jaded, the thinking goes, and it takes so much more to activate our sense of awe and wonder.

And yet I wish I liked Skull Island as much as I like individual moments in it. The film’s most obvious contemporary is 2014’s Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards as a movie where massive monsters kept edging humanity out of the frame. Skull Island has attempted to ward off the most common criticism of that film — the characters are boring — in the most Hollywood fashion possible, which is to say it has more people in it than Godzilla does, for more of its running time. But none of them are as interesting as the big ape.

Godzilla, for better or worse, was animated by a strong, central idea. Skull Island has no such core. The movie fitfully competes with the earlier film for sheer beauty, but lacks a clear objective. And that’s to say nothing of its many other cinematic forebears, many of which it just doesn’t get. Here are three things it badly misunderstands.

1) Giant monster movies in general, but more specifically King Kong

Kong: Skull Island
He’s a sensitive chap.
Warner Bros.

Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla are set within a shared cinematic universe, which is to say that Warner Brothers snapped up the rights to the character of King Kong (most recently held by Universal, which made the 2005 Kong) to build a series of films that will lead to Kong fighting with Godzilla (in 2020’s imaginatively named Godzilla vs. Kong), until the two presumably discover they have more in common than they realized and unite to defeat [insert other giant monster here].

Skull Island itself doesn’t really address the shared universe, but it’s been present in all the pre-release hype, which is part and parcel with a film culture that increasingly treats movie franchises as major purchases that filmgoers are buying on the installment plan. It almost turns Skull Island into a perfunctory item to cross off a to-do list: “Meet Kong. See how he might size up with Godzilla. Then pick up dry cleaning.”

This approach makes a certain amount of sense with Godzilla. The big lizard started out as a metaphor for the nuclear devastation of Japan, then slowly but surely evolved into something like a superhero, returning every few years for another movie in which he fought another giant monster. (He even fought King Kong in one film, though that Kong was fairly different from the one who’s been in American films.)

It doesn’t make much sense for Kong, who is a character bound up in tragedy. Depending on the version you’re watching, he’s a metaphor for the American working class, the environment, the pure magic of the movies, or the unpredictability and terror of the natural world. Those who pursue him are rather like Ahab in Moby Dick — they know they must possess or kill the beast, because that’s what we do with things we don’t understand. We dissect them and put them on display.

In every major American Kong film — released in 1933, 1976, and 2005 — there’s very little explanation for who Kong is or where he came from. He simply is. He’s a colossal monster, maybe. Or a guardian to those who treat him with love and care. Or he’s a minor deity. We don’t need to know where he comes from, because the fact of his existence is enough.

And that means Kong must die. In every film, he plummets from a great height, bloodied by bullets from aircraft, and he lands with a whump on the New York City pavement. The natural world can never be entirely understood or tamed by human beings, and when we try, we inevitably destroy it. That might be why sequels to King Kong — both the 1933 and 1976 films received follow-ups — have failed. You can’t replicate a tragedy.

In Skull Island, it’s clear that Vogt-Roberts and his fellow filmmakers love Kong. They frame him lovingly against a jungle on fire, or gazing up at the aurora australis (the northern lights’ southern hemisphere cousin). They’re clearly on his side when it comes time for humans versus Kong.

But they’re also hampered by the fact that their Kong can’t die. He’s got to live to fight Godzilla and/or other monsters, and because this is a franchise in the making, he’s got to have a backstory and a history and an origin myth, all of which is anathema to the character’s power. So he hangs out on the periphery of his own story, perpetually threatening to become a symbol for something, or at least to start having some legitimately exciting fights with the other giant monsters on Skull Island, but he never does. The movie’s treatment of its title character is oddly muted.

(It also has, I should say, some truly terrible creature designs for the Skullcrawlers, its main adversaries, which are vaguely lizard-like. What was wrong with the dinosaurs Kong fought in the original 1933 film? Dinosaurs are great!)

2) Apocalypse Now

Kong: Skull Island
Everything’s on fire, because that’s what Apocalypse Now’s poster looked like.
Warner Bros.

Skull Island is set amid the political turmoil of 1973. The Vietnam War has gone south. President Nixon (evoked here in bobblehead form) is losing the public’s trust. America is in crisis. Only a giant ape can save it!

Thus, Skull Island deliberately takes much of its central idea from perhaps the best Vietnam movie ever made: 1979’s Apocalypse Now. Like that movie, this one is about a long trip into the jungle to find a legendary figure. And like that movie, it’s rife with apocalyptic visions of fire and terror. It’s also got plenty of ’70s rock music, perhaps because it knows there was some in Apocalypse Now, too.

Skull Island even goes so far as to shoot and style Samuel L. Jackson’s character (an Army colonel dealing with the Vietnam wind-down) to evoke that film’s Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando, at his Marlon Brando-est). Jackson plays a very human monster, a man who gradually comes to be obsessed with having his revenge, which makes for a potentially intriguing flip of Apocalypse Now: Instead of having to find a monster in the jungle, what if the monster was in the search party all along?

But the movie doesn’t really do anything worthwhile with this comparison. It always seems like Vogt-Roberts is trying to show off that he’s seen Apocalypse Now, not like it’s supposed to inform anything that’s happening. The film’s depiction of military camaraderie is straight out of period-appropriate war films, and Vietnam mostly provides a backdrop for the action, not ironic commentary on American hubris or the desire to destroy beautiful natural environments. (It’s also a literal backdrop — much of the film was shot in the country.)

There’s no good reason for Skull Island to lift so much from Apocalypse Now, outside of the apparent notion that the only way to revisit some of the ideas from that film is to toss them into a pop culture blender with King Kong and see what comes out. The visuals are stunning at times — Vogt-Roberts certainly knows how to light a scene with flame — but the ideas are barely considered.

3) Pretty much every actor in the movie

Kong: Skull Island
The expedition is led by a bunch of actors who could seem a little happier to be here, honestly.
Warner Bros.

Despite all of the above, I didn’t hate Kong: Skull Island nearly as much as I probably should have. It’s an agreeably dumb monster movie, and if you can set aside how badly it misunderstands the King Kong character, hey, you might enjoy, say, a giant spider-crab thing whose legs are disguised as trees. There are some cool moments here and there.

Yet the movie misses the mark when it comes to trying to put believable human beings into the middle of Kong’s jungle. Its lead is Tom Hiddleston, for some reason, but I couldn’t tell you a single thing about his character beyond the film’s insistence that he’s highly competent in wilderness environments. (We never see him demonstrate this particular skill set.)

Its female lead (a rich thing to say for a film with exactly two named female characters) is played by Brie Larson, a terrific, Oscar-winning actress who gets saddled with literally all of the movie’s “the natural world is more amazing than we could imagine” business, only to have any dialogue to that effect stripped out. She just stands around with a goofy smile on her face throughout, like she’s trying to convey that scene in Jurassic Park where Laura Dern stares up at the dinosaurs through facial expressions alone. (Dern at least had John Williams’s score in her corner; Larson, seemingly born to make indie dramas about characters in crisis, ends up feeling stranded. She’s a weird fit for this type of blockbuster.)

The supporting players fare slightly better. Jackson and John Goodman are basically playing the same parts they always play — slightly unhinged authority figures, both. And John C. Reilly wanders off with the movie as a World War II pilot who crashed on Skull Island and knows it better than anyone, even if he seems to be playing a version of Dr. Steve Brule, the lead character of his Adult Swim show.

And while the incidental cast is stuffed with actors I like — Corey Hawkins and Toby Kebbell and Jing Tian and etc., etc., etc. — and they’re onscreen a lot, they’re only present to tell you about what’s happening to them, never to reveal more about themselves or the movie’s world.

That brings us back to the real star of the film, the guy in the title, one of Hollywood’s original movie stars. Kong’s looking good these days — he’s 100 feet tall now! — and he carries most of Skull Island’s humanity. As always, he’s a great action hero, but the movie seems unaware of his true strength as a romantic lead. This Kong pines for something else, and you almost want to let him know he won’t find it until Warner Brothers announces a sequel to be named later, which will probably be about some other monster entirely.

Kong: Skull Island hits theaters nationwide on March 10, 2017.

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