Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island ★★★★½

What a joyous surprise this is. Who would have thought that after missing out on King Kong as a child, and only coming to the black-and-white classic in adulthood, and, you know, liking it, but not totally falling in love with it the way I would if I had that special nostalgic attachment to the material...who would have thought that Kong: Skull Island would have won me over the way it did? Shenanigans, I tell you. No joke, Kong: Skull Island may have supplanted Kung Fu Panda 1&2 or How to Train Your Dragon 1&2 as my go-to movie examples of when not to judge a book by its cover.

King Kong as a character is kind of fascinating to me. As far as he goes, the only definitive character trait that's carried over his almost century in the film business (that movie came out in 1933, y'all) is that he's basically a giant monkey. Beyond that, any and every way you want to play him, whether it be how much of an antagonist he is, the details of his situation, where he lives and whatnot, how he gets off the island - if he gets off the island - and hell, even his fucking size is kind of up for grabs, depending on the director. There are recognizable recurrent images and motifs; he's typically found on a place called Skull Island, there's usually some kind of native population there, and more often than not there's also some other monsters for King Kong to punch into oblivion. But for how iconic and instantly recognizable King Kong is, it's amazing the varied nature of his stories.

Kong: Skull Island is the perfect kind of franchise reboot; it plays around with the imagery and ideas of the original, but recontextualizes them in a way that makes Kong: Skull Island a wholly original experience. Yes, we've got another group of explorers going into a jungle place they don't understand, but unlike the '33 classic, here the crew mostly consists of Vietnam soldiers and other militia. And they're not there to exploit Kong; honestly, in probably the best example of this I've seen yet, they're totally fucking blindsided by the MASSIVE APE just coming out of nowhere and smashing their shit.

I mention this channel a lot, but...Overly Sarcastic Productions! They did a video on the phenomena of Kaiju, giant monsters that more often than not contain some kind of allegory. Godzilla was the one they make the most mention of, and the whole video is a fascinating breakdown of how the myth of Godzilla shifted from one of nuclear terror to one of global warming anxiety, and the implications therein. But Kong is brought up a few times, and Red (the host of the Trope Talk segment) makes the interesting point that King Kong went from the 1933 film - which could definitely be read to having some racially suspect undertones, what with the savage brought to America in chains, breaking free and kidnapping a white woman, even if it's not a reading I'm 100% on board with - to this, which recontextualizes him as a kind of noble beast, one which should not be disturbed or taken from its natural habitat.

It's such a simple thing, transplanting the action to the waning days of the Vietnam War, but it immediately adds so much dimension to the story. You've got Hiddleston saying, "Kong was just defending his territory," in response to their incursions and bombings of his land, and you've got Sam Jackson angrily declaring that this is one war "We're not gonna lose."

I'm not doing a good job at selling this movie; rereading what I've typed, I'm making it seem like a joyless scold, one which offers nothing but a "rebuke" on the "problematic past" or some such nonsense. And that's on me, 'cause this film is so fucking fun. It's the best modern 2010s example we have to a proper old school adventure film, save maybe for Spielberg's Tintin, or The Lost City of Z. But Kong: Skull Island does have these undertones. This is a surprisingly - and refreshingly - anti-colonialist movie. And so the movie proves, I think, that a solid undercurrent of political themes can only accentuate a film, if played right.

I talked a bit in my review of the original King Kong about how surprised and delighted I was with the other monsters in that movie's Skull Island, and how cool it was that even back then, we had showstopping duels between Kong and, say, a massive dinosaur creature (which I remember calling the original Kong vs Godzilla!) And I'd be remiss if I went without mentioning not only the unique monster designs in this movie, their excellent integration of CGI into a physical environment, but also how genuinely scary and gruesome they're allowed to be. I've always been a bit of an "R rated skeptic," maybe because I'm always aware of the Die Hard example; how Die Hard 4 is a more gruesome, more exciting, and generally more hardcore than the dismal part 5, despite #5 being R and and #4 being a measly PG-13.

What I'm saying is, this film is PG-13, and it gets away with some shit, man. People get impaled on bamboo spiders, like full-on impaled, in what I can only assume is a reference to the infamous spider-pit scene from the original, which was cut for being too scary!

Now, look, I swear to god I'm not giving this movie a pass because of Jordan Vogt-Roberts' excellent, and entirely justified, Twitter rebuttal to the Cinemasins video on his movie, where he not only pointed out everything they'd gotten wrong (because obviously, it's Cinemasins, they got everything about the film wrong; half their "sins" are just things they forgot about, or stuff that gets explained later), but also handily deconstructs the idiotic excuse that they're "just a parody" or "they're supposed to be wrong!" for the apologist dreck that it is. Per memory, Jordan Vogt-Roberts got some flack on the internet for supposedly being thin-skinned, which just makes him the human version of "Why are you booing me? I'm right!"

He is right, obviously. This is such an expertly crafted movie. The shot composition, the use of color (GOD this is a beautiful movie to look at!) the exceptionally deployed period details, which never overpower your senses but are always present, overtly and then subtly reminding you of when this is set. The sense of scale Jordan Vogt-Roberts has is terrific; if there's one lesson I'm glad this learned from the 2014 Godzilla, it's how to convey just how BIG the monsters are in direct comparison to how relatively tiny the puny humans are.

also I can't help but feel he saw the whole Cinemasins thing coming, or at least was aware of their toxic influence on the film world before making the movie, because there's a HILARIOUS deconstruction of the idiotic "Prometheus school of running away from things," one of the many...um..."jokes" that they like to fill time with over there. The idea is, when you see people running away from a massive thing that wants to crush/eat you in movies, more often than not they're running in a straight line. This is perfectly natural, in fight-or-flight situations where your brain shuts down and you RUN, you're not gonna look back or think to dive off to the side, are you? So there's this scene where two soldiers are running away from Kong, and one of them yells, "Run to the side, you idiot!" And he does so, and Kong immediately sideswipes him into a helicopter. Because of course he does. "Prometheus school of running away from things," my ass.

where was I

Right, so Kong: Skull Island is terrific, to the point where I honestly think it might be the best, or at least one of the best examples of a franchise reboot/reimagining/whatever, in the sense that it cleverly recontextualizes and adds to lore from the past, while simultaneously standing completely on its own. I'd recommend King Kong as a good movie to show to your children, because in my view that's a pretty good example of a movie that's scary, but not too scary, if that makes any sense. But what I'm getting at is, if you've never seen a King Kong movie before, this is honestly a pretty solid place to start.

There's some extraordinary imagery in here, man. I get that it's not vogue to suggest that a lowly monster movie could possibly be ranked with the likes of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, and I don't necessarily want to oversell this too much, because, you know, Kubrick or whatever, but in total seriousness...why not? There are shots and effects in this that genuinely do evoke the majesty of other Vietnam war epics; the tilted angle of a samurai sword, a character engulfed in sickly green smoke, and Kong, standing against a blood orange sunrise as helicopters advance. That last one is an obvious Apocalypse Now riff, and you know what? It's fucking earned.

It's a shame that Jordan Vogt-Roberts caught some flack for being entirely correct about Cinemasins. But now that time has passed, and that mini "controversy" or whatever has been entirely eclipsed by millions of dumber, even more inconsequential things for the internet to care about, I think it's only become clearer how sure a hand he was to direct this. It's a staggeringly personal movie; Jordan Vogt-Roberts' signature thumbprint can be found almost everywhere you look. It's a big budget studio extravaganza with the soul of a B-movie. And it is wonderful.

Although why they didn't call this "Viet Kong" is frankly beyond me

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