Kong: Skull Island [2017]

Kong: Skull Island is the kind of film they don’t make anymore: an unabashed pulp tale of spectacle, heroism, exoticism, and a giant frickin’ ape! Except that they still make tonnes of this kind of film; in fact, far, far, too much of it. And I’ve just contributed $16 to that problem. Je ne regrette rien! This is the kind of film that it’s not easy to imagine being taken seriously by a Real Critic ™, and I think the reviews will focus on the aspects of spectacle, especially Kong, and not probe too deeply into the film because it’s a slick lightweight bit of Hollywood mass production. I, conversely, found it a fascinating battleground on various fronts, showing how far some topics have come and how far some topics still have to go. I think too there’s a fundamental problem posed to a film like this, which is primarily about a sense of Awe and Wonder: can it ever succeed as an artistic construct without creating an Other to Exoticise?

If you liked the opening paragraph, there’s more like that with mild spoilers – let’s be honest you know exactly what happens in this film already! – below the line.

The basic scenario for the film is a well-worn one, a group of predominantly white men goes into the jungle and finds terrifying things while they’re gradually eliminated one by one. At some point the hero realises that the party leader is crazy, and their confrontation is rendered moot by the nearly divine intervention of the last bit of nastiness that kills everyone the film has found to be morally compromised. In a structural sense, Kong is a version of Apocalypse Now‘s version of Heart of Darkness, by way of Predator. There’s the usual cast of characters who exist solely to get horribly killed around the heroes, action set pieces, a couple of characters driven mad by the situation, or whose madness is exposed by it…

There are two really fascinating areas of cultural battle being played out in the narrative. The first and most overt is the way it recasts the Vietnam War yet again. The Vietnam War lurks in the American psyche because it was a war supposedly entered on moral grounds, powered by the entrenched hatred of communism, deeply unpopular at the time, and which outside the US is acknowledged as a defeat for the US. The group of soldiers in this film are finished with the war, being sent on the way home when for obscure reasons strings are pulled in Washington and they’re re-routed to accompany a “scientific” expedition to Skull Island. As they arrive, they set off “seismic charges” to allow subterranean mapping of the Island, and the film drops in a version of the Hollow Earth myth, which is itself a fascinating throw-back to pulps. The charges awaken the monsters who live below the earth, and at the first sign of something they don’t understand (Kong) the soldiers respond with violence. In the third act it’s revealed that the “scientific” leader of the expedition had no real scientific motive, but wanted to provoke a response and a conflict from the Island’s denizens.

The Vietnam war has often been painted as tragic, futile, and destructive – see PlatoonBorn on the 4th of July, or even Apocalypse Now, but I can’t think of another film where it’s been so nakedly attacked as deliberately wasteful and overtly political; in most anti-war films its treatment is more like that of a natural disaster, in which the individual characters are caught up, rather than something specifically created in this malformed way. The expedition deliberately creates the enemy that it then categorically loses to, with a justification that amounts to a chilling and eerily empty “For the Greater Good”. The critics that have been sniffy about it all seem to have completely missed this “subtext” rewriting the American perspective on the Vietnam War; which perhaps accounts for its relatively poor US Box office – $164M compared to its budget of $185M, which makes it a domestic flop.

The second major battleground is in the refiguring of Kong as a servant of the people. Kong, it’s made clear, is the primary defender of the indigenous peoples of the island from the “skull crawler” monsters who live in the Hollow Earth. Kong here is refigured not as a magnificent and unknowable force of nature, as he is in the main Kong remake sequence. The meaning of Kong’s capture and display in the other versions of the character is to show Man’s ultimate dominion, even if that dominion comes at a tragic cost of destroying the thing controlled. Kong in this film is nigh-invulnerable in human terms, and yet does not need to be controlled as his interests naturally align with ours as long as we don’t make ourselves into his enemy.

The third, and undoubtedly most controversial, cultural battleground is the non-engagement with the indigenous peoples of the island. In Heart of Darkness the natives are an abstract menace, dehumanised and objectified by the characters and the narrative, leading to Chinua Achebe’s rebuttal Things Fall Apart. The other common tactic for dealing with “natives” is like that in How the West was Won, which is to implicitly westernise them by slotting them (or at least one individual) into our society, so that they’re dealt with on our terms. Kong: Skull Island declines to explore them as individual characters or to show us anything of their society not directly required by the plot. This feels like a conscious effort to allow them to remain Other without stigmatising or denigrating them for their Otherness. I’m not sure that it’s possible to meet that objective, and this approach reeks of being too scared to do anything while requiring some native people for the plot to function. Many reviewers were uncomfortable with their presence while being unable to offer a cogent alternative representation for this fictional people. However you feel about the approach, it does mark a radically different approach than usually taken by this kind of film, showing an increased ambivalence and awareness that has yet to mature into a really good treatment.

The modern western world has a deep ambivalence about creative innovation. On the one hand, we’re obsessed with something being “new” and “novel” – one of the biggest complaints I hear from Marvel skeptics is that every movie they make is basically the same, an accusation even more fairly directed at the plethora of procedurals being produced around the world. On the other hand, most films that seem to genuinely aspire to novelty fail commercially, if not artistically. Fascinating hybrids, such as the recent Kong: Skull Island, which appropriate iconography from now-rote genres and repurpose them are often not properly recognised as the ideal form they are – they’re too novel and yet not novel enough. Kong: Skull Island did what I think the best fictions do, it took things we were familiar with and made them into something new. For all that the execution was not perfect, this film was far more interesting than any review suggested it aught to be. Reviewers tended to notice the familiar, but not see how that familiarity was being modified and challenged. Is this a film for everyone? For sure it isn’t – it’s still based fundamentally on war as spectacle, which is an approach bound to not interest a huge swathe of people. But if you are interested in spectacle, if you are interested in mass culture, then this film contains plenty that should engage your brain as well as delight your senses.

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