Warning: SPOILERS for Kong: Skull Island ahead
With Kong: Skull Island, King Kong has triumphantly returned to movie theaters after an absence of nearly 12 years. Though Godzilla, now Kong’s franchise mate in Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros.’ MonsterVerse shared movie universe, has long boasted the title “King of the Monsters,” Kong makes a serious bid to wrest that title from Godzilla with Skull Island. Both monsters are slated to do battle in 2020’s Godzilla Vs. Kong.
Billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” Kong’s cinematic debut in Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 all-time classic King Kong predates Godzilla’s 1954 debut by 21 years. There have been eight feature films about Kong, including the Toho production King Kong Vs. Godzilla in 1962, and little-seen B-movie schlock like 1933’s quickie cash grab sequels Son of Kong and 1986’s King Kong Lives. For Kong aficionados, however, only four Kong movies officially count: the 1933 original, the remakes by producer Dino DeLaurentiis in 1976 and by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson in 2005, and now Kong: Skull Island by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
The story of King Kong has permeated pop culture in the last century – to the point where its major beats are familiar even to those who’ve never seen a Kong movie: an uncharted island that time forgot is visited by ship by a crew that counts a beautiful blonde woman among them; the woman is kidnapped by the natives and offered as a sacrifice to Kong, the giant gorilla that lives on the island; the crew fight through the jungle and the monsters that inhabit it to rescue the woman; Kong and the woman form some sort of bond; the crew subdues Kong and transports him back to New York City; Kong escapes and goes on a rampage; Kong climbs the Empire State Building (or World Trade Center, in 1976), is shot down, and falls to his death.
Unlike the 1976 and 2005 King Kong films, Kong: Skull Island takes great strides to avoid being a retread of the original movie’s plot points. One of the delights of Skull Island is in all the ways it brashly breaks from the established Kong movie traditions. Everything a Kong lover would want to see remains: namely, the great gorilla himself in all his glory, bigger and more powerful than ever. While some critics have claimed Skull Island “misunderstands” the story of Kong, what Skull Island really does is liberate Kong from the shackles of the tropes of the past.
Let’s look at the ways Kong: Skull Island throws out the hoary old Kong rulebook and delivers a Kong movie like never before:
WHY COME TO SKULL ISLAND?
In the original 1993 King Kong and in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, the reason to travel to Skull Island was to make a movie. Filmmaker Carl Denham had heard rumors of some sort of gigantic monster on an uncharted island in the South Pacific and wanted to capture it on film. In the 1976 King Kong, Skull Island is located in the Indian Ocean. Reflecting the energy crisis of the 1970’s, the reason to travel to the island was to strike a new supply of oil reserves. Instead of a movie company sailing to the island, the Petrox Oil Company sends an oil tanker to tap the oil believed to be on the island.
Because it’s part of the MonsterVerse, Kong: Skull Island features Monarch, the organization dedicated to studying M.U.T.O.s (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). Monarch piggybacks off a Landsat expedition to geographically chart Skull Island, which is once again in the South Pacific – the only uncharted region on Earth usually unreachable because it’s surrounded by a perpetual storm system. Monarch’s representative Bill Randa (John Goodman) believes there are M.U.T.O.s on Skull Island, a fact he keeps hidden from the rest of the expeditionary team except his fellow Monarch scientists Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) and San Lin (Jing Tian).
In every incarnation of Skull Island, prehistoric creatures inhabit its shores. Rather than merely being “a land that time forgot” stocked with traditional dinosaurs (done to death since Jurassic Park and by Jackson in his 2005 film), Kong: Skull Island takes advantage of the MonsterVerse’s mythology, using the “Hollow Earth Theory” that ancient super species lived on Earth millennia before Man and still dwell in massive underground caves beneath the surface of the planet. Skull Island is one of the gateway points for M.U.T.O.s to breach the surface. This also gives Kong a new mission; rather than just being just another giant creature on an island full of them, in Skull Island, Kong is the protector of the island who fights and kills the M.U.T.O.s that escape the hollow Earth.
APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX
In the prior King Kong movies, the explorers who set foot on Skull Island are woefully unprepared to face the creatures that come looking to eat them. Usually armed with only some guns when they infiltrate the jungle to save the woman they brought with them from Kong’s grasp, they are made mincemeat of by the dinosaurs, giant spiders, and Kong himself. The 1933 and 2005 King Kong movies are reflective of old-style adventure serial storytelling, influenced by the film The Lost World, “Tarzan” novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs and by the real life of adventures of Merian C. Cooper.
Skull Island‘s influences are crystal clear: Vietnam War films, such as Full Metal Jacket by Stanley Kubrick and especially Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. From the airborne invasion of Skull Island’s jungle terrain, the slow-motion shots of helicopter propeller blades, to the close up of the jungle in flames in one soldier’s aviator sunglasses, the fingerprints of Coppola are all over Skull Island, decidedly so by director Vogt-Roberts and director of photography Larry Fong. Fong also shot Watchmen, which shares its color palate and visual style with Skull Island (compare the look of Watchmen‘s Vietnam sequences). The soldiers commanded by Samuel L. Jackson’s Lt. Col. Preston Packard bring the war to Skull Island.
Amusingly, even with all their hardware and their wartime experience fighting in jungle terrain against the Viet Kong, the US Army troops are no match for Kong in their initial encounter. Rather than the traditional ending of Kong fighting bi-planes or helicopters (depending on which era) atop a skyscraper, Skull Island wastes no time and offers up the classic battle of Kong vs. flying vehicles right away. Kong triumphantly taking down a fleet of thirteen attack helicopters is arguably the most viscerally exciting sequence of the whole movie, with “you are there” perspectives that would be familiar to anyone who enjoys the thrill rides at Universal Studios.
NO SCREAM QUEEN
“T’is beauty tamed the beast” is the famous closing line of King Kong – but no longer. For one thing, Skull Island‘s Kong can’t be tamed. Secondly, Skull Island thankfully does away with the traditional role of the lone female character in the King Kong story: the damsel in distress. In 1933, Fay Wray became Hollywood’s most famous scream queen when her character Ann Darrow is abducted by Kong. Jessica Lange’s Dwan (yes, that’s how her name is spelled) in the 1976 King Kong, is a “liberated” would-be actress and sexpot who renders Kong “a giant turned-on ape” (actual dialogue said by Jeff Bridges’ character). Peter Jackson is kinder to Naomi Watts’ flapper-era, out-of-work vaudevillian version of Ann Darrow in his 2005 remake, allowing her to forge an emotional friendship with his lonely Kong. Yet in every circumstance, the lone woman in these movies is a victim in need of rescue.
Brie Larson might be the freshest breath of air in Kong: Skull Island. Portraying photo journalist and activist Mason Weaver, the future Captain Marvel is no damsel in distress. Though Skull Island is set in 1973, Larson’s Weaver is as far a cry from Jessica Lange’s hysterical, helpless Dwan as you can get. While every other human in the movie faces off against the creatures of Skull Island armed with guns, flamethrowers, and even a samurai sword (including Jing Tian’s machine gun-toting biologist San Lin), Weaver is armed with only her camera, her wits, and her courage. Weaver exhibits curiosity about the native Iwi tribe and bonds with them as she takes their photographs. Weaver also has the distinction of being the only human in the movie to kill a Skull Crawler; she smartly uses a lighter to ignite the fumes around the Skull Crawler that attacks them in the Boneyard, killing it in a fiery blaze. Later, Weaver uses her flare gun to shoot the largest Skull Crawler in the eye, helping Kong kill it once and for all.
Weaver also gets to have a couple of private moments to bond with Kong, coming face to face with him outside the walls of the Iwi village, and later, she’s the only human to physically touch Kong when she gently strokes his mouth in the movie’s most Spielberg-ian Jurassic Park moment (besides when Samuel L. Jackson says “Hold onto your butts.”) Kong goes out of his way to save Weaver from drowning when he battled the largest Skull Crawler, and the unconscious Weaver had no idea she was in Kong’s hand when Kong plunged his hand down the Skull Crawler’s throat and ripped out its guts. Brie Larson truly went where no Kong woman has gone before! Of all the long-awaited and welcome updates to the Kong mythology, Brie Larson’s heroic Mason Weaver is arguably the best one of all. It’s no wonder Monarch recruited her immediately after she escaped Skull Island.
SO LONG, NEW YORK
At this point, seeing King Kong fall off the Empire State Building to his death is like seeing Bruce Wayne’s parents get shot in Crime Alley or Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben be killed – we’ve seen it and we can do with never having to see it again in a movie. Peter Jackson’s rampage of Kong in Depression-era New York City is arguably that film’s most enjoyable and best-executed sequence. The rampage of Kong in 1933 still holds up, as that film continues to be a hallmark of stop-motion animation. However, in the context of the MonsterVerse, having just seen Godzilla and two M.U.T.O.s lay waste to Honolulu and San Francisco three years ago, the filmmakers behind Skull Island wisely excised the idea of bringing their Kong to the Big Apple – at least in this film.
Besides, how Kong is brought to New York City has always been the biggest plot hole of the King Kong story. The 1976 film at least placed Kong in the bowels of an oil tanker for oceanic transport – through an angry Kong rampaged and nearly sank the ship. The 1933 and 2005 films gloss over the unrealistic logistics of how, using old, dilapidated freighters, they were able to transport Kong the thousands of miles between the South Pacific and New York City and keep him asleep, subdued, and not victim to the elements or from falling into the ocean to drown. This is a journey that would take months, and requires towing a gigantic kidnapped ape they have to keep knocked unconscious.
With Skull Island, there is no need to ask such questions. All of the action is kept within the environs of the island, where Kong belongs.
The final part of the King Kong story is that Kong always dies at the end, the victim of a callous modern world he doesn’t belong in. In Skull Island, there is no skyscraper for Kong to plummet from, and there are no forces pitted against him that Kong can’t overcome. The Kong of Skull Island has a greater purpose: He is the lone defender of his corner of the world, the only thing standing against an invasion by the giant monsters living beneath the surface of the Earth. Therefore, Kong can’t die, at least not in his first MonsterVerse film, and it’s safe to say audiences didn’t want to see the biggest Kong of all fall at the end of Skull Island. Especially not when we now know Kong is a main event player in the greater MonsterVerse and he has a date with fellow headliner Godzilla in 2020.
At 104 feet tall, Skull Island‘s gorilla is the biggest Kong we’ve ever seen in an American-made film (the 1933 and 1976 Kongs fluctuated in size but were never bigger than 50 feet; Jackson’s Kong was a 25 foot silverback gorilla), and as we learn during the movie, Kong is still growing. No doubt in the four decades since the events of Skull Island, Kong will be large enough when we see him again to rival Legendary’s enormous Godzilla. Skull Island‘s Kong is also the best fighter of any Kong, and he will have to become even better considering that, as we learned in the movie’s post-credits scene, Kong might soon have to take on not just Godzilla, but Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah.
Whether Kong: Skull Island is the best King Kong movie is up to the subjective tastes of the audience. Its virtues lie in not trying to ape (sorry) the 1933 original, but in taking that beloved character and doing cool, new things with him, while still honoring much of what makes Kong a unique and beloved hallmark in the history of American cinema. Placing Kong in a tumultuous new MonsterVerse, giving him a new mission, and throwing the established preconceptions of what a King Kong movie is supposed to be out the window truly created a brand new experience and a jolt of new excitement Kong has never had before. Kong: Skull Island stomps all over King Kong movie tradition – and the future of Kong and the MonsterVerse is all the better for it.