Kong: Skull Island (2017) is a fun, old-fashioned send-up of the adventure novel of yore; less of a remake of the 1933 King Kong (or Peter Jackson’s 2005 version for that matter) and more of an original adventure story featuring Kong, King of Skull Island.
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (no relation to Voight-Kampff), this version takes place in 1973. What’s with the deliberately retro set up? Apparently it’s a way of tapping into wounded American Exceptionalism. We’re given one Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), sore from Vietnam (“We didn’t lose the war, we abandoned it!“) and ready to turn Skull Island into his own personal war after Kong massacres most of his battalion upon arrival. He’s a patriotic Ahab leading his men through the jungle on a righteous quest to prove man’s dominance over nature’s.
Packard and his men are there to escort crackpot Bill Randa (John Goodman), who’s ostensibly there to map the uncharted island but in fact has ulterior motives involving Kong. His character is a weak stand-in for the megalomaniac Carl Denham of the original story, and serves as little more than a primer for the ensuing adventure. Soon enough the movie drops him out of focus and eventually out of the script altogether.
Joining the expedition are also Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a Great White Hunter type, and photojournalist/Jane Fonda-ish activist Weaver (Brie Larson). Because they’re played by Hiddleston and Larson and their sensible countenance never betrays any trait other than an archetypal sense of right, we suspect them to be the protagonists. And while they may get the screen time and pose for a few heroics, the movie is never about them, nor do they drive the plot.
Neither is Kong (played in mo-cap by Toby Kebbell and Terry Notary). The movie doesn’t shy away from its title attraction – the great ape is revealed fairly early on, and given much to smash – but Kong feels less like the anthropomorphic tragic creature posited by Jackson and more like the original Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack monster that reacts to a disturbance in his enviroment. Kong is just another part of Skull Island lashing out against the human trespassers, who either through ignorance or hubris upset the delicate, natural balance of the island.
Perhaps this is what makes Kong: Skull Island feel like an old-fashioned adventure story, in the vein of H. Rider Haggard. It is quite simply an account of Western adventurers awed and aghast at the nonsense that lurks deep in the jungle, where anything can suddenly be revealed to be part of a hungered colossus and their sense of purpose is lost in the grander scope of nature. That the movie decides to reference The Heart of Darkness of all books – by having characters named after Conrad and Marlow – seems like it’s missing the very point it’s trying to make. Conrad’s novella filtered the adventure story with a modern, psychological perspective that Skull Island doesn’t even attempt to ape.
To the movie’s credit, it never tries to be anything other than a “monster movie”. This lack of pretense and modernity truly plays in its favor. Kong: Skull Island is rich in CG special effects and over-the-top action set pieces (all of which are framed in clear daylight, a nice change from the usual nighttime cop out), but at its heart it’s as awesome and old-fashioned and even slightly creepy as the movie that inspired it. What it lacks in pathos it makes up with humor and a candid sense of being you won’t find in your usual cynical, disingenuous blockbuster.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).