Jordan Vogt-Roberts is best known for his young adult film The Kings of Summer (2013), yet Vogt-Roberts is expanding into a $190 million blockbuster. The film never denies Vogt-Roberts’ authorial voice, projecting his name in big letters during the opening credits. Like with Gareth Edwards, moving from Monsters (2010) to the big budgets of Godzilla (2014) and Rogue One (2016), Legendary is helming up-and-coming voices at the forefront of their new monster movie franchise.
Kong’s history might not be as illustrious as Godzilla’s, appearing in a handful of sequels and reboots yet nothing compared to Godzilla’s dominance in everything from comics, toys, animated series and videogames, failing to secure his own franchise. Rather than seek gritty emotional melodrama or scientific explanations for Kong’s existence, the film embraces its B-movie quality. The film makes its statement from its opening scene, as crashed fighter pilot Hank Marlow (John C Reilly) becomes ensnared in a swordfight with Japanese fighter Gunpei Ikari at the edge of Skull Island. Cinematographer Larry Fong captures an incredible sense of composition, utilising contrasting blue and red neon lighting in the club scenes in Saigon, or fireballs reflecting in a pilot’s visor.
Skull Island is elevated by its cast, reuniting Tom Hiddleston and Samuel L Jackson as protagonist James Conrad (evoking Joseph Conrad) and deranged colonel Preston Packard, alongside powerhouse Brie Larson as photojournalist Mason Weaver. Yet the film is also joined by young talent: Thomas Mann, beautifully playing teenage adolescence in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015), is warrant officer Reg Slivko (Mann’s co-star RJ Cyler is busy launching another franchise with Power Rangers (2017)).
In the opening titles, we chart our way through remixed footage of the evolution of the atomic bomb, tying into Godzilla’s post-war origins as a product of Hiroshima and American occupation. Skull Island is a film about war, in the shadow of a wave of films from the 70s and 80s seeking to reconcile the war as its servicemen came of age: most notably Apocalypse Now (1979), shot contemporaneously, evoked in its golden sunsets, but others like Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket and Good Morning Vietnam (1987), achieving catharsis or comedic satire at the war’s incoherence. In Marvel Comics, The ‘Nam (1986-93) sought to provide a month-by-month account of the war, without superheroes. Its soundtrack may be strong, yet plays as a beat-by-beat emulation of every other Vietnam film, moving between Time Has Come Today, White Rabbit and Bad Moon Rising. The film namedrops Bowie with Ziggy Stardust, emphasising Marlow’s disassociation with the modern world. None of the power of The End in Apocalypse Now is here, played at low levels in the background attempting to elicit audience recognition.
Shooting in Oahu, the film uses the island’s beautiful vistas as an analogue for American conduct in Vietnam. Skull Island attempts to create a dialogue around the nature of war, as characters discuss weaknesses and strengths amid a backdrop of disillusionment, but the film does little to evoke these feelings in practice. We see the glee as bombs destroy the natural landscape from aerial view, animals caught in the destruction. Bombs are fetishised, framing agents of destruction in close-up. We never see human destruction: no bodies explode, nor guts and brains picked away by flies. A member of the group self sacrifices themselves, yet the film never offers explanation or a process of mourning. Gojira (1954) captured the shaken Japanese consciousness, yet Skull Island tries to be entirely apolitical.
Preston Packard evokes the archetype of the corrupt colonel, leading his men to death in a vain attempt at glory, wanting revenge against Kong. For Packard, America did not lose the war, but “abandoned it”. Packard is the cavalry, and will stop at nothing to reach his goal, determined with an invincible squad. Packard is far from an engaging portrait of the corruption of war, but a cartoonish villain.
Our protagonists remain torn by their parent’s generation and the impact of World War II. Conrad speaks of his father, mythologised as a John Wayne figure who fought Nazis. Marlow is an anachronism, in bomber jacket and curly grey beard, evoking the crashed fighter pilots of pulpy adventure novels or wartime comic strips as they attempt to adapt to the jungle wilderness. Reilly might be better known for his comedic roles in films like Step Brothers (2008), yet under the right director, Reilly can achieve real emotional gravitas, as the father in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) or the animated protagonist of Wreck-It Ralph (2012). Here, Reilly is left with forced humour, playing up his fish out of water nature yet without finding an emotional centre, with dialogue worthy of George Lucas.
But no film can escape the conditions of the environment that made it. Vogt-Roberts described a sense of “catharsis” to setting the film in the early 70s, moving our characters from a “world crumbl[ing] around them” to “an island untouched by man.” Like with the X-Men prequels, Skull Island uses the past to evoke a timeless aesthetic, working in real historical events amid its retro technology, clothing, music and values, tying the film to a previous socio-political reality than commenting on the state of war and terrorism in the present day. Even in King Kong (1976), the film sought to engage with contemporary issues around environmentalism and oil crises.
In an early scene, in the months surrounding Watergate, conspiracy theorist Bill Randa (John Goodman) moves past a protest assembled on Capitol Hill, presciently bemoaning that there will “never be a more screwed-up time in Washington!” Packard, as a powerful black man, rejects the implications of the Civil Rights Movement, with no care for inequality or the radicalism of the Black Panthers, but in service of his own power. As a photojournalist, Weaver exists amid a backdrop of second-wave feminism, in a war defined by its horrific broadcast and printed images. As Packard tells her, “a camera does a lot more damage than a gun”. Weaver photographs the crew; captures images of friendly natives. Larson often steps up to the role of the strong female, as social worker in Short Term 12 (2013), recast from the short film’s male protagonist, or the only survivor amid the warehouse shootout in Free Fire (2016). Weaver exists as far more than the girlfriend character to Conrad, or even to Kong; she is her own person. But the film does little to show the sexism and sexual harassment Weaver would have experienced as a woman against a man’s war, given only cursory acknowledgment.
Marlow may live along natives, but his existence seems a recreation of colonial narratives. Marlow treats Ikari’s memory as his “brother”, beyond uniform and war, leaving a promise to “never leave each other behind”. Yet our mad, aged fighter pilot might just have easily been Ikari, caught against the backdrop of a new American world. The voices of our face-painted natives are silenced, Marlow acting as interlocutor to relay their backstory and identity. But this comes from a franchise that originated in racial stereotypes: in King Kong (1933), Kong embodies an ape-like image, living among natives, running wild in New York City as he takes a white woman for his own.
The success of Skull Island is in its worldbuilding, creating an island that feels truly unique. Whereas other incarnations sought to juxtapose Kong against the expansive, historical metropolis of New York, Skull Island avoids this well-trodden story. Kong becomes a benevolent lonely god, wanting peace and harmony over his island without the invasion of humans. In its impressive production design, the film hints towards Kong’s ancestors, walking past skulls of previous Kongs in a foreboding graveyard. In its Harryhausen-esque CGI, the backlit Kong begins to look stop motion, fighting off helicopters in silhouette. Using motion capture with Toby Kebbell (also playing major Jack Chapman) and Terry Notary, the film avoids the immersive realism of Peter Jackson, favouring Kong as animated monster. Fighting Cthulhu-esque tentacles in a lake, viewed by a young soldier, we know who this Kong really is.
Where Godzilla is the “king of the monsters”, we encounter many prehistoric threats that serve to increase the film’s tension, from water buffalo to camouflaged stick-bugs to pterodactyls, thanks to immersive production design and CGI. Godzilla and Kong might have met before in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), but Legendary are setting us up for a reimagined showdown, closing the film with a post-credits scene sowing seeds for Mothra and Ghidorah. Though Skull Island may not be the greatest blockbuster of recent times, it remains a fun adventure expanding a world.