Emerging from the venerable heritage of the Creature Feature, it’s easy to dismiss “Kong Skull Island” at first glance as nothing more than the latest in a parade of monster movies where viewers wager which of the shrinking band of principals will survive the carnage. Yet, I would say there’s a remarkable vivacity to the subtext of this film that bears further examination and even deserves greater credit than it has thus far received.
Leaving aside the lyrical, poetic cinematography that doesn’t so much recall “Apocalypse now” as reshoot it, I’d like to focus on the plot.
Scientists discover a mysterious island, thanks to the new technology of Satellite photography. But these are not ordinary scientists – these scientists have been tasked with finding previously unknown monsters, and this is (for unspecified reasons) their last chance to do so. Surely this previously unknown island that has been mentioned in historical documents as a place to avoid (wait, how unknown is it?) contains monsters by the BUCKETLOAD? The plan is approved and a survey is cobbled together with other, genuine scientists who are looking for something else. Probably oil. This is the 70’s, everyone wants oil. A squadron of helicopters, almost on their way home from Vietnam, are reassigned to this expedition, to the great relief of their commanding officer who clearly knew the likelihood of his men to fall prey to depression, drug abuse and homelessness following their return home to a hostile country. How farsighted of him.
As the helicopters sweep in over the island, they drop seismic charges, theoretically to map the substrata of the island. In truth, these are bombs to draw out the monsters. Kong makes his appearance and destroys all the helicopters, leaving only a handful of scattered survivors. He and the commanding officer lock gazes through the flames, establishing their emnity for the hard-of-thinking. Then Kong wanders off.
Later in the film, two characters get into a discussion over the AK-47 one of them is carrying.
“I took it off a Vietnamese farmer”, the character says. “Man told me he’d never held a gun before we came to his country. Sometimes you don’t have an enemy until you go looking for one.”
This is another pointer for the hard-of-thinking or American audiences. Because at this point the survivors are split into two groups – the soldiers, who are looking for the biggest heap of weapons to avenge themselves on Kong, and the others, the pretty ones, who meet the locals and a handy WW2 survivor who can explain everything to everyone.
Kong is a protector, the last of his kind. And he was defending his charges from the attack by the helicopters. This is proven by his lack of interest in attacking the film’s leading lady when she wanders across his path. He’s a nice guy, just two hundred feet tall. Worse still, Kong is needed by the islanders because there are worse monsters and he’s their only defender.
This, I feel, is the brilliance of the film. Mankind goes to the island, looking for a monster. Because of the way we go looking, we find one, and we give it reason to act monstrously. The film shows the two possible responses to meeting a monster: Arm, and fight back, or learn, and react with that knowledge in mind. The soldiers, and their commander in particular, arm because it’s what they’ve been trained to do, and to do in Vietnam where the enemy was almost impossible to see. Here’s the exact opposite, and enemy that’s all too visible. It’s easy to see the appeal in the notion of all-out attack.
But the pretty people have knowledge. They know what else hangs in the balance of Kong’s life, and they are willing to put their own lives on the line to protect the villagers, just as Kong is. They step between the soldiers and their enemy and try to make them see reason. All but the commander are persuaded, but for most it takes the arrival of the worse monster to prevent the killing of Kong. The commander himself is killed by the new monster, a victim of the hateful actions he has taken against the enemy he made.
I came away from this movie filled with a profound sense of having learned something about human nature and storytelling and the rediscovery of old tales.
Mrs Dim said she liked the bit where Tom Hiddlestone ran through the water in his t-shirt and jeans.