By Matthew C. Brown. Since its inception, the King Kong film franchise has reflected America’s fraught relationship with imperialism, white fright, xenophobia, and black slavery. When the original King Kong film was released in 1933, there were black people being murdered in alarming numbers. In 1976, when the film was first remade, there were drugs being funneled into the inner cities. In 2005, when the Peter Jackson remake hit theaters, we were already neck deep in the woes of mass incarceration (primarily aimed at black people). In 2017 Kong: Skull Island is more of a re-imagining than a remake of the original film’s plot and concept. Oh, and black people continue to be beaten in the street and arrested en masse. With film, subtext isn’t always fun, and in Kong’s case, it’s a downright bummer.
This film franchise has worked to break the chains of its clear allegory for imperial slavery and black sexual repression. The original 1933 film’s writers, James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, stated they had no intention of creating an allegory for slavery, but whether we’re conscious of it or not, whether they be in grainy black and white or slick multi-color, our historic demons taunt us in dancing light on silver screens. The King Kong franchise acts as a marker for where we stand in dealing with these demons, and unfortunately we have not come far.
Kong: Skull Island has been “updated” in some ways, mainly in that this version of the film takes place near the end of the Vietnam War (another American imperial blunder) rather than in the 1930s. Members of Monarch, an agency that investigates and searches for evidence of Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects (M.U.T.O., from Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla) wants to investigate an isolated island in the South Pacific that has come to be called Skull Island (because it looks vaguely like a skull). With some reluctant funding from a senator they begin to assemble a team of scientists and a military escort.
Brie Larson plays Mason Weaver, a freelance “anti-war” photojournalist (as she puts it) who is cleared to come with the expedition. Though her character is brave and shrewd she is still reduced to the antiquated image of the feminine damsel in distress in order to call back to the white-woman-in-Kong’s-hand image that we’ve seen so many times before. The problem with having call-backs to older King Kong films is that it reminds us of the past that constantly dogs this franchise’s otherwise freewheeling popcorn ambitions.
On a narrative level, this film is overstuffed with a clumsy need to justify putting its characters in harm’s way. There are several moments where characters stop and ask, “Why? What are we still doing here?,” and it almost feels like the only proper response could be, “Because there’s still an hour and a half left in the movie.” The reasons for remaining on the titular beast-infested isle in the first place are thin, and if we’re being honest it’s because John Goodman’s character, Bill Randa, obsessed with finding evidence of MUTOs, is Captain Ahab; the madness continues because Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Preston Packard, is both Captain Ahab and Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now. Of the narrative I, like Kurtz, say, “The horror. The horror.”
During the original film, when King Kong is unveiled in a New York theater in chains, the announcer says, “He was a god in his own lands, and we have brought him here today for your own amusement.” This language is something that was taken out of the otherwise tonally faithful 2005 remake as to avoid the topics of race and slavery. In this film they do not attempt to capture and steal the King from his kingdom. Instead they try to outright exterminate him in his own lands, but the characters (led by a mostly useless Tom Hiddleston) soon turn against this idea.
One could say that since Kong wins in the end, and his kingdom remains his own, that it is a more modern, progressive take on the story. The problem is, that’s missing the point: These people shouldn’t be there in the first place. It’s a colonial, imperial sickness that permeates (and ultimately, perpetuates) these stories. The characters stop and ask, “Why are we here?” Why, indeed. The answers given are illogical at best.
This film is an adventure romp through the jungles of escapism, orientalism, imperialism, and the privilege of Western society. But I don’t want to leave you empty-handed. If you were planning to see this film and this review has since ruined those plans, here’s a recommendation: Seek out Raoul Peck’s Oscar nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. It is about many things, but primarily it is about James Baldwin, a prolific writer and a prophet. The film uses the original King Kong as an example of the many pitfalls of our Great Society. It will change the way you think about film and America forever.
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
Produced by Debbi Bossi, Edward Cheng, and Jennifer Conroy.
Screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connelly.
Story by John Gatins.
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, and John C. Reilly.
Rated PG-13 because Vogt-Roberts really wanted to evoke ‘Apocalypse Now’.
3 out of 10