Much has been made of the consensus, strengthened over the decades, that the original 1950s version of Godzilla symbolized the horrors of nuclear war. If we’re to take this at face value, then it shouldn’t be too hard to see the supposed intention of this year’s Kong: Skull Island, namely to serve as a metaphor for American involvement in the Vietnam War; setting aside the fact that it takes place in 1973, and that the main characters arrive on the title island with the help of soldiers stationed in Saigon and Da Nang, we watch westerners enter a wild area under false pretenses and then get decimated by forces they were unprepared to face, even with a cache of artillery and explosives.
As was the case with Godzilla, this is (1) a stretch at best, and (2) an unnecessary attempt to try and make the movie about something. In my experience, the greatest monster movies aren’t about anything at all; they’re merely exercises in bringing outlandish premises to life and making them entertaining and/or emotionally resonant. There are two films I always submit as evidence. One is Cloverfield, in which the audience is just as in the dark as the characters about why a giant creature is attacking Manhattan. The other, appropriately enough, is Peter Jackson’s masterful 2005 remake of King Kong, in which it’s never explained why an island is populated by a giant ape or dinosaurs and yet is infused with excitement and pathos.
Because the Vietnam allusions aren’t particularly strong and don’t carry all the way through, we eventually realize that the true intention of Kong: Skull Island is to kickstart yet another cinematic franchise. A post-credit sequence, which I obviously can’t talk about, makes this abundantly clear. Between the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe, the Transformers movies, and the X-Men films, it would be an understatement to say that I’ve long since had my fill. Truth be told, I can’t take much more. It’s bad enough that none of these franchises are over with yet; we have other new ones on the way, one starting this summer with the reboot of “The Mummy,” the other being helmed by (God help us all) M. Night Shyamalan. Yes, I know I’ve complained about franchises before, and recently. I’ll stop only when they do.
It goes without saying that the title character, brought to life through motion-capture animation, looks the best he has ever looked – and because the film is in IMAX 3D, you’ll be able to see that not just up close but literally in your face. He’s also the biggest he has ever been, and thank heavens, the filmmakers went the extra mile and made sure there weren’t any physical size discrepancies between shots. Though we are asked to respect him as a force of nature that should be left to his own devices, he doesn’t carry the same emotional weight as he did in Peter Jackson’s film; for the most part, he’s little more than a roaring, chest-beating behemoth that causes a lot of destruction and gets into a lot of fights with other gigantic monsters, from a squid to voracious lizard creatures that emerge from volcanic craters. The final battle, which goes on far longer than it needs to, is with the biggest lizard of all.
And what of the human characters? They’re essentially stock players from every high-concept sci-fi action movie ever made – which in this case isn’t a criticism so much as a mere observation. We have: The mopey mercenary hunter/tracker (Tom Hiddleston); the anti-war photojournalist (Brie Larson); the military colonel (Samuel L. Jackson) who not only hates the photojournalist and her kind for the American withdrawal from Vietnam, but also has an Ahab-esque drive to destroy Kong; and the laughed-at scientist (John Goodman) who spearheaded the expedition to Skull Island out of a desperate need to prove what he knows to be true. There’s even a pilot (John C. Reilly) who crash landed on Skull Island back in World War II and has been living in peace with a socially utopic tribe ever since. To the tribe, Kong is a god, protecting them from the lizard creatures.
Apart from the fights between Kong and the lizards, there’s also a fair amount of fighting between the lizards and the humans, which involve all the weapons brought from the Vietnam station base and look suspiciously similar to Star Wars aerial battles. That’s all well and good, although I’m still confused over how anyone thought this approach could neatly coincide with what the opening scenes of the film promised, namely an examination of 1970s social and political turmoil. While I’m at it, anyone who says that Kong: Skull Island is a throwback to the original 1933 version of King Kong is either lying or delusional. One is an entertainment that has no agenda and doesn’t pretend to have one. The other is an unnecessary addition to what we already have too much of.