I’m at a loss. I cannot quite decide what Kong: Skull Island’s central problem is. Sometimes, director Jordan Vogt Roberts’ film rudderlessly vacillates form obvious highs (the apocalyptically-shot pre-credits screen and a killer credits bit) to infernal lows (an impossibly idiotic, on-the-nose opening line from John Goodman – spoken almost directly to the camera – about American politics never being “this bad again”). Here, the film is an inconstant success story sabotaging its structural integrity with foolhardy bull-in-a-china-shop shifts in quality, a work of half-crazed energy and personal auteurist flourishes with no earthly idea how to stitch its numerous harebrained personal madnesses together into an unidentified film-like object. Other times, however, Skull Island has the reheated quality of a monotone hum that settles not for a tilt-a-whirl shuttling between greatness and failure and more like incessant competence, seldom better or worse than acceptable and essentially unwilling to risk its adequacy to achieve greatness at the risk of failure.
Really, the only certainty with Kong: Skull Island is that Jason Vogt-Roberts really enjoys Apocalypse Now, boasting a surfeit of enthusiasm for the obsessive themes and baroque style of Francis Ford Coppola’s film but little of the filmmaking mastery or the nuance. With a story that can be roughly summed as “marines in 1973 invade an exotic, foreign, to-them-primeval land assured of their superiority and stagger into the fires of hell”, the film desperately tries to shuttle us from big-and-beefy pre-summer-time thrasher into Serious Themes and back again without getting whiplash. The film’s pace on this path is more a drunken slobber than a confident strut.
Vogt-Roberts is almost stupendously unable to remove himself from assembling a remake of Coppola’s film doctored up in corporate duds, translated away from its native-tongue and into a big and beefy blockbuster. Everything has Coppola on the mind. Be it Larry Fong’s insistently beautiful cinematography sliding from psychotropic fever-dream green to incendiary fire-and-brimstone red to malarial yellow, cinematographically tracing an over-confident American force’s undying commitment to stepping physical foot into worlds before the nation bothers to mentally enter the corresponding worldviews. Be it a mostly superficial but still engaging performance from Samuel Jackson lensed with the murderous, obsessive eyes of a man walking out of the world and trying to recreate a space he controls, a metaphor for America’s lost quest for self through destroying and domineering all others ideas of self. Or be it the protagonist’s surname, Conrad. No stone on the Heart of Darkness path is unturned.
So Skull Island is vocally and speciously trying to restage the Vietnam War with all its might, but the film’s morality and its hammer-and-cudgel action are definitionally at odds, since the latter is obviously interested in the possibility of recreating and backing in America’s explosive shock-and-awe might during the war rather than actually critiquing America. Suggestions of a better, thornier, more treacherous film, however, are mostly left unexplored once everything switches to special effects mode, from the in-fighting among the various factions of the characters (military vs scientist) to the dubious questions of race (obsessive black man pitted against two white saviors, inter-racial military collective, a black scientist who is undeniably the smartest person in the room). The avoidance of race is particularly unfortunate in light of the story’s essential racialization and the questions of black masculinity and Orientalism wading undertow. But Skull Island seems actively disinterested in questions about black men and white women when it can hammer-down, and fail to really unpack, questions of imperialism over and over again. (Of course, questions of American imperialism are linked to questions of home-grown race, but no one involved in the film is interested in pursuing the linkages therein).
What then does Kong: Skull Island achieve? Although it sometimes involves appropriating exotic cultural aesthetics for pop-imagery, Skull Island’s primary achievement is basically compounding image after image of inspired carnage. It’s a highlight reel more than a film. It would have better still had it not tried to broker a peace between narrative order and violent chaos and simply given in to its wilder impulses by pushing full-force on the non-narrative button and turning the whole affair into one excuse for semi-abstract imagery.
But still, while the faux-depth of the narrative anti-war themes burglarize the film’s successes, the moments that hit are punchy enough. A moment of Miyazaki-limned surreal serenity in a lichen-infused bull partially fused with the island’s flora, or a wooden insect not rising out of a log but rising as the log. Gargantuan daddy long legs blotting out the sun and erupting into gooey masses of bodily fluid. A thick fog of war coating a creature whose position is revealed only through the incessant flash of a camera he swallowed. A couple of witty visual asides, like an edit from a soldier tumbling into Kong’s mouth to one of his human comrades munching into a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Or a close-up on a Nixon bobble-head watching over the helicopters on their mission with an agitated head tilt, as if delusional about the devils the Americans both are and are about to awake.
Basically, Skull Island is a winking, B-movie variation on the apocalyptic dread of Gareth Edwards’ more genuinely dread-infused Godzilla, which was similarly an exercise in humbling humanity by decoding how arbitrary all of America’s initiatives at conflict-resolution are. If Godzilla was the horror film, Skull Island is the Looney Tunes inversion thereof, the madcap and essentially lunatic variation on the same theme. It’s a tragicomic exercise in the absurdity of almost reaching safety, and then being stomped out by a ten-foot-wide gorilla foot just so the Earth can laugh in our faces. It also tries to outdo last year’s Suicide Squad for percent of the film that reminds us that the gap between film and music video is increasingly slimming, and in all the wrong ways too. But the pop pleasures of the soundtrack are undeniable. Sometimes, we must remember, heroes don’t always wear capes.
But the film over-exerts itself dramatically, revealing its paradoxical lack of real effort to do anything with its copious themes. Many of the thematic insights are mere visual short-hand. A shot that refracts the bombs through the crystalline but flesh-warping lens of a soldier’s glasses couldn’t be a more on-the-nose metaphor for America’s habit of fetishizing their mastery over the world to the point of losing touch with the world from any other perspective other than their own eyesight. The rest of the film is, basically, a blockbuster attempt to force America to choke on those glasses, asphyxiating themselves on that myopic worldview, which is a noble ideal. But the film relies on single, self-consciously iconic images like those glasses to lacquer the trippy eccentricities of the design work (which is terrific throughout) in unnecessary and unearned analytic pretensions.
So, Kong is a decent film filled with no small share of rollicking and even whimsical pleasures, but it simultaneously exerts too much energy and not enough. The human characters, I choose to leave out because the film really doesn’t choose otherwise. I’ll note that the only breaths of fresh air are Corey Hawkins as a Yale-degreed nerd, a total about-face from his confident swagger and intensity in Straight Outta Compton, and John C. Reilly as a discombobulated WWII vet trapped on the island for almost 30 years.
But all the flash-and-bang effects Universal and Legendary Pictures throw Kong’s way cannot match-up to the sheer lightning-in-a-bottle of Apocalypse Now’s gonzo stylistics and off-its-rocker charisma. The real problem with Kong is not a lack of nuance, then, but a faulty imagination. It’s well documented that the four-year haze that was the production of Apocalypse Now essentially mushroomed the film – a metaphor about America’s Vietnam – into an embodiment of America’s folly in Vietnam itself. Insofar as Apocalypse Now is salvageable, it is because it is so gloriously unsalvageable, so broken, so worn-down and exhausted, so tortured by its own horrific construction that it cannot but – through sheer force of its construction, as if a cosmic coincidence – become its subject matter. As a film, it lives the war’s misguided fragility in its very filmic bones.
At some point, basically, Apocalypse Now became demented enough to represent America’s folly through the folly of its own production, but Kong: Skull Island lacks the wide-eyed insanity to substantiate the comparison. It boasts many small-scale glimmers of crazed joy, but they aren’t enough to overtake the neutralizing complacency of its typical narrative structure. Like Coppola’s film, Skull Island can also be refracted through the lens of its subject matter for easy understanding. Much like Vietnam itself, it initially seems like a triumph of force, girth, might, and monolithic size, only to reveal that all the technical mastery and technological innovation in the world cannot conquer everything, nor should it.