Kong Skull Island

“Make Gentle the Life of This World:” The Horror of Peace in ‘Kong: Skull Island’

When it was first announced, Kong: Skull Island didn’t do much to inspire confidence. Don’t get me wrong, I am a lifelong fan of the King Kong story in all of its forms, and more Kong is never a bad thing, but there were a few things right out of the gate that initially could have been read as red flags. As great as monster mash-ups are and always have been, the announcement of this movie’s connection to 2014’s Godzilla was a little disconcerting, considering the fact that virtually every blockbuster through the second half of the 2010s tried (and more often than not failed) to create a cinematic universe. Then there was the fact that the movie would be set in the 1970s, rather than the ‘30s setting of the original Kong as well as Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, as that had already been done in the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis remake. That film updated the story for the then-present day. No longer simply about exploration and exoticism, the need to parade another land’s prized possession as an American spectacle, King Kong (1976) was reformed as an extremely thinly veiled metaphor for mankind’s never-ending quest for oil and the conquest of depleting the Earth’s natural resources. 

Yet while the shoehorned inclusion of Monarch could be marginally grating, Kong: Skull Island surpassed any and all expectations. Like the De Laurentiis film, it is incredibly prescient to the time in which it is set, but in completely different ways. Rather than centering on the hunt for oil, Skull Island is both textually and sub-textually about the Vietnam War.  It’s entirely un-subtle in its approach, but then it’s supposed to be and its central theme is so unique in that context that it’s just amazing to not only see it pulled off as well as it is, but to see it pulled off so well in a King Kong movie of all things. 

Unlike most Vietnam movies, Skull Island is not set during the height of the war. Instead, much more interestingly, especially with the direction the film takes, it is set immediate after. Samuel L. Jackson and his crew have been given the news that their work is done, they’re being pulled out, and it’s time to go home… they just have one more little mission to do first. What’s interesting is that it parallels its only Monsterverse counterpart up to that point, the preceding 2014 Godzilla, in that regard. In that film, we’re introduced to our hero just as he is finishing up his tour in Afghanistan and returning home, being told “This is the part they don’t train you for.” Skull Island deals with that in an entirely different, much deeper way, but that one quote holds just as true—if not more so—for this feature than it had for Godzilla. With that film, only Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford Brody was dealing with the thought of coming home after his service, and even then, it’s pretty much an afterthought as his focus on being reunited with his family takes center stage.

In Kong: Skull Island, this is something that every character is dealing with, and they’re all reacting to the end of the war in different ways. Yet the almost all have one thing in common: they are terrified of the war being over. 

This is most obviously represented in Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Preston Packard, who turns this fear into an obsession and becomes the film’s major antagonist, for the human cast as well as Kong himself. Packard is in shock from the moment we’re introduced to him, after he’s learned that the troops are being pulled out of Vietnam. Because of that, he’s eager to take any mission he’s offered, no matter what it is. He presents this as “one more thing” they need to take care of before they finally head home, but it’s clear that for him and some of the other troops, this is just a much needed way to make the war last a little longer. There’s a line later in the film in which Packard notes that, in his eyes, “we didn’t lose the war, we abandoned it.” I’m not sure anything could sum up his character more succinctly. 

On the surface, as the movie unfolds, obviously much of Packard’s actions are motivated for revenge after Kong destroys several of the copters and kills much of the crew. He even keeps talking about Kong as this thing that is lurking out there in the jungle that killed his men, men that he had a duty to stand by and protect. But the truth is still very clear that even more than any of that, Packard desperately needed something to fight. He encounters Kong only one day after being informed that he’s being pulled out of a war that had defined his life, against his will. Vietnam was an unwinnable war, nobody even knew what they were truly fighting or why and they were asked to commit horrors for no reason other than blind devotion to their country, and that’s what makes Kong such a perfect new obsession for him. As much as Vietnam was not a war that could ever be won, Kong is an enemy that he is never going to beat. One is a perfect replacement for the other. For Packard, the more unkillable an enemy is, the less chance you have of defeating it, the better. At least when your greatest fear is not that you might die, but that you might have to stop fighting. 

The notions of duty and loyalty are things that also persists throughout Skull Island. Packard talks a lot about the duty he has to his men who died. In turn, many of the soldiers also double down on their duty to him, standing loyally beside him as he begins his obsessive hunt for Kong. Even after he’s abandoned all reason, there are still people standing beside him because that’s what you’re supposed to do. And this film is absolutely great at highlighting how much people will stand strong in their devotion to rules and rank, even after everything has gone south and it’s all been rendered meaningless. The war is already over, and they are surrounded by giant monsters, and still there is a fixation on the chain of command and a devotion to the platoon. This is perfectly illustrated right from the opening moments of the movie, when Marlow, a US pilot, and Gunpei, a Japanese pilot, are engaged in a dogfight when they crash land on the island. As soon as they hit the ground and get out of their planes, even when they are completely stranded, they immediately resume trying to kill each other. The only thing that stops them is their first encounter with Kong. 

Marlow is particularly interesting in how much he contrasts Packard, because this is someone who was a soldier and has been living on this island since the second World War. He knows nothing about Vietnam and it’s impossible for him to care even if he’s caught up, because he has no stake in the game. This is someone who has fixated on the island life, but that duty of being a soldier is still ingrained within him. He’s living among the island people, observing the island’s unique wildlife, and it creates an illusion of contentment that is totally upended when the new crew crash lands on the island. When faced with the reality that he could actually go home, he is totally dismissive of it, and suddenly believes that they are all going to die despite the fact that he himself has survived alone on the island for decades. That’s because he’s just as terrified to go home, to not be fighting for his life every single day, to be at peace as Packard is. He just presents his fear in a different way. Marlow has a wife he hasn’t seen since the ‘40s and a son he’s never met, he has no idea what’s waiting for him back home and is totally justified in his fear of just dropping in on their lives. Even though he’s also clearly afraid of having to reintegrate into society and just generally having to be a person again, his fears are still ultimately much more tangible than Packard’s.

The film illustrates the horrors of war perfectly and without an ounce of subtlety. The soldiers have absolutely no idea what’s going on, what they’re supposed to do, and they cling to Packard as a voice of order, but not remotely as a voice of reason. This is a movie that doesn’t depict the deaths of soldiers like almost any war movie before it, and I love it for that. In Kong: Skull Island, death is death. It is blunt and horrific and it can come out of nowhere at absolutely any time. No one is safe in this movie. Characters die that you expect to live, moments of self-sacrifice are rendered totally meaningless. Because there’s nothing noble here. There’s just violence and fear and the impact that can have both on the people causing it and the environment—which is foreign and completely alien to them, also an un-subtle parallel—that they have been dropped into and immediately begin to destroy. It’s still playing with the conventions of the war movie. 

When a character is writing a letter home to his son, Billy, we know he’s not going to make it. But what we don’t expect is for other characters to pick up and keep adding to that letter, not to actually send it home, but as a way for them to admit the possibility that their own time is up. The letter becomes a way for each soldier to accept their fate, which totally subverts the lie that letter-writing in times of war evokes in the first place. Soldiers in movies are always writing letters to their loved ones telling them how much they miss them and can’t wait until they see them again, when the unspoken reality is that they could die at any second. In Skull Island, that’s totally inverted, as the letters become used to admit the certainty of death.

And then we have Kong himself standing in direct opposition to everyone else. Unlike the Monarch crew, who in their attempt to classify uncharted places are still pillaging natural resources, and the soldiers who are still trying to cling to the illusion of war, Kong just wants to be left alone. He’s a symbol of peace in this movie, but he’s also a peacekeeper whether he wants to be or not. Like so many themes, this is set up right at the beginning, when the only thing that keeps Marlow and Gunpei from killing each other when they first land on the island is coming face-to-giant-face with Kong for the first time. When the choice is made clearer and clearer for the soldiers whether they are going to stand with Packard in his misguided obsession or step back and pull themselves out of that almost cult-like devotion, that choice is represented in Kong. 

He’s the line in the sand. He’s Packard’s endgame, and the decision needs to be made whether to destroy this beast that was only protecting its home, or not. Finally, this comes full circle by the end, with Kong stepping forward to actively protect these humans—a huge gesture, considering they’ve been nothing but a pain in his ass—from the remaining Skull Crawlers. In doing so, the humans actively undo Kong’s own sense of peace, as his fight for island dominance against the Skull Crawlers had clearly been fought to a stalemate some time ago. That’s the trade-off. In ensuring the humans preserve their peace—and ensuring their survival as well—Kong loses the peace he had no doubt worked hard for. He’s pushed back into that fight for dominance, and even when he wins, things don’t get quiet for him again. Once Kong has killed the Skull Crawlers and truly cemented himself as “King,” he’s wild-eyed, almost feral, and declares it with an aggressive roar. Because now any threat could come to his door to take that title from him, and he’s been given a taste of that brutality.

The whole concept of peace is fascinating in Kong: Skull Island. Those that are given it don’t want it, and those that do want it only wind up having it stripped away from them. This is only a small part of what makes this film such a fascinating, shockingly complex blockbuster. You obviously hope going into a movie like this that there will be some larger theme, sure, but for the film to explore these themes so intimately—not to mention bluntly—remains a shock even four years later. It is not only the best Monsterverse movie to date, but one of the best IP-driven blockbusters of the last several years. Just like every Kong before it, it is wholly representative of the time in which it is set, as well as the time in which it was made, as it’s not like Vietnam capped America’s military industrial complex. And I love that this film is so sincere in its approach, I love the exploration of these themes as much as I love the monster fights. It will never not bring a smile to my face to think that we got such a stark deconstruction of military devotion, duty and the persistent hunger for an enemy to fight, no matter their face, in a flick about a giant CGI gorilla.

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