Kong: Skull Island turned out to be a pleasant surprise to notoriously scrupulous film critic Emad El-Din Aysha, given his general distaste of sequels and remakes. We don't think we have ever seen him this excited about anything!
I almost didn’t want to watch this movie, knowing what sequels and remakes are like. But I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised. Very pleasantly surprised!
It’s got a good cast of old-timers and newcomers, the soundtrack is exciting and militaristic, there’s plenty of humour in the air and the special effects are ‘great’, even after what we saw in Paul Jackson’s King Kong (2005). Kong is very threatening here – his teeth seem bigger, but is also more human, walking upright throughout with very thoughtful expressions.
Furthermore, the director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, helps recreate the kind of lost exotic world of the King Kong classic, but not in a patronising way that parades the white man’s burden. Here the natives are the real heroes and the Westerners have to learn from them. Or as one character puts it, “East is best, west is worst!”
The air is as thick with meaning as it is with tropical humidity and this is a must-see, especially for Arab audiences.
A Jungle of Motifs
The movie opens with a scene from World War II, with two airmen landing on a deserted island in the South Pacific; an American and a Japanese fighting each other senselessly till they find a common cause – staying alive in the face of the giant gorilla (Toby Kebbell).
This harks back to Hell in the Pacific (1968) and Enemy Mine (1985). It’s not an ‘imitation’ of those classic movies, mind you, but using them as visual reference points to help the audience crammed in the movie theatres (Whose complaining?!). Then you fast forward to the present, which is 1973, with President Nixon pulling out of Vietnam. You have seasoned and underrated actor John Goodman playing Bill Randa, the head of some secretive programme called MONARCH, getting permission from a Senator to head off on a scientific expedition to the legendary Skull Island, trailing an assistant behind him, the African American Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins).
Randa asks for a military escort and gets disgruntled, disillusioned Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a guy not so eager to head back home with the end of the war. When his helicopter crew take the scientists to the island, they raise all hell dropping seismic charges onto it – you can ‘see’ how much they enjoy the destruction in a sequence reminiscent of Apocalypse Now (1979). When the scientists meet the one remaining airman, Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), and the natives, you feel like you’re watching Martin Sheen making his way to Kurtz’s compound and meeting Dennis Hopper with the tribesmen.
The one member of the crew who is not so eager on this mission is Mills (Jason Mitchell). All he wants is to head back home to his ‘island’, Key West, which he is reminded isn’t an island. It’s a Key, after all.
This is the island motif Americans are very fond off, seeing their country not as a continent but as an island, with problems washing up on its shores – Lyndon Johnson actually said that, to justify international interventionism. If you watch Minority Report, you have an island in the end sequence, where they’re keeping the precogs in happy isolation. Same thing goes for Spielberg’s other classic, Jaws, set on Amity Island.
You’re probably wondering now about the peculiar timing of the story line. Why the 1970s? You get a hint when the camera-woman on the missions, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), describes herself as an ‘embedded’ journalist. That’s a clear reference to the Iraq War and the endless attempts of the US government to placate the media to get the people to put up with their boys coming back in body bags.
It didn’t work in Vietnam, luckily, thanks to people like her. She agrees to go on the mission specifically because she’s been fed government lies about it – Packard accuses the media of losing them the war, saying a camera is more dangerous than a gun. So all of this is alluding to post-9/11 America, with the lessons of the past being dredged up in the face of the latest would-be nationalist in the White House, Mr. Trump. The movie is marshalling the US not to hold a grudge. People need to reconcile their differences, or else, they’ll take the path to self-destruction. Another motif used in the movie is the famous Indian legend about the lion with a thorn in its paw, who was helped out by the puny mouse. The most eager for war, Cole (Shea Whigham), thinks the story is about the mouse killing the lion with the thorn!
Note the presence of the Englishman, the rescue expert and former special forces man James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston); he might as well have called him Joseph ‘Conrad’. He comes from an older, wiser country, and is the voice of reason in the crew. Not surprisingly, he hits it off with Weaver, and she helps him put his own military past behind him – He has an RAF cigarette lighter from his father, a WWII hero, and she uses it to blow up one of the lizard beasts. You never see the lighter again, meaning he’s no longer saddled with that set of expectations to live up to; Britain’s finest hour. She’s also the socially responsible journalist. She pledges not to expose the truth of Skull Island to the world to keep its inhabitants safe, and helps a giant animal injured by the fallen helicopter. Kong sees her and realises that she is not his enemy and rescues her in the end whilst fighting his foe, the giant skull lizard that massacred his family.
When Kong shows up the first time, he pulverises the helicopters and kills most of Packard’s men, so Packard insists on revenge, getting even more of his men killed. John Goodman’s character is on a quest for revenge himself, having lost his own crew to the beasts on the island when he was enlisted during WWII. Fortunately, by the end of the movie everybody gets reconciled, crossing racial boundaries.
A trigger happy white boy calls his fellow African American soldiers ‘bros’, while Brooks hitches up with the biologist on the team, the very Chinese actress Tian Jing. And don’t forget the fighter pilot, Marlow, who came to see the Japanese airman as his brother – a reference to getting over Pearl Harbour, which was like 9/11 in its days. Or is that the other way around?
The nosey, noisy Americans dropping bombs into Kong’s territory is meant to signify the US intervening where it doesn’t belong, angering the natives, and making enemies when they should be looking for allies – Marlow is shocked to discover the Americans are in a Cold War with the Russians, their allies against Hitler. Or as Cole himself says, “Sometimes, the enemy does not exist... until you are looking for one.”
Note also that the ship that takes them all to Skull Island is a converted oil tanker called the ‘Athena’. Like I said, a must see for us Arabs. To be honest, this movie is so good, even if we were the bad guys in it, I’d still advise you to watch it!
*The views expressed in this article are the author's and don't necessarily reflect Cairo Scene's.