It is not often we receive an adaptation worthy of our time. We have not received one for the King of the Jungle in close to ninety years. Kong: Skull Island, initially impressed me. Popcorn entertainment applied thickly and with real grace to the big screen. How fast our memories fade. But what was it about this piece from Jordan Vogt-Roberts that I had initially liked? Simply put, the Vietnam historian within me was compelled by the setting and build-up, and I was spurred on by a love for the strong actors found in this ensemble. It is not often you get to see John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson together, and I was not going to let a pesky Monsterverse shtick stand in my way of seeing strong supporting performances.
There are obvious and immediate detractions. Bureaucracy and politics are brought into the mixture, not out of interest for the iconography or feel of the tumultuous Richard Nixon presidency, but to set up the random bodies of vague and shifty governments that would monitor monsters in the future. A general sense of Americanisation is present, glossing over the real horrors of young men being sent off to die. In its place, a camaraderie that was undoubtedly there, but never appearing as often as this. These boys are presented as heroes happy to die for their country, and it is with these obvious tonal inconsistencies with reality that Vogt-Roberts’ subtext is questionably poor. His grasp of what limited realism a King Kong movie can provide is worrying, not just because of its washing away of history, but because he uses it as a way to express a unity that these characters should have, but do not.
No matter how hard he tries, he will never be able to unite the idea of the Vietnam War to a team heading into unexplored regions of the world, pillaging lands and performing science. Still, there are characters worthy of study. Samuel L. Jackson’s performance here is integral to the success of Kong: Skull Island and the layers of fun it hides within. He is one of the few characters who could benefit from the subtext of Vietnam, yet, ironically, is the furthest away from it. He embodies, as Jackson considered in an interview, a figure of Captain Ahab. He is a man alone, looking for revenge against a beast he has no knowledge or way of conquering and capturing. It is not fully realised, but I appreciate the effort he and the rest of the cast put in here, for it is not all at a loss. The moments of destruction and cinematography offered with Kong are stupendous. “Is that a monkey?” one inquisitive pilot asks as he flies by the towering, ancient beast. That it is, but it is of no real threat. The only threat here is the one made to the narrative.
For all its clunky devices though, Vogt-Roberts understands how to keep his ensemble connected. By separating them. He uses this to an instinctive advantage, able to divide and conquer as he sees fit. Jackson leads one group, Hiddleston a second, and the two shall inevitably meet, yet follow different paths. It gives Kong: Skull Island the variety it needs to work, and much of it is necessary. For if one topic or story does not work, there are three or four others in the back catalogue ready to go. Kong not your cup of tea? Fine, follow along with the backstory Goodman provides for future instalments, the Second World War commentary with John C. Reilly or the Captain Ahab and Moby Dick comparisons between Jackson and Kong. For every poor idea, there are at least stronger choices elsewhere that come across as solid, but not inspired.
Vietnam is used more as a backdrop to stories that do not need it than it is as a compelling narrative crutch. Happenstance it may be, the real reason for this setting is merely to present a passage of time for the Monsterverse, Vogt-Roberts just manages to pull off a disgustingly shoddy representation of this era along the way. It is annoying, especially when taking over the character arcs with shots of Nixon bobbleheads or the constant reminders of conflict far away. A false pretence that inspires a layer of history and respect to the age-old discoveries of the planet. It would work better if clever heads had prevailed. Hollywood plays ball with the modern obsession of neon lights and heavy-hitting, thick dialogue, but does not forget to throw in a few moments of madness and monster-clad explosions in for good measure. Look past the subtle, useless connotations of Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, and instead revel in the big-budget bravado of this modern Kong reimagining.