Thursday, June 27, 2019
KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*
And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, I'm going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive - a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.-- Carl Denham, KING KONG, (1933)
It's time to show Kong that man is king!-- Preston Packard, KSI (2017)
Without question, the best aspect of KONG: SKULL ISLAND (henceforth KSI) is that it dispenses with one of the main themes of the '33 classic: Kong's doomed fascination with a girl from the wrong side of the species-tracks. This theme, reduced to dumb parody in the 1976 remake and to crude biological reductionism in the 2005 version, seems to be one that more modern filmmakers simply can't get, so KSI takes a wise course by eschewing "the girl in the hairy paw."
Instead, the four writers of KSI and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts pick one of the less celebrated themes of the 1933 original: the inevitable battle between the primordial and the modern. The 1933 film makes clear that Kong is top dog on his island, capable of meeting any challenge there, but as Carl Denham says, in modern civilization Kong becomes the captive of his punier but better equipped hypothetical descendants.
Further, this powerful myth-theme-- largely ignored in the original's only true sequel, SON OF KONG-- takes on several new connotations. The most pervasive change is that the new Kong's saga is now a part of a greater cosmos, that of Legendary Pictures' "Monsterverse," merging the prehistoric monarch with the titanic kaiju of Japanese cinema. In the interest of forging this universe of godlike monsters, Skull Island is not just an island where a lot of dinosaurs survive, but a gateway into the depths of the Earth, where innumerable levithans still thrive.
I chose not to review KSI when I first screened it, in part because I knew it was a big part of the Monsterverse setup. The first film in the series, 2014's GODZILLA, just barely sets forth the basic rationale, while 2019's GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS more fully develops the concept of the monster-filled underworld, first used in Toho Picture's initial Godzilla picture in 1954. Once I re-screened both of these films, I felt better able to assess how Legendary re-imagined the Kong franchise.
For one thing, the fate of Toho's monsters is never as tragically inevitable as is the fate of Kong. Even when they perish, as does the original Godzilla of 1954, they're often replaced by virtual simulacra of the originals, as happened with both Godzilla and Rodan, for two. This falls in line with the ambiguous ending of the '54 GOJIRA, where it's suggested that even after Godzilla's defeat some other denizen of the underworld will arise to chastise unrepentant humankind.
One reason for the difference is that the original works for Kong and Godzilla mirror their societies in different ways. In the world of the '33 KONG, the World War has been over for some time, and the major societal threat is the economy, not the horrors of war. America's military might only surfaces at the end of the story when knightly fighter-pilots engage the Big Ape in combat. Japan in '54, though, was still a defeated country, and one defeated in large part by a radical new technology, rather than by force of arms.
In order to reframe Kong's world to make him face a military threat as the kaiju-titans do, KSI's script brilliantly comes up with introducing the New Kong at the close of America's first major military defeat: the end of the country's involvement in Vietnam in 1973. True, KSI can be fairly criticized or fishing a little too often from the APOCALYPSE NOW well. One characters is named "Marlow" after the narrator of both APOCALYPSE and its literary inspiration Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS, while another character is named after author Conrad. There's no character named after the story's pivotal character Kurtz, but Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) takes over Kurtz's role in KSI as the representative of civilization's corrupt desire to "exterminate all the brutes." Still, even though there are too many "big C's" in KSI-- Conrad, Coppola, and the Credence Clearwater Revival-- the idea of juxtaposing Kong with the end of Vietnam is an inspired choice.
The '33 KONG concerns the activities of civilians, led by ambitious entrepreneur Carl Denham. KSI has a Denham-figure in Bill Randa (John Goodman), but he's not a showman, except insofar that he wants to "show" the world the truth about the titans beneath the earth. (And even Randa has a military association, since he was the only survivor of an earlier titan attack.) Yet, although the civilians in KSI play some important roles in understanding Kong's nature, the script is really all about the Big Ape's conflict with the military detachment led by Packard. Though Packard is brought along on the Skull Island expedition simply to serve as protection for the civilians, the colonel's actions end up getting some of his men killed by the hostile anthropoid. From then on, Packard transfers all of his frustration over the "abandoned" war in Vietnam to killing the King of Skull Island. Packard fails in much the same way that the Japanese military in GOJIRA fails to slay its enemy, and Packard can't pull an Oxygen Destroyer out of his deus ex machina.
I should also note that Kong, too, is an ape dedicated to war. This island lord doesn't ask his worshipers to give him virgin sacrifices to devour. Like Randa, Kong is a last survivor, since his people were slaughtered by some of the nastier denizens of the under-earth: big lizards called "Skull Crawlers." The Crawlers, like the other inhabitants of the island, lack Kong's mythic resonance, but at least they do provide an ever-present threat to the eco-system, against which Kong had to be (to borrow the JFK quote) "eternally vigilant."
Lastly, though many of the characters are forgettable as characters, the script does give all of the actors at least decent lines. The one civilian character who's as important to the narrative as Packard is Hank Marlow, an American soldier stranded on the island since World World II. Marlow, unlike Packard, has learned the true nature of Kong's role, in part because Marlow has listened to the pacific natives, the Iwis. Marlow also gets the film's funniest lines, but his best contribution is that he represents an earlier concept of the soldier. Marlow fought for his country to promote peace at home, and while Packard claims to be "the Thin Blue Line" protecting civilians from chaos, it's evident that he really wants to kill Kong for his own sense of empowerment.
KSI is probably too derivative to be more than just a good blockbuster-film with some vivid scenes and a little thought-provoking materials. Still, the film shows far more respect for its source material than most current superhero films do. Thus, even though Legendary's two Godzilla films are not quite as well conceived as KSI, the success at re-imagining the King of Skull Island bodes well for next year's confrontation between the respective kaiju-lords of America and Japan.