In the vein of how “Apocalypse Now” filtered Joseph Conrad’s observations in “Heart of Darkness” on human nature through the specificity of warfare, “Kong: Skull Island” filters the concerns in “King Kong” (the 1933 original and 2005 remake) about hubris and man’s relationship with nature through the lens of the Vietnam War. It’s a creative idea, and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts seems to have great fun aping imagery from “Apocalypse Now”, and music and character archetypes from various other Vietnam War films. It doesn’t go as far as Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” did and have a character outright read “Heart of Darkness”, but there are allusions here and there, like a primary character’s surname being “Conrad”.
In many ways, “Kong: Skull Island” feels like a vastly more successful execution of the experiment of the 1976 “King Kong” remake, trying to address specific modern concerns through the premise, basic story, and character archetypes of the original film. Yes, the Vietnam War is hardly modern, but the film’s critique of interventionism, the arrogance driving belief in unwinnable wars, and general interest in unfettered warfare is still applicable today. The reasons for setting the film in the 1970s are also at least partly mechanical, given the film sets up for a future “Monsterverse” with Godzilla and various other kaiju.
Larry Fong’s cinematography is brilliant in terms of how he explores framing the scale of the monsters, the way he plays with visual references to past films (the film frequently returns to varying the “helicopters against the sun” shot from “Apocalypse Now”), and the general heightened beauty he brings to shots both emotional and standard. The film never surpasses its first big setpiece, Kong fighting the helicopters, but the creative monster designs and well-paced story keeps things chugging along nicely.
John C. Reilly makes for a very fun riff on the Kurtz archetype. Samuel L. Jackson gets to embody the bulk of the most pointedly thematic material, pursuing the great ape he projects his anxieties about the Vietnam War (not lost, but “abandoned”, he insists) onto.
A Warner Bros blockbuster with cinematography by Larry Fong that reaches, sometimes haphazardly, for ambitious political themes amidst larger-than-life action sequences – why does this feel all so familiar? It will be interesting to see if the upcoming “Godzilla vs. Kong” will also be reminiscent of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” beyond just the name. In any case, this is an eminently watchable blockbuster, with some fun creative choices. I give it three and a half Skullcrawlers, and a water buffalo.