King Kong and the Empire State are synonymous in popular culture since their first appearance together in 1933’s King Kong to the 2005 Peter Jackson adaptation. The conquering of New York’s iconic edifice and short-lived dominance of the antihero over mankind – this was the Kong we knew. So, to have him ripped from the metropolitan city and supplanted in a realm where he reigns as a god, isn’t a question of his wreckage of our homes and lives, but a reversal of events – interchanged roles humanising what was once a mindless, rampaging monster. Never before has a reputation and myth been given to the beast since its American cinema premiere in 1933.
Set in 1973 amidst the US abandonment of war efforts in Vietnam, Warner Bros’ take paves the way for a sequel crossover by introducing Monarch, the secret scientific organisation teased in Godzilla (2014), conducting an expedition to a recently unveiled, previously unchartered Skull Island. As in most action-adventure thrillers, an expedition team is pieced together with William Randa (John Goodman) and his team of scientists, former S.A.S. tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and fallouts of the war effort who form a military escort led by Captain Packard (Samuel L. Jackson).
From the very beginning, the expedition party is very quickly swung into high-gear, dodging clichés with some unexpected losses that continue to whittle down the group as they traverse Skull Island. Shot in numerous low angles to frame Kong’s domineering presence and destructive force, the anti-hero’s few non-rage-mode, emotive moments give us a glimpse beyond the looming silhouette framed by a searing sunset and a lake set ablaze by napalm.
“Skull Island appears to have a magnetic draw for lost, disillusioned souls – a product of devastatingly painful experiences of loss, and a sense of purpose instilled by war.”
Unlike Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla remake, the framing of Kong’s character isn’t one that intimidates with the ‘unknown’. Instead, he appears bare in all his monstrous glory. The film enthusiastically attests to that, revealing very early on a glimpse of what we are dealing with. This has an unhinging effect, a disbelief that barely registers with many within the team. Setting the tone so soon holds promises of something bigger, that the wreckage some 20-odd minutes into the movie is, in fact, just the beginning. Kept at the edge of your seat for something to beat the sheer rage and carnage of the ensuing chopper standoff with Kong, the rest of the movie can be frustrating, with fluctuating attempts to establish a climatic rise.
The rivalry between Packard and Kong is evoked strongly as an all-consuming vengeance, goaded by pride and a desire to protect, respectively. In more ways than one, the expedition to Skull Island appears to have a magnetic draw for lost, disillusioned souls – a product of devastatingly painful experiences of loss and a sense of purpose instilled by war. The abrupt end of the war in Vietnam leaves Conrad floating around seedy watering holes in Southeast Asia, Packard questioning his purpose with the impending disbandment of his unit, and Randa taking the opportunity to pursue his outlandish ideas. The protagonists start with nothing to lose, and nothing to return home to.
From role mirrors in Kong’s main cast, to the dramatically saturated and highly contrasted scenes of a blazing red sun in the horizon, the silhouettes of a cluster of hovering choppers, and a particular scene in which the team encounters a village of natives, there are evident efforts to draw context for Skull Island from the complexity and drama of Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). We see Kurtz’s demi-god status within his renegade army in Kong’s reign over Skull island, little bits and pieces of Captain Willard in Packard, Captain Colby in Marlow and Conrad’s subdued position in the group as a navigator and essentially, auteur of their journey. Even though both movies are set in different worlds, the parallels that they share intersect where the characters in Kong appear to leave one warzone (in Apocalypse Now) only to enter another, trapped once more.
Though the link between a 2017 monster movie and Coppola’s cinematic triumph may be tenuous, what Skull Island’s connection to Apocalypse Now does surface is the condition of ‘finding purpose’. After having it assigned to you for so long, it all boils down to what you can hold on to, without falling into directionless insanity. War is like a movie in that everyone plays a role – from world leaders and celebrity war heroes playing the ‘leads’, to the cannon fodder who find themselves playing the ‘extras’ – only the consequences of these motion pictures are real. In this analogy, what happens after the credits roll? A desire that both Apocalypse Now’s Kurtz and Skull Island’s Chapman share is to have their stories passed down to the next generation, pursuing the question, ‘Who will remember our legacy and what we fought for?’ Those we wish to remember our legacies become the reasons we fight.