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Why 'Kong: Skull Island' isn't as bad as people think

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It’s been more than a decade since Peter Jackson dazzled us with a mighty ape and a zoo of horrifying animals in his 2005 reboot of King Kong. Jackson brought the memorable beauty-and-beast romance to life through a motion capture performance delivered by the incredibly dedicated actor Andy Serkis. The new monster epic, Kong: Skull Island, has gathered an equally talented cast: you will see Oscar winner Brie Larson, an unusually buff Tom Hiddleston, the fun and humorous John C. Reilly and hear the awesome voice of Samuel L. Jackson, not to mention Jing Tian, who has previously starred in Zhang Yimou’s monster epic—The Great Wall.

While Skull Island has pretty much revitalized everything you liked about Jackson’s King Kong— guns, action scenes, jungle chase, monster fights and the tenderly romantic encounter between Kong and the little lady, the film’s story and its thematic approach marks a considerable diversion. Here we have a story set at the lowest ebb of the Vietnam War. A secret task force agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) launches a campaign to map out an uncharted land named Skull Island. His squad consists of a former British air captain James Conrad (Hiddleston), a military colonel Preston Packard (Jackson) and a pacifist photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson). The team begins their adventure on the island inhabited by otherworldly beasts after being welcomed by the enormous primate who is set to defend his home against foreign incursions. Far from being slavishly loyal to its predecessors, the film establishes its unique narrative and visual styles.

For one thing, the backdrop of Vietnam War creates the premise for a meaningful discourse on the dehumanization effects of war. “There’ll never be a more screw-up time in Washington,” remarks Bill Randa as he gets off the taxi in Washington. The United States finds it hard to accept the humiliation of a conceded defeat on the global stage. “We didn’t lose the war; we abandoned it,” said one of the characters beautifully at the military camp in Vietnam. Randa suggests that America needs an easy victory somewhere, anywhere. And so thinks Colonel Packard—a character who goes crazy later in the film. Dehumanized by the war, Packard does not accept defeat and its humiliation. So when a supposedly easy mission turns horribly wrong, Packard set off to kill Kong in the name of revenge. His character bears striking resemblance to lieutenant Bill Kilgore in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979)—a classic re-narration of Heart of Darkness in the context of Vietnam War. In Coppola’s film, Kilgore is addicted to the war only because he enjoys being the victor- whatever that means. The manner in which Kilgore destroys a Vietcong village with napalm is just as the same as the ways in which Packard’s team senselessly drop bombs on the island. As Placard remarks, “Love the smell of napalm in the morning.” The war makes them dehumanize their enemies, turning Packard into a bloodthirsty animal whose sole purpose in the story is to seek vengeance and destroy Kong.

Indeed, the reboot pays its homage to Apocalypse Now to an astonishing degree. Hiddleston’s character shares the last name as Joseph Conrad—author of Heart of Darkness. Reilly’s goofy captain who is marooned on the island shares the last name with Charles Marlow, narrator of Heart of Darkness. The movie contains several motifs from the Coppola film too—a captain stranded on the island with the natives, a team of people exploring the unknown on a boat down the river, not to mention the familiar aviator sunglasses, slow motion helicopter blade, fireball-looking sun and burning jungles.

In addition, Larry Fong’s cinematography adds a beautifully exotic touch to the unknown world. The brilliant use of the color orange throughout the film not only pays tribute to Apocalypse Now, but also augment the senses of toxicity in the atmosphere and the danger hidden everywhere on the island.

Alongside Brie Larson, Jing Tian plays a biologist with only eleven lines in the movie. Speaking with strongly accented English, Miss Jing’s character is one of sheer awkwardness and embarrassment, unable to engage in any meaningful conversation with her teammates or at least propel the plot forward. The purpose of her character is totally unclear, except maybe to add some racial diversity to the supporting cast. However, it is perhaps more sensible to understand her character as an odd product of trans-national movie projects, a trick to pander the movie in China’s market, since one of the three major companies investing in the film—Tencent Pictures—is based in China.

Nonetheless, the film’s repeated references to Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now and the careful mix between an action blockbuster and an anti-war theme provide enough substance for the audiences to chew on. The movie signals a paradigm shift from pure romance to something much darker and deeper, while keeping its gore, violence and horror-film frights. While I do not contend that this is the best King Kong ever made, it is certainly a very different and unique version worth seeing.

Robin Wang is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "movie big mouth" runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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