Ape-pocalypse Now!

Kong as a love-sick Beast? That’s so yesterday. Try Kong as Assad in the age of rampant American interventionism. Review by guest writer S.B. Toh.

FORGET that tale as old as time – of Ann and Kong, Blonde and the Other, of civilisation and savagery, wherein Beauty killed the Beast.

Forget the impossible attraction and sexual tension, the allusion to colonialism and slavery, racism, and miscegenation – the white man’s burden and his anxieties writ extra large. It’s 2017 now, and we’re well past all that.

So it’s just as well that with Kong: Skull Island, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has torn up the old playbook and rebooted the story of the giant gorilla.

In this movie, the American military machine takes centre stage, promising to bring an unruly Skull Island to heel.

What you get is a militarised retelling that relocates the story to the 1970s, complete with a band of brothers, a hard-boiled attitude, a squadron of bomb-dropping Hueys, and that unshakeable American conviction that you can bomb the world and make it a better place –all while tap-tapping your feet to infectious rock & roll numbers.

Lock & load, baby. What could possibly go wrong?

But things do go south quickly once the bullets fly and the bombs burst.

In short order, the Americans learn that 1) Kong is the tyrant of Skull Island, but also its protector, 2) the islanders look up to Kong, and 3) if you kill Kong, you unleash the real monsters, which he is suppressing.

And there you have it – the eureka moment, the crux of the movie.

Kong as Assad. Or Gaddafi, or Saddam, or what have you, with the story reconfigured as a critique of America’s trigger-happy foreign policy, its serial humanitarian intervention and regime change.

It’s a startling revelation.

One expects only a monster mash and a CGI fest, a mindless, juvenile romp, but then the filmmakers throw in a nice side serving of trenchant political commentary into the bargain. An anti-war movie disguised as a monster movie?

Brilliant.

Kong: Skull Island is set at the tail-end of the Vietnam War, with the Americans in retreat – its fearsome war machine halted. Still, the prevalent feeling is that they didn’t lose the war, but had been prevented from winning it.

When John Goodman’s Bill Randa, an agent with Monarch, an obscure government agency, puts together an expedition to Skull Island and requests military escort, Samuel L. Jackson’s Lt General Packard is happy to oblige.

In fact, it doesn’t take long before he sees his latest mission as a shot at redemption.

Tom “Loki” Hiddlestone’s ex-soldier James Conrad signs up as the group’s tracker, Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver does what photographers do best: embed, while Chinese actress Jing Tian contributes literally Tencent’s worth to the proceedings as the token Chinese presence for the yuuge China market, courtesy of Chinese production company Tencent Pictures.

As soon as the motley crew descends on the island, they put on a show of shock and awe, with Packard’s choppers taking to the sky and doing bombing runs.

Ostensibly, this is to get seismic readings for a picture of the island’s subterranean topography. But really, they must be just out to raise hell.

Cue the whir of rotor blades, the clockwork aerial formations, the sonic booms of ordnance, the riff of guitar. And everybody beaming. Until Kong shows up and wipes the smile off everybody’s face.

He makes a grand entrance by hurling a tree onto the path of a Huey, then proceeding to swat the rest out of the sky.

In the mayhem, the expedition is split into two groups: a largely civilian one led by Conrad and the military squad commanded by Packard. It’s a divide that also neatly extends to ideological outlooks.

With Packard vowing revenge on Kong, the soldiers – nose hard, mind closed – battle their way through the jungle to reunite with a lost crewman. And to kill Kong. The civilians, meanwhile, make contact with the locals and meet Marlow (John C. Reilly), a WWII fighter pilot marooned on the island for the last 28 years.

So Conrad meets Marlow, and a crazed commander pursues a smart monstrous adversary?

Kong: Skull Island is Moby Dick meets the Heart of Darkness, with the story coming full circle for Marlow, who is now trying to make his way back to civilisation, lessons learnt.

Kong a monster? Marlow will have none of it.

“He’s king around here. Kong’s a pretty good king, keeps to himself mostly. But you don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs unless you’re looking for a fight,” he admonishes.

The real threat to everyone, says Marlow, are the skullcrawlers – voracious, man-eating giant lizards with atrocious table manners.

So kill Kong or save Kong?

Do facts matter when feelings have hardened and positions have become entrenched? Unable to agree, the two groups clash even as the Skullcrawlers, stirred by the bombs, climb out of the bowels of the Earth to wreak havoc on one and all.

What ensues is a battle royale – monster on monster, man on monster, man on man. What a giant pile of mess. And what a load of fun too.

Kong: Skull Island is at heart a popcorn movie, and it is unabashed about what it is. It’s breezy and pacey, doesn’t take itself seriously, and doles out generous servings of eye candy and action.

And while the real star is undoubtedly Kong and the special effects, the actors do enough to give the movie a human touch, with the movie sparing us any kind of “psychologising” drama.

Larson, as the anti-war photographer, is a rock – at once flinty and sympathetic; Hiddleston is understated and likeable, and that will do, while Jackson gives an unhinged performance that’s cartoonish but also somehow strangely riveting.

The real treat, though, is in the movie’s unexpected blend of smart political commentary and loopy monster moves. It’s a rare thing this, but Vogt-Roberts and his team of screenwriters have pulled it off with aplomb.

Bravo.

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