“Kong: Skull Island” – Now is the Time
My wife didn’t want to go with me to see Kong: Skull Island until I could answer one question:
“Kong doesn’t die, does he?”
This question, and its complex social and moral underpinnings, are indicative of why now is the second perfect period in history for kaiju.
During the first “perfect period”, back in the 1950s, these giant monsters represented a way to directly face our fears about the unintended consequences of atomic weapons and atomic power. The stories tended to involve the selective application of human force and ingenuity to exploit weaknesses or, later, to keep us out of the way as pairs and groups of these “consequences” vied for dominance. Our role was one of out-of-our-league spectatorism; we were learning our new (insignificant, overpowered, preyed-upon) place in a world filled with new incomprehensible dangers.
In the intervening years, we’ve learned how to be scared of all sorts of things, and how to metaphorize those fears on the screen in all sorts of weird and difficult-to-blog-about ways. And the events of the second half of the twentieth century caused us to form a hard carapace of cynicism just to get through the day. We grew too cynical to swallow all the suspension of disbelief required in order to get swept up in gigantic monsters in cities.
A big component of our cynicism were the special effects of the time. But we are emerging out of the era of rubber suits and shitty CGI. Simultaneously we find ourselves in a world increasingly given over to public discussions of the intersections between ecology, politics, military force, and cultural morality.
It is this combination of cultural forces which makes our time so fertile for complex tales of large beasts laying waste. We have evolved (or, if you prefer, mutated) into a society which is no longer satisfied with flashy tales about killing the big bad wolf. We now take the time to consider, must it die? Just because it is weird and violent, does that mean it’s “bad”?
Kong places its narrative sensibilities right in the middle of this postmodern ethical thicket. Kong is a beast originally from 1933, before the “atomic monster” craze, and so he brings with him a certain elder-statesman caché; his contributions as a character to the modern kaiju discourse carry a richer, deeper perspective. The “beats” of this film’s arguments are not particularly original, but the characters make them from the film’s setting in the early 1970s, which puts a whole new historical torque on the thing, bringing up then-topical concepts like interventionism, manifest destiny, and the military-industrial complex.
But none of that would have any teeth with a modern audience if we weren’t discussing them in terms of humanity’s treatment of nature. This was the core of my wife’s question, because it has been made brutally clear through decades of art and media that not only is “man” NOT the master of the earth, “he” is probably the worst qualified creature for the job.
The ecological tack through the argument of “what to do with kaiju” was hinted at in the second act of 2014’s Godzilla, I film that I adore and frankly was the bar that Kong failed to meet in terms of quality and emotional thrills. But the one thing that Kong does better (or takes further) is (attempt to) drive home the message that when a monster kills a human, that is not automatically a tragedy. It is immoral to see the natural functioning of Earth’s systems as some sort of “wrong” to be “righted” via the application of chemical and mechanical violence. In this case, it is our very tendency to apply our morality that makes us immoral.
But let’s get down to brass tacks. It is not the coherence of moral arguments that puts butts in the seats. Let’s talk about His Highness himself.
Okay, they made him much bigger in pretty much every dimension, and that works. That was part of the recipe for the new Godzilla too, and there is an undeniable short-of-breathedness that is achieved when you are already expecting something big and then they give you something bigger. We are so used to not being surprised anymore, and the greatest gift that Hollywood can give us is to show that we are not yet completely dead inside.
But there have been undeniable changes to the great ape’s design. Traditionally, Mr. Kong has been portrayed in popular culture as some variant of the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei): big head, huge rounded shoulders, and more apt to be on all fours than on two.
But now in his current incarnation, they’ve given him these long spindly legs and a tiny head. And he spends a preponderance of time upright on two legs, even when he’s not fighting. To me, he resembles a slightly hairier version of the bonobo (Pan paniscus):
This redesign is an error on a number of axes. The bonobo frame is slender, which better accommodates its two most famous evolutionary differentiators: the willingness to walk upright while carrying items in the hands (which we see Kong do), and the tendency to resolve social conflicts through sex instead of aggression (not at all Kong’s tendency, at least not in the version I saw).
I’m sure the thinking was to try to slide Kong along the cladogram a bit closer to humans, the better to make the point about the connection between humanity and nature. But the decision they landed on does not succeed cinematically because of this intersection of form and function. Perhaps the better species to emulate would have been the chimpanzee with its bitching trapezius muscles. But sadly, the new Planet of the Apes franchise has cornered the modern market on homicidal chimps.
Kong does succeed in one crucial area: serious violence. Another unique aspect about our current era is that we have lost our willingness to celebrate large-scale acts of destruction, in large part due to the new place that terrorism holds in popular consciousness. This was the main failure of Jackson’s King Kong from 2005; in its devotion to recapturing the classic exuberance of “popcorn disasters”, it came across as deaf to the fact that its audience had actually SEEN, first-hand in many cases, what unchecked rage can do to the streets of New York City.
It was Cloverfield that taught us the new semiotics of widescale destruction. Namely, it’s not supposed to be fun anymore. When a beast lashes out, we should see bodies fall and mothers scream. We should see the eyes of the doomed just before impact. The sound should be mixed such that we can separate the mass of screams into individual tragedies.
Godzilla nailed this, and Kong does too. Every death is sick-making, and that serves to widen the film’s dramatic impact. In this new disaster movie vernacular, violence is used not to demonstrate the power and threat of the antagonist, but to deepen the tragic motivations of the heroes. It also serves to sharpen the conflict between nature-as-enemy and nature-as-responsibility.
In other words, modern kaiju films are like a socially conscious Death Wish scaled up .
This is, just to make my opinion clear, fantastic. It grounds and humanizes the drama, and makes the film a meatier and more emotionally thrilling experience. As a side-effect, the PG-13 rating is “hardened” quite a bit, and we are at risk of “evolving” our tastes to a point where children soon won’t have an acceptable way to watch mass killings. Maybe this is what we want.
The writing is bad, Tom Hiddleston is miscast and wasted, and the CGI is underwhelming. But Kong is nevertheless a beautiful and worthy stepping stone on this new path being hacked through the action movie jungle. We’re going to see a lot more like it before the zeitgeist changes, and we’re going to wonder how we ever saw these beasts any other way.