Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing
Director of Photography: Larry Fong
Music by Henry Jackman
Edited by Richard Pearson
Written by Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Rating: 7 out of 10

Kong: Skull Island is an incredibly old-fashioned movie dressed up as a modern day spectacle. It has everything you’d expect from this kind of movie but, apart from some amazing shots, not much more. It is entertaining but never surprising. Its cast is mostly wasted on stock characters we have seen a million times doing things we have seen as often. The effects, the score, the cinematography and the production design are great but the script often can’t decide where to go and often stays in familiar places. Overall, the movie was better than I would have expected but worse than the reviews suggested. If you’re a fan of monster movies, you’ll probably enjoy it. If you have a problem with problematic depictions of indigenous people or animals, maybe less so.

The movie suffers somewhat from a standard case of speciesism, meaning treating animals in a different way based on their species. This has been a pretty common practice in movies forever but I find it somewhat disheartening in 2017. This is an island full of gigantic creatures. Spiders, insects, lizards and octopi are all weird, non-cute animals, so they are aggressive and can be killed (or slurped, in the octopus’ case) without hesitation. A giant yak-like buffalo is majestic and beautiful, so it is peaceful and worth admiring. It all boils down to the fact that humans can decide who gets to live or die and speciesism serves as a justification for doing that.

Then there is also Kong, of course, the big gorilla, first seen as an aggressive attacker, then as a soulful protector. He is humanized to a degree that is awkward, as he rarely walks or acts like an actual gorilla but more like a man in a gorilla suit. They can’t even resist going down the road of him being fascinated by the white woman (Brie Larson), which is more or less the only thing she gets to do. Has King Kong always been considered a black native who sees the white woman as something so exotic and fascinating that he feels a rudimentary desire? I had never thought of it that way before but here, in connection with the depiction of the natives (more on that in a second) he seems like a simple-minded, good-hearted man who only follows his instincts, a kind of noble savage who seems doomed to a tragic life. Again, the sad thing is not only the trope itself but that it is still used.

Which brings me to the natives themselves. At first, the movie seems to try out something more progressive. Normally, natives are savages with strange rituals and superstitious beliefs. When Hank (John C. Reilly) introduces them, he makes it, for a moment, actually sound like they have a way of life that seems preferable to our way of life. “They have no crime,” he says “and they don’t care about possessions. They left all of this behind themselves.” Sure, that last part is semantically odd because they probably haven’t really been there and decided to get rid of materialism and crime, but those are still features that are generally true of tribal people. So, does the movie actually try to view them in a positive light, actually treat their way of a life as an alternative, as something we can learn from?

No, of course not. None of them ever smile or speak, so that they remain a vague mystery to be examined from the outside. Mason (Larson) takes many photographs of them, smiling at their cute native-ness and admiring their ability to keep straight faces. They become tokens of civilizational arrogance, belittled by never granting them any real life or culture. They might be great people, but in the movie’s mind they still remain strange natives who need a giant monkey to protect them. And Hank, who praises them at first, who lived with them for 28 years (28!), still wears his same 1945 clothes and still can’t imagine anything better than a hot dog and a baseball game. He spent 28 years unwilling to adapt to their lifestyles which he supposedly admires. But it mostly comes down to little jokes about them, so that we realize that even he, who knows them best, cannot do more than chuckle about their weird ways. The more I think about it, the angrier this colonial condescendence makes me. It’s not Dead Man’s Chest, but it still emphasizes the same stereotypes our culture always has about tribal people.

And in the end, this is still a movie in which the white male humorless hero (Tom Hiddleston) saves the day and the charismatic black general (Samuel L. Jackson) can only be unreasonable and dangerous to the rest of the team. The best shot in the movie features Preston (Jackson) and Kong and a lot of fire. What it could have been was to have Preston see something in Kong that he recognizes from himself, identifying with Kong and taking him more seriously than anyone else. The moment has the potential of going this endlessly unconventional and fascinating way. Instead it is supposed to signify the moment in which Preston swears to go down the road of revenge, no matter the cost, the road we have seen endless times and which dooms this black man’s fate.

There is another black man, a scientist named Houston (Corey Hawkins), who has one of the more interesting roles, although he is as underwritten as most of the characters. His motivations are not quite clear and he ends up with the only Asian character, San (Tian Jing), who spends the whole movie standing around, carrying a big gun, saying about three sentences and kissing the only other ethnic minority that survives the movie.

Is this a bad movie? No, but it is filled with bad tropes and cringe-worthy stereotypical stock characters. It loves it references (Apocalypse Now!) and its monsters, but under its cool modern surface it’s mostly old-fashioned values.