Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island is the kind of film that makes you wonder what everyone involved was thinking, including some generally good actors (Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman, John C. Reilly). It’s a hot mess of a film—incoherent, pointless, lots of execrable writing and wooden acting. And it gratuitously and shamelessly pulls from other (better) films—notably Jaws (1975) and Jurassic Park (1993).
Kong does say much about how horror films (and maybe life) work, however. Cast as a kind of reboot of the first King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933), Kong shows how utterly bound to the need for borders and for “others” the horror film tradition is.
In King Kong, Kong himself was the “other,” living on the far side of a large wall designed to keep him away from the humans on Skull Island—and there’s little to no recognition of human kinship between the principal characters of the film and the giant ape: Ann (Fay Wray) screams any time he comes near her; he is captured and exhibited as spectacle on a stage; and he’s shot when he escapes.
Kong: Skull Island is an updated version of this narrative designed for the increasing diversity of the early 21st century. Whereas in the 1933 film the (all white) main characters were sharply divided not only from Kong but also from Skull Island’s (black) natives, the array of humans who encounter Kong on Skull Island in the latest incarnation are racially diverse—white, African American, Hispanic, and Asian America. There’s even a sub-plot that includes the decades-long friendship between an American and a Japanese fighter pilot, both of whom were forced to parachute onto Skull Island, and who bonded in the face of the island’s greater monsters. The American pilot has also become an integral part of the island’s native tribe. The film writes out and off, in short, any divisions based on identity (race, nation, gender) among its human characters.
Skull Island also brings Kong himself into the fold, marking the increasing propensity, since the 1930s, to humanize animals (of which the Planet of the Apes franchise is the clearest example). The natives on Skull Island don’t offer human sacrifices to a Kong they fear (as in the 1933 film). Instead, Kong is their savior, having protected them from the much worse threat on the island.
And that’s where this film draws the line—the line that’s the lifeblood of horror. For there are indeed monsters on Skull Island, even though that monster is not, anymore, Kong himself. The island is inhabited by underground reptilian monsters dubbed “skullcrawlers,” who mindlessly seek to destroy both the apes and the humans of Skull Island. They’re already destroyed all of Kong’s family, leaving him as the sole survivor of his species.
“Monsters exist,” says Preston Packard (Jackson) at one point. And they do. They must. But this film suggests that our monsters are getting further and further removed. The monsters in 1933’s King Kong were the non-white natives of Skull Island as well as Kong himself, the human-like ape whom (as many critics have argued) stood in for the non-white “other.” Only an ocean separated the natives from the white, “civilized” characters, and only a wall separated both groups of humans from King Kong.
In Skull Island, though, the monstrous “skullcrawlers,” who have few recognizably natural characteristics, are also spatially removed from the human and animal protagonists of the film. Geologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) finds his belief in the “hollow earth theory” vindicated on Skull Island. His theory holds that there are “massive underground spaces” in which “ancient species” have survived into the modern era—and it’s from these underground spaces that the skullcrawlers emerge: they are literally not of the (known) planet but are atavistic monsters living in spaces humans haven’t yet mapped. (As somewhat of an aside, the skullcrawlers are a lot like the crawlers in the underground cavern of Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005)—another (superior) film that Skull Island rips off.)
It’s the skullcrawlers, creatures of these unknown cavernous spaces, that live on the other side of the border that Skull Island erects to produce its horror, repulsion, fear, and disgust. As such, Skull Island marks how those that were once represented as monstrous in the horror film—nonwhite “natives” and large apes—aren’t monsters at all anymore. Instead, the monsters of Skull Island don’t look human, or even animal-like, and they don’t live in recognizable human (or animal) spaces. Skull Island suggests that the monsters who are on the other side of the border integral to horror, who create that border, are getting further and further away. In the summer of 2017, when conflict and division seems ubiquitous, is this a sign of some hope?