Kong: Skull Island just earned a bunch of new fans and it has very little to do with a giant monkey.
So hey, how about that latest Kong: Skull Island footage? I know, right? Before Thursday morning’s release of the second theatrical trailer, I would have described the latest attempt to reboot the King Kong franchise as a waste of everyone’s time. The original 1933 film may be a classic, but we’ve tried to go back to this particular well twice in the last three decades – once in 1976 and again in 2005 – with very little to show for it. It boils down to technology, I think. In an era where your wildest dreams can be recreated on camera in just the few clicks of a mouse, a movie that relies so much on spectacle for its power has little chance of connecting with audiences desensitized towards big images and loud noises.
Or so I thought. As it turns out, there’s one thing I didn’t count on with Kong: Skull Island, and that is the film’s participation in a favorite subgenre of mine. Despite the videogame industry’s best efforts to drive my beloved ‘Soldiers vs. Monsters’ narrative into the ground, each time a trailer promises that wisecracking marines will meet their untimely deaths at the hands of aliens, demons, or mythical beasts, my heart still starts to beat a little faster in my chest. I’ve felt this way ever since James Cameron brought together a ragtag band of character actors for his 1986 Aliens sequel. Lurking beneath the surface of these science-fiction war films are subversive political films just waiting to be seen. Sure, these movies may offer crazy gunfights, incredible special effects, and lovable actors with their onscreen swagger dialed up to eleven, but they also mine the hidden depths of the action genre. These soldiers versus monsters movies? They’re smarter than you think.
Take Aliens. Cameron had famously been hired to work on both Aliens and Rambo II at the same time; it was only natural, then, that some of the ideas from each project should cross-pollinate. “I was writing Rambo at the time and I was getting into the whole Vietnam thing,” Cameron told Cinefex in 1986, “and it occurred to me that ‘grunts in space’ was a wonderful concept.” Aliens became Cameron’s Vietnam allegory, the story of an experienced military unit done in by their own overconfidence and dependence on technology. Everything – from the bravado of Cameron’s space marines to their panic and infighting when faced with unpredictable waves of enemies – is meant to evoke comparisons to more traditional Vietnam War films. Cameron’s movie may be set in space, but one could argue that it has more in common with Oliver Stone’s Platoon than Ridley Scott’s original film.
Then there’s Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, a film that offers some of the most exciting science-fiction action sequences in movie history while still serving as, in the words of Calum Marsh, a “keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism.” Starship Troopers exists in a world of endless conflict, where a lifetime of pro-war propaganda prepares countless young men and women to die glorious deaths in the line of duty. These young soldiers treat the military industrial complex as almost a religious calling; they aspire to either life as a soldier or death in combat, with any condition that falls somewhere between – including civilian employment or non-lethal injuries sustained in battle – invalidating them as productive members of society. In a recent interview with IndieWire, Verhoeven described his film as a direct assault on the jingoistic language of the original novel, noting that “these people are really, in their heart, without knowing it, are on their way to fascism.”
And because it’s difficult to make even a genre war film without making a political statement, pretty much every one of these soldiers-versus-monsters movies comes with deeper meaning. Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, a film about a group of British soldiers squaring off against a family of Scottish werewolves? A violent defense of local history against English colonialism. Edge of Tomorrow, a movie about a doomed soldier stuck repeating one bad day? A reevaluation of modern warfare for the Call of Duty generation. Battle: Los Angeles, an alien invasion story set in urban Los Angeles? A domestic repositioning of the street-by-street fighting we see in coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Avatar, a movie about an alien race defending its home planet? Here Cameron toys with the script he helped write and posits the more ‘primitive’ species as the real heroes of the story.
So what does Kong: Skull Island have to offer in addition to all that spectacle? The trailer suggests a film much like Aliens where man’s technological advantage means little against a seemingly less advanced enemy, but more than that, Kong: Skull Island promises environmentalism as its main issue. “A big part of this film is about the arrogance of man, about man and nature, and the way we co-exist with our environment,” director Jordan Vogt-Roberts told Digital Spy over the summer. This is on full display in the latest trailer. John C. Reilly’s half-crazy island dweller lets the soldiers know that their surveying charges have been taken as an act of aggression by Kong; it also suggests that these charges are what lead the ‘skull-crawlers’ to swarm to the surface of the island. Man may claim dominion over land and sea, but Kong: Skull Island serves as a reminder that our planet has existed long before our arrival and will not bend to our will without a bit of a fight. We’ve spent centuries punishing Mother Nature. Now Mother Nature is going to give as good as she’s gotten.
I’ll take a soft pass on a movie where John Goodman and Tom Hiddleston argue about the best way to bring a giant ape back to New York City, but a movie where Shea Whigham pulls the pins out of two grenades and charges a prehistoric lizard? Where John C. Reilly channels his inner Newt and babbles on about how a group of combat veterans are about to die? Where the calm fortitude of Samuel L. Jackson’s career soldier saves lives while the money men fall to pieces around him? This is a film I can get behind. Take note, Hollywood: you are cordially invited to make as many ‘soldiers vs. monsters’ movies as you can stomach in the next twenty years. If you do them right, they should make tons of money in the short-term and be hailed as progressive classics a few years down the line. That seems like a win-win to me.