What it is: A King Kong reboot set in 1973 in which a group of scientists and soldiers go to a remote island and end up fighting a gigantic gorilla, plus a bunch of giant insects and some reptilian monster things. Intended to eventually connect with the 2014 Godzilla as part of a cinematic giant monster universe.
I said in my review of The Magnificent Seven that some pieces of pop culture clearly have no compelling reason to exist, and Kong: Skull Island is an even better example of what I was talking about. Check out Kong’s first appearance in the movie: A bunch of military helicopters are flying around scoping out Skull Island when all of a sudden Kong shows up out of nowhere (as he somehow manages to do throughout this movie, despite being a gorilla the size of an office building) and starts swatting the choppers out of the sky. The army guys respond to this by continuing to fly really close to Kong and ineffectually spraying him with machine gun fire, which he predictably responds to by smashing even more of the helicopters to bits.
Imagine what it would be like to watch this scene if you went into the movie not knowing who or what King Kong was. It’d be ludicrously silly, and even in context it’s the sort of bafflingly nonsensical spectacle you only find in these forced resurrections of intellectual property that’s past the point of cultural relevance but still familiar enough that studios can probably squeeze a few more dollars out of it.
The underlying problem with this reboot in particular is that in terms of symbolism, gorillas just don’t mean the same thing to us as they did in 1933. Back then, big apes represented the overwhelming brutishness of nature directed against man’s fragile rationality. That’s why it resonated when the original King Kong subverted that perception by making Kong vulnerable and having beauty ultimately kill the beast. Now, I think we largely recognize that our fear of nature was a projection or rationalization of man’s own brutish, dominating impulses. Gorillas carry different connotations now: They’re either an endangered species we sympathize with and want to protect (think Harambe), or an uncomfortable reminder that apes have often been used as racist code for African-Americans and other people of color. Skull Island doesn’t want to get into any of those issues (probably wisely), so it just ignores them, rendering Kong meaningless and thereby making him unintentionally funny.
And yet, as with The Magnificent Seven, I still found Kong pretty enjoyable. The cinematography and special effects look great and it all moves at an endearingly fast pace. I knew going in that it was going to be filled with nods to Vietnam (the soundtrack is filled with CCR and Jefferson Airplane and such, Samuel L. Jackson’s military commander refuses to admit defeat, etc.) and expected to find that irritating, but it didn’t really bother me much in the moment. I guess Hollywood has succeeded in making me perceive the Vietnam War as a genre rather than a sensitive national wound.