A friend of mine returned traumatized from an African safari. He could barely explain why he was so rattled, but it went something like this.
These animals, they are so much better than us. They are stronger. Faster. Their senses are more finely tuned. They hear, smell, and sense things we do not. They are relentless and possess no sentiment. They are our masters. We are helpless in the face of them. It’s a miracle that we ended up on top, and it can only be for one reason: our rational faculties. It’s the only thing we have going for us.
Actually that is something of a terrifying realization, and we have turned it over in our minds from the earliest age. What kid has not gone through a great dinosaur phase of life, learning all the names and playing with figures? Why? It has something to do with wanting to discern the security of our place in the hierarchical structure of the animal kingdom.
And as adults, we love to watch movies about the great struggle between human and animal, and we do wonder: how gigantic would an animal have to be to finally overcome our capacity to maintain our dominance?
Thus runs my introduction to my review of Kong: Skull Island. It’s one of the most engaging films I’ve seen this season, as in edge-of-the-seat stuff from first to last. It underscores the very point my friend made after his safari. We are lucky to be alive at all, much less on top of the animal pyramid. Watching the ease with which these animals bat down and gobble humans – the way we eat popcorn shrimp – is existentially alarming.
What if we looked upon society itself as something too big, too ominous, too powerful to control?The plot begins with a crew of government contractors who are convinced that there is an island in the Pacific Ocean that has been protected from human contact due to the constant swirling of storm clouds on its perimeter. They are seeking funding to make an expedition possible. It is finally granted, and the entourage includes scientists, military escorts, and a war photographer.
When they finally pierce the storm clouds and enter the island on helicopters, the sight is stunning. Such incredible beauty. So exciting. It really does look like a place that was stopped in the middle of the Creation Narrative and otherwise left alone.
Then a very weird thing happens. To test the depth of the surface, they drop a series of explosives on the land, directly from the helicopter to the surface.
Incredible! They just got there and they are already bombing the place, for allegedly scientific reasons.
For the viewer, it is an alarming moment, especially since it is presented in an almost blase way. Oh here we are at the Garden of Eden so of course we have to drop bombs all over it. Something about that just screams: America.
You wonder: is this really the right thing to do?
It turns out to be a terrible idea. These explosions awaken every horrible monster from beneath the surface. And of course it angers the kind of the island, who is affectionately known to the natives as Kong, and they believe he is God. And truly, he is pretty awesome, seems to have some intelligence, as well as some sympathy toward human beings who treat him nicely.
And yes, there are natives. They wear interesting paint on their faces and the main objective of their lives is simply survival. They are peaceful and even kind, but have never moved beyond the state of nature.
Kill Kong or Not?
The US crew eventually splits into two factions over the great question: kill Kong or leave him alone. The latter group acts with full knowledge that Kong’s absence would surely unleash something worse, like these creepy, voracious lizards with no back legs and a nasty habit of destroying everything around them.
It takes a bit of distance to understand what is going on here, but what I perceive in the story is an allegory about imperialism. Once you come to believe that force is the way, there is no turning back. You can even discover a new beautiful island and resist the temptation to believe that the first thing you need to do is to bomb the place. Then when trouble starts, the answer is always the same: escalate the violence. There is no turning back.
Kong serves as a symbol of the features of life that are impervious to external control.The people who imagine that there might be a better way find themselves making rational sense in the face of wild violent passion for expending as much firepower as possible. You can see how this serves as a metaphor for much of public policy today. If there is a problem, throw more firepower at it. There is no problem too big that can’t be solved through force.
In this way of thinking about the film, Kong is much more than a gigantic gorilla. He serves as a symbol of the features of life that are impervious to external control.
Think back to the safari which so much alarmed my friend. What if we looked at society with the same awe and respect that tourists look at wildlife on one of those trips: something too big, too ominous, too powerful, to ever attempt to overpower? The attempt to control unleashes forces we cannot foresee.
Kong, in this rendering, stands for the combined energies of the human spirit operating as it will, irrespective of all attempts to use compulsion to make social forces operate in the way some external invaders wish that they would.
It is only the outsiders who imagine that Kong is the enemy. The people who live there rightly think he might be God. And if so, you get more from him by deference and respect than hatred and violence.