When a reviewer Peter Bradshaw wrote that only a theory of “de-evolution” could account for the truly woeful Kong: Skull Island, he was right in more ways than one. The film is indeed a total mess, but its politics are peculiarly regressive, too. To say that it manages somehow to turn the giant monkey Kong into a Donald Trump-like figure sounds absurd, but it’s not far from the truth.
The movie is a remake of sorts of the 1933 film, King Kong. The action takes place in 1973, at the close of the Vietnam War, and depicts a military and scientific expedition that crashes on Kong’s island and must journey to the coast to be rescued. Drama ensues when the leader of the military force (played by Samuel L Jackson), stinging over America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, decides that in Kong he has found an enemy that, unlike the Viet Cong, can be defeated.
He’s wrong, naturally. Kong is unbeatable, and the other characters learn that it’s preferable not to try to fight back, since the giant ape keeps the island’s inhabitants safe by battling a worse breed of monster – one that scurries up from underground to wreak havoc. Kong is a benevolent protector over his land, and only through his good graces do the surviving humans make it out.
Skull Island, the place, is set up rather like an authoritarian utopia. It houses a quiescent human population that lives in fear of internal enemies. The border is secured by a permanent, raging storm, making it nearly inaccessible to outsiders. When interlopers do arrive – like the lost Americans – they survive only so long as they pay obeisance to the king, who keeps the peace by exercising violence.
While the figure of the monarch is not uncommon in Hollywood movies (Guy Ritchie, for example, is releasing yet another version of the King Arthur story in May), it’s usually couched in a medieval European setting. Skull Island is surprising for the way in which it suggests that modern Americans ought to get accustomed to the idea of a king.
The 1970s setting only further highlights the film’s odd political turn. In the Vietnam War, America was said to have discovered the faults of imperialist military might; its withdrawal from the conflict is pinpointed by some as the beginning of the US’s decline in power (in an emotional sense, if not a practical one).
In Skull Island’s rewriting of history, its characters unlearn the lessons of the Vietnam War. If the soldiers come to see that military might has limits on Kong’s island, it’s only because they are beaten by a superior force – in whom, as a consequence, they put their trust. Kong revives the dream of absolute monarchy and rule by natural right for a contemporary audience.
Our current political moment is infused with a sense of powerlessness on both sides of the political spectrum. The election of Trump, and the Brexit vote in the UK, has indicated that electorates in the West are disillusioned with the political establishment. There’s a sense that ostensibly democratic governments have hardened against the interests of their citizens, and that, barring a tip of the political apple cart, voters are unable to force a course change.
The desire for a strongman ruler to cut through the gridlock of establishment politics has been percolating in the minds of fringe conservatives for some time. The so-called neo-reactionaries, or “Dark Enlightenment” – part of the increasingly visible “alt-right” who have been attributed with at least some of the success of Trump’s presidential campaign – have been preaching this idea for years. Computer scientist Curtis Yarvin, a leading thinker in the movement, once attributed political dysfunction in the US to “chronic kinglessness.” In their ideal world, America would be run by a combination CEO and king, who has free reign to reshape government to his liking.
Such anxieties resonate throughout Skull Island. It paints cooperative human action as ineffectual – even counterproductive – when set beside the powerful forces that actually rule the planet. When problems seem too big for ordinary humans to handle, they need a monstrous king to take things in hand and make them right again – this is pretty much the political reform that neo-reactionaries call for.
Skull Island is not alone among recent blockbusters in demonstrating this strain of authoritarian thinking. Godzilla (2014) followed a similar trajectory to Skull Island in terms of its dismissal of collective potential. Last year’s competing Marvel and DC films, Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, both raised complex questions about the geopolitical difficulties of a world containing superheroes, only to put those concerns aside to focus on the personal grudges simmering between their protagonists. They reduced consequential social issues to the level of a blood feud.
In December, Assassin’s Creed, one of the most ideologically toxic films of recent memory, depicted a secretive clan of killers who keep humanity “free” by exercising their genetic predisposition to murder – a baffling crypto-fascist sentiment that went largely unremarked upon in the film’s dire critical reception. That the restoration of order, in these films, always comes at a big cost to human life should not go unnoticed.
The neo-fascist undercurrents in these films are partly a reflection of community pessimism, and partly a consequence of market incentives. The economics of Hollywood blockbusters undoubtedly favour spectacles of strength – steroidal heroes battling against apocalypse.
The superhero genre – the reigning blockbuster model, and one into which Skull Island could easily be categorised – has long had fascist connotations, but it would be wrong to believe that authoritarian sentiments are unavoidable in these movies. It doesn’t have to be this way. Even the Star Wars saga – which might be criticised for its appropriation of fascist iconography – is at least alive to the possibility of collective resistance to authoritarian rule. The issue is whether or not filmmakers take responsibility for their film’s meaning.
That Skull Island is such an authoritarian film partly seems an accident of its poor scripting. Once their human characters are stranded on the island, the film’s writers can’t seem to figure out what to do with them, which contributes to the sense that they’re useless appendages to the drama of Kong’s rule.
Australian director and Mad Max auteur George Miller once said: “Think of stories like food, try to provide nourishment. Don’t serve up empty calories … the mindless can be toxic.” Giant monster and superhero movies are always going to be power fantasies on one level, but if some are wallowing too much on the wrong side of that equation, it may be that their creators are not thinking hard enough about what they want their films to say.
If alt-righters and neo-reactionaries are longing for the return of kings, it’s partly out of thoughtlessness, too. They wish for a return to an imaginary time when government was just so many Gordian knots waiting for a strongman to slice through. The problem is the same: on our movie screens as in our politics, fascism is a failure of the imagination.
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Source: The Guardian