An American cinema icon was re-imagined this spring, with the release of Kong: Skull Island. This fresh take on the megalithic gorilla delves deeper into the mysterious island he hails from, and re-orients his story in history, making use of newer technology to explain the phenomena of his discovery. However, the cosmetic updates and soundtrack full of beloved hits from the seventies aren’t the reason that this new take has breathed life back into Kong. By comparing this blockbuster to it’s eighty-four-year-old predecessor, it’s clear that the work this story needed was embedded much deeper, in the archetypes and narrative patterns it explores. Skull Island repairs weak spots in King Kong’s story structure by including a more authentic female protagonist, providing a more succinct, rhythmically satisfying third act, and — most importantly — by allowing Kong to represent the unconscious and the unknown, in the way that the audience has always interpreted him anyway.
The drastic change from King Kong’s helpless, timid Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to Skull Island’s inquisitive, assertive Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is one of the key shifts that this update represents. It completely transforms the archetype of “damsel-in-distress” into “fully-actualized-heroine.” At first glance, this 180 degree turn likely rattled social conservatives, men’s rights activists, and vast contingents of Reddit commenters. However, this shift represents far more than affirmative action. The Kong franchise needed a real female protagonist to stand any chance at a complete and satisfying story. This is because the heroine — as the one who directly interfaces with Kong at key moments in the plot — must be the one to undergo the hero’s journey. The whole crew travels around Campbell’s circle, but the leading lady is the one who invokes Kong’s vulnerability, and discovers the capacity to change. This is nearly impossible in the 1933 film — or the remake thereof — where Kong is little more than a jingoistic projection of Western fear and racism. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) makes frequent allusions to the fable of Beauty and the Beast in the original film, suggesting that Kong is capable of compassion. However, rather than exploring what it sets up, the film takes an odd, fetishistic turn. The hypothetical vulnerability never comes to the surface, and Ann Darrow never has the chance to go searching for it. Instead she spends the second half of the film being traumatized and re-traumatized in New York, never more than a victim. Kong, meanwhile, rages on against the might of modern weapons and Western culture, until all the mystery is stripped from him and he must be put down. America — true to form — creates its own enemy, defeats it, and then mourns its loss. Despite having been lead to believe in Kong’s innate gentleness, the audience is forced to root for his demise, and the triumph of man over God.
In Skull Island, however, Mason Weaver is given the chance to redeem Kong — or, more accurately, redeem the Americans in Kong’s eyes. This is much more satisfying for our narrative sensibilities as humans, and more true to the archetypes this film presents. Once the film has revealed Kong’s protective, divine attitude towards life on Skull Island, as well as the invasive, violent nature of the Americans’ arrival, there is a moment of mutual redemption when Weaver places her hand on Kong’s nose. The shift in color and tone mark an unmistakable Meeting With The Goddess moment in Campbell’s terms, and in this case, the film’s heroes take this second chance to do the right thing. They help Kong to overcome Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and empower him to continue his battle against the serpentine monsters from below. Their decision is a form of surrender to the unknown and unknowable, to mystery and ineffability. It pays off. In the ensuing CGI battle between Kong and the Skull Crawlers, Weaver continues to try assisting him — at the risk of her own peril. At the climactic moment of the film, she is knocked into the water and sinks, apparently unconscious and helpless. However, unlike Ann Darrow, Weaver has earned this moment of helplessness, and her proactivity earlier in the plot justifies her passivity as she sinks, at last in need of saving. The yonic symbolism of the water further portrays her total surrender. She has stopped investigating and questioning — she believes in something now, and she’ll die for it. Kong repays this devotion with a massive hand plunging into the water to save her, and pull her through what Campbell would undoubtedly call The Return Threshold. Unlike the original King Kong, this film has no gruesome sexual undertones between the woman and the ape — instead it explores what it takes for a protective deity to trust a non-devotee, and for a bound truth-teller like Weaver to surrender to an ineffable force.
Of course, Weaver’s active participation isn’t the most obvious fix made to Skull Island’s third act. Die-hard fans of any iteration of King Kong likely noticed the stunning lack of Empire State Buildings in the film. This choice — though undoubtedly hard for some fans to swallow — was the only way to make for a satisfactory ending to the great ape’s tale. From the view of the hero’s journey, Skull Island represents the unconscious mind, the world that the hero must delve into to find the capacity for change. Kong, as king of Skull Island, is therefore the embodiment of the unconscious by extension. This is why Kong’s death in the original film registers as such a tragedy for viewers across generations. The modern men capture their own unconscious divinity, chain it up, and exploit it for money, ultimately killing it. All the while, the audience understands Kong to have the capacity for — at the very least — gentleness, deep down. Unfortunately, something as mysterious as Kong simply can’t thrive in New York, nor in the concrete world of the conscious mind. His death is inevitable, however, it upsets the structure of the story. It’s deeper than a tragedy, it’s a neutering of the creative force in this fictional world. The heroes finish their journey with no greater capacity for change than they began it with.
Skull Island succeeds by taking the gentleness we see in King Kong and expanding it. Rather than presenting the ape as a buffoon with a penchant for undressing screaming women, the writers here understood that audiences want much more out of Kong. He must be inherently wiser than us. His presence in American cinema has become, in some ways, sacred, and his presence on Skull Island needed to reflect that. This is why charging Kong with the protection of life on the island’s surface healed the structure of this old tragedy. It creates a science fiction ecosystem that audiences can understand on a literal level, but also puts some biblical stakes to the struggle, and endows Kong with a sacred mission. By keeping Kong enclosed on the island, they allow him to retain his power as a force of the unknown. They also, conveniently, allow themselves to make out like bandits on innumerable Kong sequels in the future. In this case, proper story structure pays off twice.
Kong: Skull Island is a fun action movie to kick off this year’s blockbuster season. It breathes fresh life into a franchise that many people have become understandably jaded about. However, it also does a great service to American cinema, by redeeming one of its most iconic figures. All in one film, Kong’s persona has been revised to remove the racist, abusive, fetishistic elements that have problematized one of our country’s most beloved fables. The writers achieved this not by pandering to previously underserved demographics, but by taking an honest look at an old story and asking how it could be brought more into line with the natural rhythm of the conscious and unconscious minds — the very system which drives us, as humans, to tell stories.