SPOILER WARNING: Kong: Skull Island (Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017)
Fear reigns supreme in Kong: Skull Island (Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017). Whether it be the fear of the unknown, which permeates those whom eventually become the human villains of the film, or the fear of repeating the mistakes made in Vietnam, which is harbored by those that stand opposed to the former party. But while fear of repeating the mistakes made in Vietnam on Skull Island is present, by the time this fear comes to fruition it is already too late for this eventuality to be prevented. The humans arrive on Skull Island, immediately start indiscriminately dropping bombs, and then attempt to viscously retaliate once the island, embodied by the giant ape Kong, fights back. While it is not hard to sympathize with Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), whose men are violently killed by the giant ape, it soon becomes apparent that more than the events that have occurred on the island drive his lust for revenge against Kong. Standing against him are the numerous beasts of the island that fall more on the predatory side, but also the humans that are able to take a step back and see the larger context of the events that are taking place before them. Kong: Skull Island examines what the unknown and incomprehensible do to those whom come into contact with them, and how their reactions are brought about by their unique perceptions of the world.
For Col Packard, Skull Island is just another Vietnam, but one that he is unwilling to lose. He does not harbor any disillusions that the United States won Vietnam, but at the same time he does not believe that they lost it either. “We didn’t lose Vietnam, we abandoned it” Packard tells Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), an “anti-war photographer” that has landed a spot on the expedition, in their first encounter; and he spends the rest of the film attempting to finish his unfinished business. But despite Packard’s intentions, which are initially understandable to a great degree, his own demons hinder and warp his efforts to the point that he puts everyone at risk in an attempt to carry out his revenge. Caring not for his own safety or the safety of his men, Packard’s expedition to retrieve the weapons he believes can kill Kong results in the deaths of several of his men. Even when he encounters someone who actually knows the ins and outs of the island, embodied by Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), he discounts this knowledge in favor of his own stubborn determination.
Simply put, Packard does not value anyone’s experience but his own. The world is black and white to him, and anyone who dares to offer a differing opinion is the enemy. One of Kong: Skull Island’s strengths is that it effectively conveys the forces that drive this character to the point that his eventual death feels like an act of mercy. When the film begins, the audience is introduced to Packard as he witnesses the end of his efforts in Vietnam. As his men celebrate the fact that they are finally going home, Packard does not hesitate to volunteer them for one final mission, which results in many of their deaths. No apologies are ever offered by him, and he stays resolute to his mission throughout the entire film. But his mission is not the same as the mission of everyone else, and this is ultimately the undoing of Packard. His determination may be unwavering, but those that surround him do not believe in his mission, or the world in general, in the same way that he does. The world is not black and white to those that stand opposed to Packard, such as Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and Mason Weaver.
For James Conrad, the world may be a hostile place that he has not yet found his place in, but he understands that his restlessness is caused by the complexities of the places he inhabits and not by a lack of understanding of it. Visually introduced in the film as a pool hustler who knows the ins and outs of the game, so to speak, Conrad takes the most convincing of anyone to join the expedition to the uncharted island. In many ways, he understands how the world works more so than anyone else. Once it becomes apparent that they are not welcome on Skull Island, Conrad’s sole purpose becomes getting everyone that he can off the island alive. Revenge does not even enter his mind, possibly in part because he did not hold any relation to the men that Kong killed, but also because he simply does not have time for it. There is no time for heroics in Conrad’s reality, which also happens to be the reality that the film exists in. Packard believes that he can right the wrongs that he believes that he has experienced by exacting revenge. But Conrad understands that while he may exist in a world that harbors mythical monsters, he does not exist in one that holds any patience for heroics. Similarly, the film does not offer any of its characters glamorous or heroic deaths. Bill Randa (John Goodman) is unceremoniously eaten by a Skull Crawler, Cole (Shea Whigham) fails in his attempt to delay the final “big” Skull Crawler as he is simply batted to the side (and his death), and the pattern continues for each and every death throughout the film. Packard comes the closest to going down with a fight as he attempts to detonate his Kong-killing bombs, but he is simply crushed by Kong’s fist.
Overall, the characters of Kong: Skull Island must work to exercise their demons or face destruction. But in the case of Packard, he does not so much attempt to satisfy what haunts him as much as he goes about repeating old mistakes. Packard never makes an attempt to understand the unknown forces that he comes face-to-face with, but instead he acts again on his own intuition despite what may be communicated to him by those around him. His dismissal of Hank Marlow’s knowledge is one of the most telling mistakes that he makes. In Marlow lies enough knowledge to dispel all of the unknowns about the island, but Packard refuses to indulge this opportunity, as it would force him to understand the unknown. The unknown other is important for Packard, and his fear of it is his essential character trait. If Packard were to rid the other of its unknown status he would remove his reason for fighting against it. But in Skull Island and Kong, Packard finds a great unknown other that he knows he cannot easily understand, and even when he is faced with an opportunity to do so he retaliates with all his might. Packard does not seek redemption, whether he knows it or not. He simply seeks a fight, and if he were to understand the other, than his fight would end. Only those that come to understand the unknown survive the film, as they are the ones that recognize that the world is not a place composed of “us vs. them” relationships, and so they can exist in a world where black and white worldviews no longer have a place. The post-Vietnam era looms large in Kong: Skull Island, and Packard is not permitted to enter it, as he does not wish to. And so he disappears into his final, tragically misplaced, fight.