Sunday, December 22, 2013

A leisurely South Seas Skull Island.

You know as well as I do, probably better, that none of us live in a vacuum. Our lives are a string of moments that teach us something, whether we choose to learn from them or not. Most of those moments aren't labeled as lessons in big, bold letters, so too often we ignore them and move along, searching and waiting to find the "real" lessons we are sure will rise into view over the horizon with luminous sails. But that's never how it is, is it?

Sometimes it's seemingly inconsequential things that have stuck with me throughout my life, causing me to reflect back on them to suss out their meaning countless times. So many moments, preserved in memory like flash-lit photos, barely noticed while happening, yet treasured for decades. A lingering glance across a frozen parking lot, a hushed conversation in a kitchen lit by the light of an old stove, a laugh shared with strangers in a crowded check-out line, a childhood argument bitterly fought on an Autumn playground, a passage from a book read at random in a cramped library, a missed phone call presaging years of silence...they all add up to a greater meaning, if only we take the time to figure out just what that meaning is.

When I write these blog posts, I hope that it's clear that most of the ostensible subjects are really MacGuffins. That is, while they are interesting in and of themselves, for me they are vectors to talk about and ponder larger issues. They are outward manifestations of an inner life. I try to approach what I'm talking about with concrete examples, and even if those examples are not the cup of tea of any given potential reader, I would also hope that the underlying intent is of some interest.

I've been a dinosaur fan since I was a kid. Even more fascinating to me are prehistoric mammals. Now, don't get me wrong, I find modern animals fascinating, too, but there is something haunting about the vast array of creatures that roamed the planet before the advent of humans. The Earth spun silently on in its solar revolutions for eons, while life spread and throve and died and returned in different forms. What we see today is a snapshot, a moment caught and examined in detail by those with the ability to really see the larger mural of existence on this planet. It's almost heartbreaking to think of all the animals that are long lost, both the ones we know about via fossils or historical record, and the ones we will never know existed. Much of what we know has to be inferred from what evidence was left behind, leading to a lot of speculation, and, by extension, fiction. So tales of dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters enthrall me, as they make me consider what they may really have been like.

It is inevitable, then, that King Kong would have piqued my interest. Back in the days before home video and cable TV, I had to wait until Thanksgiving to see what was, for me, the ne plus ultra of dinosaur movies. A local UHF station played it Thanksgiving night for years. I was easily frustrated by all the non-Kong stuff going on in the movie; I knew what people were like, for crying out loud! I needed to see what the dinosaurs and giant apes were like. It was a window into another world, and I didn't want it blocked by silly romances and huckster schemes. Kong and the dinosaurs of Skull Island were clearly the stars of the movie, even if RKO didn't seem to get that.

Time marched on, as it does, and King Kong, while retaining its mystique for me, had become time-worn and known inside-out. So, too, was its sequel, Son of Kong, which had revealed an even more varied ecosystem for Skull Island than was evident in its predecessor. There were plenty of dinosaur flicks and TV shows that came later, especially with the rise of computer-generated effects, but none held the same potential to evoke wonder as King Kong. Peter Jackson would do a remake of it in 2005, which, while drubbed critically, still managed to recover some of the magic of the original - this Skull Island was a worthy successor. Riotous with life, dangerous as a green Hell, and a glimpse into a world that might have been, but never quite was.

Some years back, I snagged what I still feel is the coolest movie tie-in book I've ever seen: The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island. The book was by the Weta Workshop, the special effects folk responsible for both the Lord of the Rings movies, and the 2005 King Kong, all of which are Peter Jackson movies. Say what you will about Jackson's Kong, but the amount of work and detail put into the creation of Skull Island is astounding. I wrote a review of the book a long while ago, but I thought I'd post it here, too.

Books like this are the kind that can stick in one's memory for years. Sure, it's a fictional place, but it takes reality and tweaks it a bit into a tantalizing glimpse of what-might-have-been on some alternate timeline. I put it alongside the atlases and encyclopedias on my bookshelves, as well as other "never-were" books like After Man. To me, it adds a touch of wonder for both young and old alike to compare, contrast, and dream about far-flung places both imaginary and existing, to contemplate the borders between the real and unreal and where they shade into each other.


The discovery and subsequent expeditions to Skull Island until it disappeared beneath the waves are revealed. The gradual shrinking of the island as it sinks into the sea is discussed, and the reader learns it is due to volcanic activity. Also discussed are the huge ruins that seem to have covered a large part of the island at one time, the builders of which are unknown.

I. The Crumbling Coast and Village

While some of the coastal creatures – such as large crustaceans and various water-loving animals like reptiles and amphibians, as well as birds and other flying creatures – are detailed, the human village is of even more interest.

The humans here are a dwindling, desperate lot, pushed to the limits of existence as they are forced into more and more inhospitable living conditions due to the encroaching sea. They are of a racial stock unlike any that are indigenous to the region, and could be the descendants of the builders of the ruins. If so, they have lost any memory of their history. The ritual sacrifices to the mighty Kong are also discussed.

II. The Shrinking Lowlands

The primary domain of the true heavy-hitters of Skull Island’s dinosaur set, such as the brontosaurus (yes, brontosaurus, not apatosaurus) and the V. Rex (V standing for vastatosaurus), a big, meat-eating tyrannosaur descendant.

The implication of this chapter is that as Skull Island sinks, the competition for territory and food forces the animals here to live a life of constant danger and violence. With so many large, dangerous animals squeezed into an area getting smaller everyday, the place becomes almost cartoonishly violent.
A study of how Skull Island is sinking.

III. The Winding Swamps and Waterways

Called the “Blood of the Island,” these wet areas ensure the sustainability of life on Skull Island.

IV. The Steaming Jungle

Perhaps the most familiar part of Skull Island, the jungles contain probably the greatest variety of life. Life forms range from graceful ceratopsians to proto-monkey creatures. There are flying lizards (“flizards,” not quite pterosaurs), a wide array of nasty-looking insects, “flying rats,” strange sorta-bats, and “burglar monkeys” (the aforementioned proto-monkeys) inhabiting the forest canopy. Below, giant flightless birds, huge centipedes, and lots of large, nasty lizards prowl the jungle floor.

V. The Abyssal Chasms

This is the deep, dark, dank, and perhaps most alien region of Skull Island. Deep fissures cleave the island, and are kept moist by the tropical climate, and very warm due to volcanic activity. Spiders, giant worms with big, nasty teeth, and weird, pterosaur-like “vultursaurs” lurk in these areas. Think of what you find under a rotting log, mix it with a lot of fungus, and make it all really big and hostile, and that’s what you have here.

VI. The Barren Uplands

While inhabited by a variety of creatures, such as the bifurcatops, an agile ceratopsian that fills a mountain-goat-like niche, this region is most notable for the giant apes that claim it. How and why a species of huge, gorilla-like primates came to exist on Skull Island is discussed, but a lot is left to speculation.

An interesting idea that is presented is the notion that these creatures were brought to the island by the mysterious ruin-builders, and bred into their giant size from gigantopithecus stock. The species’ gradual decline, until only the mighty Kong remained, is discussed, as is the demise of Kong himself, and provides a melancholy end to this book.

Size Comparison Chart

A fold-out section at the end of the book shows the various creatures of Skull Island standing placidly in profile on a New York City street. We get to see just how large all the dinosaurs and other animals are in relation to each other, as well as in relation to humans (such as Ann Darrow/Naomi Watts), biplanes, and New York’s elevated trains.

The Good

This book conjures up Skull Island as a fully-realized, living, breathing place. It’s such an interesting place, that it makes me wish there really was such an island in the world. The book never “breaks character” and dispels the illusion, treating its subject with respect and perhaps a bit of awe. This includes a rather neat vintage-looking map on the inside covers and end-papers of the book, as well as several maps showing the climatic/ecological regions of the Island. It really seems like a place I’d like to…well, not visit, really, since it’s so dangerous. OK, maybe I would like to visit it; it's too tempting. But I’d definitely love to see a National Geographic special on it.

Another neat thing about the book is that the creatures on Skull Island are not simply frozen-in-time hold-overs from the Cretaceous era. They are descendants of the animals from that time, and have evolved various specializations over the eons.

The Bad

Honestly, I can’t find a legitimately bad thing to say about this book. I only wish it was longer and contained more artwork.

The Ugly

The carnictis sordicus is a species of intestinal parasites that somehow evolved into giant worm-like creatures, and which live deep within the chasms of Skull Island. Described as “animated stomachs” with a “sphincter-maw of teeth,” these critters made a pretty spectacular and, yes, as the book says, repulsive appearance in the recent King Kong movie. Very creepy, shudder-inducing fellas.

Why You Will Like It

Perhaps first and foremost, this book is gorgeously illustrated. The images are clear, vivid, and fire the imagination. The detail put into the ecosystem, while pushed to the limits of credibility and beyond, still shows a lot of thought and effort. This makes the book a fun read as it straight-facedly presents Skull Island as a real place.

Why You Won’t Like It

If depictions of unrealistic, pulp-magazine style jungle-clad islands inhabited by dinosaurs and giant apes don’t appeal to you, then you probably won’t like this book.

Where’s the Fun?

The fun is in the sheer chaos of the island’s ecosystem. It’s bright, colorful, over-the-top adventuring fun. Really dangerous bright, colorful, over-the-top adventuring fun. There is a cliffhanger (often literally) every few yards, with the fauna (and maybe even some flora) out to eat the unwary. Realistic? No. Fun? Hell yeah.
Giant Apes + Dinosaur Fights=Fun

Final Assessment

I love this book. It’s the best movie tie-in I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading and looking at. It can be read as a study of a place that never was.

One of the things I didn't emphasize enough, regardless of the pictures I posted, is just how beautifully illustrated this book is. There are no stills from the film; the art consists of concept paintings and drawings from the Weta Workshop, which did the special effects for the film. This is an important point, I feel, as the book establishes its own identity separate from the film. One could comfortably read and enjoy the book without ever having seen the film. 

But what does all this have to do with anything? For me, it points up the wonder and fragility of life. It shows the importance of imagination, and the firing of that imagination. It represents the manifestation of a memory, and childhood flights of fancy that can still thrill an adult. Most importantly, though, I wanted to write about Skull Island. I hope others like reading about it, and both "get" why something like this is important to me (and why other things are important to them), and actually get the book if it seems like the kind of place they'd like to visit, if only in the theater of the mind.


  1. I like this book a lot too, Jeff (as well as After Man, although I don't own a copy of that)---lots of good ideas for inspiration in general and for WG6 too, of course!


    1. Thanks for dropping by, Allan. Yep, as you know, I consider this an essential resource for WG6.

      I hope you manage to land a copy of After Man at some point. It's another great inspiration for RPGs, as are its sequels: The New Dinosaurs and Man After Man.

  2. "It represents the manifestation of a memory, and childhood flights of fancy that can still thrill an adult. "

    Amen, brother.

    What an absolutely fantastic movie tie-in. I only wish more movies would have such comprehensive imaginary atlases to back them up. Well, where suitable. I don't know if we need a World of You've Got Mail or anything, of course, but it's such a fun idea for fantasy-related things.

    1. Yeah, believe me, I wish more movies had such tie-ins. Avatar has a similar work: Avatar: A Confidential Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandora (James Cameron's Avatar). It's not nearly as pretty, but it's a fun tie-in, with lots of detail about Pandora.