For once, the critics and I are wild about the same movie – not, however, for the same reasons.
Peter Jackson’s re-make of the 1933 classic, "King Kong," is wonderful in every way. But its magic lies not in computer-generated action sequences, but in its portrayal of old-fashioned ideals.
Still, it is a great action film.
Skull Island, residence of K. Kong, Esq., is an overgrown and weirdly mutated Jurassic Park. There’s a brontosauruses-going-over-the-cliff stampede, and Kong battles not one, but three T-Rexes to save the damsel in distress. There are giant insects, bats the size of single-engine planes and man-eating worms. It’s a heart-pounding ride on a prehistoric roller-coaster.
Most reviewers have gotten stuck in the time-warp, missing the film’s themes – feminine virtue, masculine heroism and romantic love.
Naomi Watts is perfect in the Fay Wray-role. As Ann Darrow, she projects a waif-like vulnerability and innocence, combined with gritty determination and a sweet empathy with the 50-foot title character.
When we’re introduced to her in Depression-era New York, she’s an aspiring actress who’s just lost her gig as an acrobatic dancer in a vaudeville show.
Hungry and discouraged, she turns down a chance to perform semi-nude in what used to be called a girlie show.
You can see her inner struggle, standing outside the burlesque theater, holding an introduction she eventually shreds. She will not demean herself for the price of a meal.
This perception is reinforced in Watts’ meeting with the director who wants to cast her in the lead of his "jungle movie."
"Can you fit into a size-6 dress?" director Carl Denham (played by the hammy Jack Black) asks Watts, who assumes he’s interested in a more personal relationship, gets up to leave. In reality, the director wants to know if she can wear the clothes of the actress formerly cast in her part.
Early on, we sense a purity and principle in Watts’ Darrow. Therein lies her charm – and her appeal for males of all species.
Like courage, Hollywood seems capable of portraying feminine virtue only at a safe distance – at least a half-century in the past..
Feminism supposedly having liberated us from gender stereotypes, today’s heroines are emotionally androgynous. They compete with men, pursue them sexually – essentially, they are men (and not the better sort) with breasts and vaginas.
By being what she is, Darrow sends out subtle signals to the males around her – here is a lady who must be respected and protected. By exhibiting feminine virtue, she elicits masculine virtue – even in the scruffy crew of a tramp steamer.
When Darrow is kidnapped by Skull Island’s bestial natives – who behave like Congressional leftists pushing a spending bill – to sacrifice to Kong, the men on the ship (including the screenwriter who falls in love at first sight of her) mount a rescue mission.
Even the ship’s seemingly callous captain – who threatens to strand the rescue party when their time-limit expires – in the end breaks out the Tommy guns to save "Miss Darrow."
Members of the film’s crew and ship’s crew die battling the island’s fauna, but her survival – as the woman who must, at all costs, be protected – outweighs their own.
Kong reacts the same way.
At first, Darrow is just a pretty toy. The hirsute brute demands that she constantly entertain him. Gradually, a bond forms between them. It’s not just that the diminutive creature (so fragile in his world) fascinates him. She manages to touch his soul.
The climax of "King Kong" isn’t when the giant ape battles bi-planes while clinging to the Empire State Building, but while they’re still on the island.
After saving her life, Kong carries Darrow to a ledge, where they share the magnificent sight of a jungle sunset. The actress puts her hand to her heart to signify that she too is moved by the scene.
Back in New York City, the captive Kong is on display as the "Eighth Wonder of the World." The smitten beast breaks his bonds, examines and discards the blonde playing Darrow in the show to which Black has subjected him. He will accept no substitute for authentic femininity.
Kong rampages through downtown Manhattan searching for the real thing. When he finds Darrow, he carries the not-unwilling actress (who cried when he was captured) to the top of the world’s tallest building. Together, they stare in awe as the sun rises over a jungle of concrete.
You know the rest.
In a way, all men are King Kong: powerful, brooding, potentially destructive creatures waiting for a woman to touch our hearts and tame us.
And all women are Ann Darrow, simultaneously fragile and compelling, possessor of the magic to transform primitive males (monsters-in-waiting) into protectors and the builders of families and civilizations.
But, the movie seems to say, modernity can be the undoing of both. It seeks not to civilize but to shackle male instincts. It turns love into a sideshow attraction. It pulls men and women apart.
The marvels of man’s creation can attack and ultimately destroy us, spiritually, if not physically. The destroyers are an atomizing culture, the dogma of gender-sameness, entertainment that seduces, fragments and often perverts, and the deification of choice. These are the gods we sacrifice ourselves to.
Jackson’s "King Kong" is something quite different from the original and the 70's remake. Superficially, it thrills and delights. On another level, it’s a metaphor for what society does to the sexes.
When, at the end of the 3-hour movie, Black utters the closing line from the original – "It was beauty killed the beast" – we want to say: "No, beauty tamed him. It was society that killed him."
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