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Let me address the obvious criticism first: Was this movie an over the top, overly long, self-indulgent piece of filmmaking? You bet it was. And thank God for that. After all, this is a story about a 25-foot gorilla that winds up on top of the Empire State Building batting planes out of the air. This is no time for restraint. It’s also a project that director Peter Jackson has dreamed of working on since he was a kid. Peter Jackson, boys and girls—the man who is to directing what Jim Carrey is to acting—so what else did you expect? Sure, doubters will complain that some scenes, such as when Kong fights three dinosaurs while falling through a web of vines, go on for too long. But that only shows lack of appreciation for the sheer breath of imagination and industry required to create such moments. As for me, about midway through the cavalcade of brontosaurs and humans, I wanted to stand up and cheer. King Kong is the blockbuster of all blockbusters. It’s the reason why megaplexes exist. It’s Hollywood at its best. Its all systems go. It’s $207 million well spent. And I loved it!
What made me love this film even more was the depth of insight and emotion Jackson managed to extract from his source material. Like Jackson, I’ve been a huge fan of King Kong since I was a kid. I even stayed home from a family camping trip one summer so I could catch the 1976 remake on TV. Despite my fascination, I never really thought of Kong as anything but a cool, effects-driven monster flick. However, in Jackson’s hands, King Kong becomes a powerful parable about our schizophrenic relationship with the environment, a dire warning that we ignore at our peril.
The parable begins when filmmaker Carl Denham—played with delightful panache by Jack Black—speaks boldly and eloquently of his desire to “view the beast unshackled” in the wilderness, something only a few brave souls like him are willing to do. But after a brief, firsthand taste of Kong and Skull Island’s other monstrous, unshackled inhabitants, Denham’s romantic ideals are quickly scuttled by the drive to survive, subdue, and, perhaps, to profit.
Meanwhile, Anne Darrow, the woman offered up to Kong by the terrifying natives of Skull Island, begins to develop the strangest case of Stockholm syndrome you’ve ever seen. And who can blame her? The blustering, bellowing ape is irresistible. A triumph of animation and characterization, to see Kong is to love him. Whether he’s ripping dinosaurs in two, beating his chest in triumph or taking time out to enjoy the sunset, Kong is truly a king among beasts. Despite his ferocity, Darrow is uniquely able to appreciate him as such.
Sadly, Denham and his companions are not similarly gifted. Rather than respond to Kong with the awe and respect he deserves, they seek only to subdue him, to tame him, to kill him if they must. That they are able to bring him down at all is truly a triumph of Man over Nature. But for some reason, this accomplishment evokes little urge to celebrate. “We’re millionaires, boys,” says Denham as he stands over Kong’s unconscious form. Perhaps, we wonder, but at what cost? Nothing less than the wonder and awe that drew Denham to Kong in the first place.
Listless and lifeless, when Kong is put on display in New York, he is nothing but a grim shadow of his former self. The fire that drove him previously has all but gone out. Tragically, when that fire is reignited again, we know it can only lead to his doom. New York is no place for an artifact of unbridled nature like Kong, after all. And it is only a matter of time before Kong meets his fate atop the pinnacle of humankind’s triumph over the very essence of what he represents.
As I see it, Darrow and Denham signify two sides of our split personality regarding the environment. On the one hand, we love and appreciate nature in all of its unfettered beauty and power. But few of us can leave it at that. The drive to subdue and exploit is irresistible. While we tend to celebrate our ability to do so, this film seems to question whether or not we’ve gone too far. King Kong is a call to repentance, a call to return to a sense of wonder and awe in the face of nature. It is also a warning that if we continue our attempts to shackle nature, as Denham attempted to do, sooner or later it will come back to bite us.
With such a strong environmentalist message embedded throughout the film, I was a little confused about why Jackson retained the original film’s final line about how it “’twas beauty that killed the beast.” Clearly, it wasn’t beauty but greed that was responsible for Kong’s death. Or, as another character put it, it was Denham’s “unfailing ability to destroy the things he loves.” Perhaps this was simply a case of sentiment trumping theme. The real question though is where our unfailing ability to destroy comes from. Why this love/hate relationship with our environment? Why are beauty and wonder so often overcome by fear and greed? As I pondered this, I was drawn back to another classic tale of Man and Nature—the Garden of Eden. If you pay close attention to the curse God utters to Adam and Eve just prior to expelling them from the Garden (Genesis 3:14–19), you will note that their disobedience ruptured their relationships on three levels: God and Man, man and woman, and Man and Nature. Where there used to be harmony, trust, and love, there was now conflict, distrust, and hatred. Where Man used to be able to sit back and enjoy the bounty of Nature, now he had to work and toil for every scrap.
Not a pretty picture. But the story doesn’t end there. If it took an act of disobedience to rupture these relationships, it follows that an act of obedience may be all that’s required to make them right again. So perhaps our inner “Carl Denham” doesn’t have to win the day after all. All we need to do is unleash our inner “Anne Darrow.”
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