"Is this the moving picture ship?"
—Opening line of King Kong (1933)
You can get close to madness trying to fit the entire cultural legacy of the original King Kong into a single box. Even setting aside the two Hollywood remakes, you're still left with hastily made or quickly buried sequels, follow-ups like Mighty Joe Young (1949), a Universal Studios ride, a direct-to-video cartoon, a children’s TV series, and a set of 1960s Japanese-American co-productions—Kingu Kongu!—which saw the big ape square off against Godzilla and "Mechani-Kong" in showdowns with worse special effects than the film that preceded them by thirty years. Apologies for anything I've left out, because by this point King Kong is a cottage industry unto itself, an old-fashioned self-perpetuating Hollywood myth that's morphed in meaning and presentation but never entirely gone away. The sight of King Kong atop the Empire State Building, with its a mixture of the real and the fantastical, is one of those iconic movie images that has a thousand mile head-start on the film that spawned it.
So if you ever get the chance to see Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's original film on its own terms—that is, a dark theater, a big screen, and as little preconceptions as possible—you should absolutely take it. It is still a model of dramatic pacing and imaginative effects, but don't forget how much the 1933 King Kong is also a movie about movies. Indeed, released as the feature film industry closed out its second decade, there may be no better movie about the ruthless showmanship that allowed movies to put their stamp over reality. More than the monster, or the desperate actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and her roughneck love interest (Bruce Cabot)—two humans who are only slightly less like puppets than Kong himself—the plot is launched, turned, and overseen by its on-screen impresario: Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), a cold, driven, and monomaniacal filmmaker who drags his cast and crew to the mythical Skull Island determined to show moviegoers something new. Consider that the opening ten minutes of the film are spent with Denham as he rants about the audience's ever-increasing demand for novelty and stimulation. Or consider the famous scene where he teaches Fay Wray to scream on camera—a scream we get "for real" when Kong first appears. Or, best of all, consider the brain-tickling implications in how the film's FX creation gets listed in the opening credits not only as if it were a flesh-and-blood actor, but with the same nickname—"The Eighth Wonder of the World!"—that Carl Denham uses to market his monster back in New York.
Susan Sontag placed King Kong in her "canon of Camp," a title it deserves on the basis of Wray's and Cabot's dialogue alone. It's also intelligent entertainment, and the two are hardly exclusive. But the kitschier side of King Kong was embraced for the 1976 re-imagining, a spectacle that feels cheap in a way that only an expensive film can. It is a misguided affair, even more rooted in its decade than the original was in the 30s. The expedition to Kong's Skull Island now involves tapping an oil reserve to solve/profit off the gas crisis. Denham has been replaced by an anonymous oil exec (Charles Grodin). The working class love interest from the first King Kong has been replaced by Jeff Bridges as a post-Vietnam, Greenpeace-style activist who wants to see Kong unharmed and cheers when the creature kills flame-thrower-wielding National Guardsmen. As for the Fay Wray part, it goes to Jessica Lange, as a dippy, leggy sex bunny who floats up on a life raft right when the movie needs her and then goes through an improbable number of costume changes for a castaway.
Her character, like Wray's, is an aspiring actress, and the film is not without some cinematic perspectives of its own. "I owe my life to a movie," Lange's character says early on. And lest you think this is veering towards starry-eyed idealism, she adds: "Did you ever meet anyone before who was saved by Deep Throat?" (In '33, not even Carl Denham could have dreamed of such a cause célèbre). The link between porn actresses and the eye candy in a major 70s production would be an interesting idea if the film knew what to do with it, just as the villain's plan—to cart the giant gorilla back to the mainland to be the mascot of a gas company's ad campaign—could be preposterous satire if only the plot that surrounded it weren't so empty-headed. Still, the film was a hit, and it has camp value built in and a snazzy musical score by James Bond soundtracker John Barry. But when Lange asks Kong what his astrological sign is, any chance of gravitas is gone.
Peter Jackson put the gravitas back, along with Denham, dinosaur battles, and everything else he could get his hands on, for his direct remake extravaganza in 2005. It is as if Jackson, an avowed Kong super-fan let loose, were determined to dispel any trace of camp lingering around the character. He used state of the art motion-capture technology to animate the beast. He established firm, relatable, hefty emotional arcs for all three human leads. And he gave a reverent treatment of the original's immortal finale: Denham, standing over the body of the dead Kong, saying "It was beauty killed the beast."
And therein lies the rub. In the popular imagination, Kong soon enough became a figure of sympathy, a misunderstood beast who bonds with his leading lady. But the first King Kong shows strikingly little explicit tenderness in the way it photographs him, especially compared to all the fond films that followed. This feral creature from the other side of the world wants to touch Fay Wray, to hold and examine her, to peel pieces off her dress. How Wray's character—and indeed, the film itself—feels about that is a thornier matter entirely. What's on screen from 1933 gives as much credence to the sociological critique that the movie represents racist, colonial hysteria as it does to the more abstract idea of a misfit movie monster whose own inner tenderness is never allowed to come out. And I have to wonder how many thousands of cinephiles over the years have pondered how closely those political and apolitical readings are tied together.
So it is significant that Jackson's King Kong was, pure and simple, an earnest geek's shrine to Kong and all the movie monsters that followed. Jackson's Ann and Jackson's Kong share the franchise's most unironically beautiful reverie, and when Denham makes his final pronouncements about beauty and the beast, I don't doubt that both Jackson the super-fan and his version of Denham find it poignant. But when I look back at Robert Armstrong as Denham in the original, I see a detached and calculating showman, a Barnum-style huckster putting the perfect last line on the show he just set loose in midtown. This is the complex legacy of King Kong: the name could mean anything from shrewd meta-commentary to wide-eyed pleasure, from cash-ins to passion projects, from the latest in Hollywood technology to the most disposable matinee camp. It would be an act of Denham-esque grandiosity, but not entirely unfair, to say that "King Kong" is nothing less than the movie spectacle machine itself, a timeless property where each new iteration is dated the moment it arrives.
It is into this fracas that Kong: Skull Island (2017) arrives in theaters, representing two of present-day Hollywood's biggest trends: reboots and extended universes. (The goal is an upcoming Kong-Godzilla rematch, on an exponentially higher budget). The most cynical take is that Hollywood is rebooting so much these days that surely King Kong was simply somewhere in the middle of the pile. Yet the silver lining to our present franchise glut is that you never know quite when you'll be taken by surprise. There's no earthly reason, for instance, that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) should have been as emotionally satisfying as they were. So as a fan of Brie Larson's ascendancy and an interested party in what happens when an up-and-coming director gets his hands on a nine-figure budget, I went to a local multiplex with an uncynical curiosity.
The movie certainly begins with a bang: two downed airmen during WWII, one American and one Japanese, crash landing on the mythical Skull Island and trying to fight one another to the death before Kong smashes in and silences the both of them. Before any dialogue, the recurring theme of the movie is established: that the natural world is so big and powerful that human conflicts are frighteningly insignificant in comparison. The opening credits are archival footage tracing American prosperity from the post-WWII boom to the tumult of the Vietnam era, and setting the two wars side by side in a single package is a loaded idea for a movie. You could fill volumes on the different impacts each war had on American cinema alone. The director is Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose only previous narrative feature is The Kings of Summer (2013), a small Sundance comedy. His stated touchstone for Skull Island was Apocalypse Now (1979), and even if he hadn't said so in interviews, you could tell from the sickly yellow-green color filters, and from the not-so-subtle references to Heart of Darkness in naming characters "Marlow" and "Conrad". Set just as the Vietnam War comes to an end, this new expedition to Skull Island is now funded by the U.S. government as part of Cold War anxiety. And the quagmire that ensues—no trip to New York, no beauty and the beast—traps a conspiracy theorist (John Goodman), an anti-war photographer (Brie Larson), a proud soldier stung by the retreat from Vietnam (Samuel L. Jackson), and an expert tracker (Tom Hiddleston) in Kong's domain. Like Coppola or Kurtz or Robert McNamara, they're up a river. This is a Kong film where the main action begins with Kong in a battle against aerial gunners. And when he beats them handily, it's a way of both flipping the franchise's script and announcing that all the human/military/government authorities involved are in way over their head. The politics aren't subtle, and as for gravitas, Skull Island's script contains the biggest stabs at deathly seriousness of any Kong movie thus far.
And that gets to the bizarre schizoid nature of this particular popcorn flick: namely, is it even possible, let alone advisable, to make a King Kong movie about an idea so serious? Is the Kong franchise capable of commenting on anything other than its own spectacle? The notion of how to take Kong "seriously"—it is, after all, a film series largely built around a giant ape hitting giant reptiles—deserves a certain level of care. The original hinted that Denham's goal was its own. Jackson's remake set out to re-capture the feelings of a childhood Kong fan for an older and more jaded audience. And for the first twenty minutes or so, it seems like Kong: Skull Island might actually get away with it; it's certainly shot and edited with enough precision, and its Vietnam-soaked color scheme is dark and vivid. But then the dust settles on the first battle, the battle-weary soldiers begin comically gesticulating about the existence of giant monkeys, and the imperatives of the Kong machine take over.
So if nothing else, it's fascinating to watch the film cycle so wildly between tones during its remaining two-thirds. Once our adventurers get stranded on Skull Island, the movie jumps back and forth between comic banter, movie splatter, and straight-faced lines of Vietnam-era disillusionment that are all the more ponderous given their context:
"Sometimes, the enemy doesn't exist until you go looking for one." "No man comes home from war...not really." "I've taken enough photos of mass graves to recognize one."
Amidst all this, a very different line of dialogue stands out to me. When the helicopters approach Skull Island for the first time, Samuel L. Jackson gets on the intercom and says, "Remember, as usual, hold onto your butts." Any dedicated child of the 90s will recognize the line as Jackson's catchphrase from his small role in Jurassic Park (1993). And the moment he repeats it with a knowing wink, he's no longer a proud, defeated soldier: he's Samuel L. Jackson, beloved movie star and long-standing icon of badass profanity. The allusion is not empty. Jurassic Park is still the best "King Kong movie" since 1933, despite technically not being a King Kong movie at all, because it's also very much about a showman who creates an attraction and unwittingly sets it loose—and remember that Jeff Goldblum nodded to King Kong directly in one of his snarky asides. Samuel L. Jackson's line, then, is a self-conscious movie reference being thrown from one mega-mayhem franchise to another and back again. And the chemical reaction that ensues—Jurassic Park meets Apocalypse Now—is strange to behold.
What does Skull Island want? Vogt-Roberts called it in part a "throwback" to Vietnam movies, a curiously nostalgic word for an event that can still be tough to talk about in certain quarters. At different times, the film uses that divisive chapter of American history as an apparently sincere and committed allegory, a provocative point of reference, and a pure aesthetic lark. When the '76 Kong employed the Vietnam imagery of flamethrowers, helicopters, and leftist protesters, it felt authentic if not exactly tasteful. When Skull Island does its energetic jungle needle-drops for Black Sabbath, The Stooges, and (naturally) Creedence Clearwater Revival, it shows how a subject that once demanded caution and incited controversy for directors like Hal Ashby, Michael Cimino, Oliver Stone, and Francis Ford Coppola is now just another corner of pop culture history ripe for the plucking—another real-life Empire State Building for an image-maker to drop an imaginary creature. "The world is bigger than this," Brie Larson says, pleading for peace and reconciliation with an embittered Vietnam vet during the movie's apocalyptic climax. Samuel L. Jackson responds with a simple, "Bitch, please." The audience laughed. Why wouldn't they?
Chalk this one up as another strange beast roaming Kong's kingdom somewhere at the middle of the food chain: an entertaining, professionally crafted $200 million behemoth that's determined to differentiate itself from its parents, swallows an unexpected corner of cinema whole, turns it into thrills for a family night out, and winds up with what may turn out to be the year's weirdest identity crisis. Vogt-Roberts said he wanted the film to fit modern times, and it certainly does. Once again, the adventure of the ape is a mile-marker, if only as a blockbuster with unlikely pretensions where any sincerity is so filtered through franchise demands—and so expressed through other movies—that it becomes hard to discern. (It's also a reminder that nowadays, you sure as hell better have your heroine do more than scream and wear gossamer. Her character has a unisex name, Mason Weaver, and don't ask her to kiss her male co-star). The film got its biggest, most appreciative laugh early on, when John Goodman, looking at a protest in front of Nixon's White House, says, "Mark my words, there will never be a more screwed up time in Washington." I wouldn’t be surprised to see, in the not-too distant-future, an adventure where Kong ends up at Trump Tower. Carl Denham would clean up.