Sometimes movies raise more questions than they answer. Sometimes movies are King Kong.
- This is a movie from the early thirties about a gigantic gorilla that becomes obsessed with possessing a pretty blonde lady. Is it super sexist and racist? Yes, yes it is.
- Is there any part of it that isn't super sexist and racist? Fortunately yes. The opening forty minutes or so are intermittently dicey, but it calms down a little once Kong appears. (Assuming, of course, that you treat Kong as a real character and not as a metaphor; if he is literally a gorilla then his treatment is very tasteful, in that he is given a lot more dignity than most movie monsters get, but if you see him as a stand in for a dark skinned human being... Well, then all the scenes where he's in chains are less tasteful.)
- Wait, it takes forty minutes for Kong to appear in the movie that bears his name? What's up with that? The entire first act is ape-free, actually, and is devoted to getting the film's human characters to Skull Island where Kong lives. You see, filmmaker Carl Denham wants to make his next adventure picture on a mysterious island that he's just heard of, but he has a problem - for some damned reason audiences have decided that they want there to be at least one woman in their films and he doesn't have any ladies in his repertory cast. Alas, it turns out that recruiting actresses for his secretive, time consuming and dangerous project is pretty hard. You'd think that "Hi, I'm a total stranger and I'd like to invite you to get on a boat... Where you will be the only woman on board... So we can sail for several months to an undisclosed location... where I will film you getting endangered by large wild animals" would be super appealing to your average actress, but I guess not.
- So how does Carl finally cast his leading lady? By accident. He's cruising a soup kitchen looking for down on their luck ladies and coming up empty because none of the semi-homeless women have the sex appeal required for a big screen starlet... When he just happens to look up and see a photogenic flapper named Ann Darrow trying to steal an apple from a street vendor. He's immediately like "that's my gal!" Fortunately, she agrees to work for him for fame / food and possibly also money. But definitely at least fame and food.
- So what would have happened to Ann if she hadn't signed up to go on Carl's death mission to Skull Island? I dunno. I spent a long part of the movie's first act wondering about this, but I never came to any real conclusions. On the one hand she seemed to be leading the life of a Dickensian orphan in the grimy streets of New York City and that doesn't seen fun. On the other hand, I'm not sure if stealing apples and getting caught by irate street vendors isn't a better career path than becoming a human Barbie doll for a giant gorilla to play with in the tropics. I guess it just comes down to whether she likes traveling or not?
- So what's the deal with Skull Island? It is an island lost in time, which means that it is overflowing with antiquated things, like dinosaurs - tyrannosaurs, pterodactyls, even a man-eating brontosaurus all live there. Also forty foot tall gorillas, who weren't from dinosaur times but which are still prehistoric I guess. Oh, there's a bunch of black people. (Refer back to question #1 above.)
- Wait, did you just try to sneak "man-eating brontosaurus" past me? Weren't they herbivores? Not on skull island they aren't: a brontosaurs definitely chases an unlucky member of Carl's crew and eats him alive on-screen. I'm not sure exactly how that dude couldn't outrun such a massive beast, but whatever - that scene is kind of gnarly and nonsensical, but enjoyable nonetheless.
- It doesn't sound like this film is very scientifically accurate? At one point one of Carl's underlings points at the brontosaurus and asks what it is. Carl tells him that its "something from the dinosaur family" as if pterodactyls and tyrannosaurs were brothers. So no, this film is not going to win any Nobel prizes for the advancement of scientific knowledge anytime soon. (That said, it would be cool if pterodactyls and tyrannosaurs were actually brothers. Just think of the Thanksgiving dinners...)
- So what's Kongs deal? The titular ape has two deals. The first is that he really hates all of his neighbors on Skull Island and he spends most of the movie's second act murdering them viciously. There's a long scene where he wrestles a tyrannosaur to the ground before killing it by sticking his hands in its jaws and pulling its head apart. (We see its corpse a little later and it is visibly bleeding from its mouth.) He also beats a giant snake to death. Also, he crushes a pterodactyl with his bare hands when it tries to kidnap Ann from his lair. Which brings me to his second deal: he really, really wants to caress poor terrified Ann.
- What in the hell does he want with a human lady? That's the million dollar question my friend. His interest is obviously sexual, but it is never explained why he's so attracted to Ann, who doesn't look like a female gorilla and is literally a fifth his size. I would kind of get it if he had never seen any humans before but he regularly stops by the village and eats their women. However I don't really want to dwell on this topic because any explanation as to why he would think that black women are food and white women are toys is just going to hurt my head.
- So does Kong form a loving stable bond with Ann? No, her stupid boyfriend - who literally acts like a prepubescent playground bully; when he asks Ann out on a date she's taken aback and says "I thought you hated women" - ends up rescuing her from Kong. (And by "rescuing" I mean "he helps her jump hundreds of feet off a cliff into the ocean.") However, Kong isn't about to let her get away that easily and he immediately chases after her. Fortunately, Carl came to Skull Island with a bunch of gas grenades and he manages to knock out the big ape before he can rekidnap Ann. Then while he's unconscious Carl's crew builds a second boat big enough to haul a gigantic beast back to New York...
- Wait, they build a second boat while Kong is asleep? Wouldn't that take forever? And wouldn't that be super dangerous because all of the Skull Islanders hate them and want to murder them? Well, the movie just skips over this section - Carl basically says "we'll need to build a raft to carry him back to the city, so let's get to building" and then there's a hard cut to them just magically being in the big apple. It is very convenient.
- So why does Carl want to take Kong to New York? He thinks he can make a lot of money by putting Kong on a Broadway stage and then charging $20 a head (in 1930's money no less) for people to gawk at him.
- But... that's it? He's not part of a show or anything, its just "hey society people, come look at an oversize primate as he stands still on a stage"? Pretty much. It's unclear what the actual show would have been because Kong (who must have been docile for weeks at that point, because apparently he didn't disrupt the voyage back to America or act up in the entire time they were setting up his Broadway debut) freaks out almost immediately after the curtains open. He breaks his chains, escapes into New York, and starts to wreck up the place.
- That doesn't end well for him, does it? No, it doesn't. Kong climbs the Empire State Building with Ann in one hand (which suggests that he must have great core strength; I think I would need to use both hands if I was going to do something similar), but then military bi-planes come by and shoot him in the heart until he falls to his death.
- So this movie makes a big deal about plucking Kong from the jungle, then taking him to New York, and then he just... dies immediately after arriving in the city? Yeah, this film is definitely a good example of why colonialism pretty much sucked. Everyone on Skull Island was doing pretty fine - well, the native women who were being used as human sacrifices to appease a hungry gorilla god were probably leading hard lives - but then Denham the dumb imperialist showed up and started taking what he wanted will-nilly which caused a bunch of people and animals to die for no reason. And he isn't even sorry about any of it! The last scene of the movie is Carl looking at Kong's dead body - the corpse of his would-be million dollar attraction, who he sacrificed at least a dozen men's lives to capture - and he obviously has absolutely no remorse about how it all went down. A bystander says "the airplanes got him!" and Carl wistfully replies " Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes who got him. It was beauty - beauty killed the beast."
- Wait... he thinks this is all Ann's fault? Yeah, that'll show her for being such an ape-magnet.
- So... At the end of the day is King Kong a good movie? Well, it is definitely a must-see for history minded cinephiles. After all, it basically set the template for all future monster movies - you can see echoes of it in everything from Jason and the Argonauts to Jurassic Park. And fantasy enthusiasts will still enjoy it because the entire middle section, which is mostly devoted to Kong wordlessly fighting out oversize beasts, still holds up; the puppet work is a little slow by today's standards, but it is still surprisingly evocative because Kong has a very expressive face. But if you are just a casual movie goer then honestly you might be better off skipping it because the actual narrative is relatively thin and its politics have aged poorly.
The ultimate question surrounding Kong is: to what extent can we forgive an old movie for being, well, old? Because a movie like this just couldn't fly today (...which makes the news that they are trying to reboot it once again truly bewildering.) Kong definitely served a propagandist function, training generations of Americans to think of black people as mindless pagan savages, and to that extent it is hard to see it as the lightweight entertainment it was meant to be. But then again, it was made at a different time, and it is an interesting historical document that tells us a lot about how our grandparents and great grandparents saw the world. So where do we draw the line with this? Do we celebrate it for the humane way it depicts its inhuman lead, or do we condemn it for the blatantly problematic ways that it depicts its human characters? Unfortunately, while I can definitively settle a lot of the questions this movie raises I don't have any good answer for that particular inquiry.