“Kong” spectacular, deals with unavoidable racial themes

I finally got out to see this film. More specifically, I finally convinced R to go see the film, and I ended up doing so with a couple of free passes I got from work. It’s nice to see hard work rewarded with public recognition and free movie passes, and these tickets were burning a hole in my pocket for a couple of weeks now.
I was skeptical going in to see this film. I wondered how Peter Jackson could do such a long film based on the sparse source material of the original “King Kong” film, which, while ground breaking in its special effects, was a flawed film to begin with. The original “King Kong” was racist, albeit at a time where this was generally acceptable; it was spectacular but without body, at a time where that was the only way to get a film to a mass audience; and it was certainly dated with respect to its special effects, although they were ground-breaking at the time. There was simply not enough story to carry it any great distance.
All of that still applies to Jackson’s film. And yet, none of it applies. The film is, quite simply, both flawed and absolutely spectacular.
One of the reasons for heading to Jackson’s film was to see how he dealt with the racism; how the original material translated into something new. Could Jackson take limited, dated material and bring it into the modern era? Well, there are three predominant racist themes covered in this film, at least two of which are from the translated material, and the third either helps or hinders the film, but is no different than many other contemporary films. The first is Jackson’s depiction of the insane natives of Skull Island. Let’s be frank here: any human being living on an island full of monsters has got to be insane. Mix this body-deforming nihilism with a smattering of various and random South Pacific cultures, add a few generations of shipwreck victims and their genetic makeups, and place them on an ominous, and ancient structure made by God-knows-who to protect them from the freakish monstrosities on the island (the island itself, reminiscent of the dread R’yleh of Lovecraftian fame), and you have, essentially, the natives on Skull Island. I’m OK with this — with what Jackson did here. I was, admittedly, uncomfortable with this whole scene, but yes, it was easily believable.
The second, and more important, frankly, of the two main themes is King Kong as an analogy for the “forbidden” relationships — essentially *any* forbidden relationship, though specifically between a black man and a white woman — the “black fear” of less enlightened times (and some southern U.S. states). Jackson deals with this (he has to, given the material), but does it in the proper manner. The amount of pathos given to Kong in this film is astounding — the range of emotion evident in Kong’s body language, and the situations into which he’s placed forces the audience into his position. We sympathize — no, empathize with Kong. We are easily aware of, sensitive to Kong’s plight. We live our lives for over three hours, vicariously, through Kong, and through his relationship with Ann Darrow (played honestly, and convincingly by Naomi Watts).
The third, and perhaps most unfortunate racial themes, done in most action films these days, is the black supporting character who *spoiler* dies a horrific death part way through the film. I’m almost certain that there’s a rule in Hollywood somewhere that says you are required to kill off the black supporting character in an action film, and I loathe it. Jackson’s film is no different, but does it differently than simply killing off characters in reverse casting order. Hayes, the ship’s first mate (Evan Parke) dies the most noble of deaths — protecting an innocent — while realizing the horrible fates which await those who persist on this doomed mission. He quotes Joseph Conrad, and helps educate the hapless Jimmy on the horrors of which Man is capable. In this respect, I think Jackson did the proper thing — in killing off Hayes, Jackson saves him from having to lower himself to the despicable task of capturing Kong, something we suspect he would be opposed to, anyway.
With that stuff out of the way, the film is still absolutely spectacular. I have rarely, if ever, leaned so uncomfortably in my theatre seat, unable to watch the screen, wondering what the outcome of the scene will be. Almost every action scene has a trick at its beginning — an air of foreboding — and a wild ride for its remaining duration. There are dinosaurs, stampedes, epic (and unbelievable) battles, shipwrecks, balancing acts — all of which grind at your gut while you watch. And despite knowing the original “King Kong” film, you wonder continuously how Jackson will take this film forward.
Obviously we know how the film will end — how it must end. But when the inevitable happens, it happens hard, and slowly. Normally I would chastise a film for being so manipulative (see any Disney film for examples). This is not a normal film. One wonders if they ever made films like this before. It’s moving, epic, long (yeah, really long), and completely engrossing. It was the first film in many years of DVD-watching culture where people *didn’t* talk during the poignant quiet scenes.
Why didn’t I see this movie sooner? Why did I go see “Narnia” instead of this film? Oh yeah. Because I don’t like to cry at films.

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