Sunday, January 01, 2006

It was beauty killed the beast

Somewhere in the $300 million special-effects extravaganza that is "King Kong", Peter Jackson is trying to tell us something. It must be something important, as it is the longest remake of a movie that has been remade several times since the 1933 original by Cooper and Schoedsack.

To be honest, I've never seen the 1933 production, though I do remember the Toho Studios production "King Kong vs. Godzilla," (and nearly all their other movies) which seemed to be in endless replay on WGN back in the day. I can't say I found those movies to be particularly good, but they passed the time on those lazy summer days when it was too hot or too wet to go outside...

[please note plenty of spoilers ahead]

Part of Jackson's purpose may simply be to bring a character he's loved to life in a way no one could do before, thanks to modern special effects, and his skilled orchestration of ficitional and actual characters on the screen. His work on the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy has cemented his visual style, one in which the fantastical setting of the movie itself becomes a character, with its own moods, mysteries and even betrayals.

But perhaps there is another message in the Kong epic, one that speaks about man's fascination with the wild and the irrepressible urge, in some, to tame it. It is interesting to note that they end up on Skull Island, not because they want to (the ship's captain had turned the ship around to go to Rangoon), but because a storm and fog enshrouded the night and they were run aground into some rocks. After their freaky encounters with the local savages (who deserve the term), Denham and the rest of the crew set out on Skull Island to rescue Ann Darrow, who has been abducted by Kong. Little do they expect to stare open-mouthed both in wonder at the beauty of the scenery and in fear of the gigantic beasts roaming the Island. There is something about the Island that makes man seem small and so hopelessly weak.

As they attempt to save Ann Darrow, the rescue party gets smaller and smaller the deeper into Skull Island they go, as they are beset by dinosaurs, insects and the weather. In the end, the rescue party itself is saved only when the crew from the ship is able to come, armed to the teeth with rifles. This, humankind's technological savvy, is what ultimately saves man against the overwhelming elements of the Island.

Unfortunately, our technological powress often brings out a mean streak in humanity, for it makes us think we are not only savvy but powerful. Powerful enough, for instance, to capture a force of nature like Kong and bring him back to the Big Apple. Of course, it isn't primarily hubris that motivates Denham to capture Kong, it is the profit motive. He stands to make millions from showcasing Kong and he isn't about to let the chance pass him by. So he devises a way to capture the beast and, before you know it, the big gorilla is on his way back to the Big Apple.

Once there, Kong inevitably finds a way to bust out and wreak havoc on the streets of New York, culminating in his ascension of the Empire State Building and eventual machine gunning by little biplanes. Kong is dead and, as Denham says, it was beauty killed the beast.

While it sounds nice, it is one of the dumbest lines to end a movie as it was hardly beauty that killed the beast. Kong didn't swim across the Atlantic to follow the cute blonde with green eyes. It would be really weird if he did. He was carted there against his will, kept in chromed steel chains and put on display. It was not beauty that killed Kong, it was man's inability to control him, an inability to control the natural.

This issue actually comes up on a practical level quite often. As Ali pointed out to me, it is not uncommon for people living in relatively remote areas of America that are scenic, beautiful and wild, to encounter bears. Or, as their natural habitat is destroyed, displaced bears find their way into urban areas. The bears will often make trouble, and can be a real danger to the elderly or little children, and thus people try to put "the fear of man back into them". Bears are not unlike Kong. Both are great to behold, either in their natural habitat or chained up, but once they go "wild" on us, we destroy them.

In our quest to subdue nature, we become shocked when nature reclaims itself. We wonder how it is that a city built below sea level could become so ravaged by a hurricane (umm, don't build cities below sea level), we wonder why mud slides in California damage so much property (maybe we shouldn't build on unstable hills, even if they do have great views) or why bears wander into our backyards (how about not having any forest left?).

Often times, it is the monsters we create that we must destroy. And maybe that would have been a better line to end "King Kong" with...

1. See a trailer for the 1933 "King Kong"
2. Trailer for the 1976 "King Kong"
3. "Bear Prowling in Genoa" The Record-Courier, 12/30/2005.
4. Novelization of King Kong, available from Amazon
5. "It Wasn't Beauty Killed the Beast" by Gary Giddins, 11/22/05 in the New York Sun
6. Roger Ebert's review, 12/13/2005 (he rated it as one of his Top Ten for 2005 & also agrees that it wasn't beauty killed the beast)


Anonymous said...

Ah, but beauty killed the beast in that he didn't act like a beast around the beauty.

Umar said...

That's a good point...

Your comment reminds me of Ebert's review where he talks about how Jackson's Kong is not really feared by Ann Darrow's character. After the initial scare, she actually grows to like the big guy and achieves some Jane-Goodall-type understanding with him. This is different than the original Kong movie, in which Ann's character pretty much screams nonstop in fear of Kong.

Jackson's version removes a lot of the violent sexual connotations (where Kong represents a form of jealous rage/violence in men) and allows the relationship between beast and beauty to be less weird than it otherwise would be.

I do like the notion of beauty taming the beast, it is a very poetic concept. One that I think happens to be very true. It is often the case that the most roguish knaves can be transformed by beauty and it recalls the line,

"And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty, and beauty stayed his hand. And from that day forward, he was as one dead"

Dead because that which was beast-like in him died and something wholly new, different and wonderful took hold.

[by the way, if anyone can find the original source of the quote, claimed as an Arabian proverb by the movie, I'd love to hear it]

M. Imran Abd Ash-Shakur Rana said...

Man, you take all the fun out of a movie, don't you? All this in-depth analysis and all. I mean, DANG, DUDE! DID YOU NOT SEE THE AMAZING SCENE when Kong took on 3 T-Rexes?! What's wrong with you?!

You know what's really poetic? When fricken King Kong killed the T-Rex by ripping its jaw apart. Or when Kong took on the giant bats.

You left out the real meaningful stuff of this mind-blowing movie.

In essence, you are not the man I once thought you to be.