Peter Jackson's King Kong will cause your average academic to explode in hyperventalitory fits about evils like crass capitalism, American imperialism and racialized sexualities. These predictable complaints predate the viewing of the film because they are staples of American academic culture. No left-thinking scholar would dare utter a word in favor of Jackson's film for fear of being shot down by his or her peers as supporting capitalism, imperialism, racism and heteronormative gender roles . . . across species. But can you imagine a more boring reaction to a work which somehow manages to offend so many sensitivities? To assume that it can be no more than the sum of its ideological failings entails another assumption: that Peter Jackson is unaware of the historical context not only of his film but the original.
One more thing: to focus on what the film captures about its historical moment and 1) not acknowledge that there is a significant difference between a work produced in a given historical moment and one which reproduces that moment 70 years later and 2) plain lazy thinking. I'll deal with the latter first:
LOOK AT EVERYTHING JACKSON CRITIQUES! LOOK HOW DAMNING HIS CONDEMNATION OF COLONIAL EXPLOITATION, CAPITALIST HUBRIS, STEREOTYPICAL MASCULINITY AND HOLLYWOOD VALUES IS! LOOK AT VALORIZATION OF THE CLIFFORD ODETS-LIKE DRAMATIST, THE AFRICAN AMERICAN CREW CHIEF AND THE INDEPENDENT WOMAN IS! LOOK! SEE?
The knee-jerk academic criticism of the film would miss the subtle way in which Jackson's film fights the stereotypes of the people populating it. He and his co-writers scripted narrative that invalidates the stereotypes to which an academic who hasn't seen the film but "knows" what it's about would object. No one who left that movie would think the spirit of American ingenuity—valorized in Act One but vilified in Act Three—such a wonderful thing. Unless academics are so hardened that they don't empathize with Kong, there is simply no way that they leave the film thinking anything other than:
- Racism is bad.
- Sexism is bad.
- Capitalism is bad.
- Hollywood is bad.
- Platonic love is super.
- Animal rights are awesome.
The means by which those thoughts are achieved are suspect . . . as they should be, given that Jackson remained faithful to the film he had adapted. The only way this strawman would be satisfied would be for Jackson's film to resemble the original in name alone. But isn't what he's done more subversive? Isn't sneaking sound left-thinking morality into an otherwise morally reprehensible film a good thing? Isn't that the sort of counter-propaganda the academic left should support? I think it is . . .
. . . but I should add that I have no proof anyone, academic or otherwise, actually thinks these things about the film. I thought them as I watched it because I couldn't deny that some of the representations—esp. of the "race" of "natives" who "worshipped" Kong and looked suspiciously like the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings— had me squirming. Then I asked myself the difficult questions those who will condemn the film outright will never ask:
What else could he have done? Created an ostensibly uninhabited island actually peopled by a race of "white" "natives"? How would they have gotten there? Proto-European imperialism anyone? If you don't count the Vikings, the European peoples were land-locked for far longer than any other ethnic group. The Polynesians populated thousands of tiny islands from New Zealand to that rock out there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean which no one even knew was there before the advent of satellite technology.
If you follow Jackson's racial logic, what you have is a highly-specialized society which has 1) impressively come to inhabit this island from whereabouts unknown, 2) built tremendous walls to protect the rest of the world from the island's occupants and 3) descended into a state of mere substinence because their duty as stewards has prevented their culture from evolving. Maybe I'm not the one to comment on the representation of an evolutionary arms race, since I'm inclined to strip it of its cultural implications and say "that's what happens in an evolutionary arms race," but the fact that I'm already churning this information through such lofty cognitive devices indicates that the film does what any respectable film should:
It presents you with grist your mill can't easily refine.
UPDATE: I have created another comment thread since this one seems to be intimidating people.