David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
The latest big gorilla romp is full of spectacle and explosions, but it’s missing something very important.
There’s something wrong with Kong: Skull Island. The new retelling of the durable giant-gorilla myth is already on its way to being a box-office hit, but it departs from the 1933 original and its two remakes in several ways. This time, the eponymous ape gets a colon and an upsizing—he’s 100 feet tall, which is ludicrous; previous Kongs hovered between 25 and 50 feet. The film is set in 1973, and it leans heavily on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (and that film’s source material, Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness) for inspiration, though some reviewers have pointed out that these allusive exertions add up to little beyond some cool visuals.
But the most glaring departure from Kong canon is the absence of the usual third act, in which the kidnapped monster meets his doom in New York City.
This is a problem: Kong without the city is no Kong at all.
The Kong narrative template is simple but effective. Act one: Overconfident Americans, armed with cameras and firearms, set off for a primitive island, smelling plunder and adventure. Act two: They encounter Kong, the inexplicably large gorilla who rules the island; mayhem and monster-fighting ensue. Act three: A captured Kong is taken in chains to civilization but escapes, rampaging through Gotham before dying a hero’s death on the smashed sidewalk. There’s a reason why the posters for previous Kongs usually don’t focus on the Skull Island part of the story, though that part absorbs far more of the films’ running time: Kong only transforms into an epic tragic character once he hits Manhattan and starts bashing his way through the concrete jungle, swatting down elevated railcars and planes. On his island, he’s just a big ape.
“He was a king and a god in the world he knew,” barks the Barnum-esque Carl Denham, in the 1933 film’s second-most famous lines. “But now he comes to civilization merely a captive—a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong!”
The original story is credited to co-producer/co-writer/co-director Merian C. Cooper, who styled the Denham character on himself. But for anyone alive today, it probably feels pre-baked into the culture. The inspiration for Kong is said to have sprung into Cooper’s head when he saw an airplane flying past the spire of what was then the tallest the building in the world, the New York Life Insurance Building. For the movie, Cooper was able to use the just-completed Empire State Building. To make his monster, he needed the the city first.
Reviewers at the time understood that the power of the film—the collision of nature and civilization—relied upon those final moments, when the great beast finds itself dwarfed, and then defeated, by the works of modern man. “What is to be seen at work in King Kong is the American imagination faithfully adhering to its characteristic process of multiplication,” the critic William Troy wrote in The Nation when the film came out. “Kong is a veritable skyscraper among the apes.”
Everyone seems to hate the 1976 remake; its gorilla-suit effects have aged poorly, and the campy tone and performances (including a pre-Dude Jeff Bridges as a hippie paleontologist) are hard to swallow. But idea of an ape-among-the skyscrapers still works. When Kong climbs the World Trade Center, then a new marvel on the New York skyline, and leaps between the Twin Towers, the film achieves a kind of soaring pop poetry—perhaps more so now, since we know what becomes of these two American icons.
The giant-monster-in-the-city trope is now so familiar that it seems odd that it had to be invented at all. Monsters destroy cities; it’s what they do. The original 1954 Godzilla transplanted the idea to Tokyo and made its beast nuclear Armageddon incarnate. Kong, depending on whom you ask, is animated by a queasy mix of anxieties about colonialism, masculinity, sexual domination, and race. “Whites have sometimes spoken of the movie as a racial slur, but the black men that I've known have always loved it,” the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael wrote in her (rave!) review of the ‘76 remake. “It was their own special urban gorilla-guerrilla fantasy: to be a king in your own country, to be brought here in chains, to be so strong that you could roar your defiance at the top of the big city and go down in a burst of glory.”
The new Kong loses much of this weirdness—he’s really too big to relate to the human characters at all, and has no city to defy. He’s also deprived of his martyrdom, since this film is an exercise in franchise-building. Skull Island is part of a shared “MonsterVerse” that the ape will eventually share with Godzilla and other Japanese-bred kaiju, in their Americanized forms, for some kind of 2020 showdown that would have totally blown my mind when I was 8 years old. Presumably, we will get our share of urban destruction then.
I’m sure this will look a lot less ridiculous than the last time the two shared top billing, in 1962, But it’s still fundamentally wrong to reduce the Eighth Wonder of the World to a recurring role in a monster supergroup. He’s lost his whole raison d’etre, the cautionary narrative that so many newcomers to the big city can relate to—to pine for something impossible, stand briefly atop the tallest building in town, and die alone on the streets below.