Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


From King Kong (2005, Big Primate/Universal Pictures)

From King Kong (2005, Big Primate/Universal Pictures)

Here’s a little Dr. Science quiz for you.   Several years ago there were two science fiction movies that were released around the same time.   One was called The Incredible Shrinking Man, a story about a guy who drank something—I don’t remember what exactly—that caused him to keep shrinking, eventually right out of sight. The special effects people had a lot of fun along the way, pitting him against cats, then rodents, then a spider, and probably eventually, although we never find out, with bacteria.


The other picture, Tarantula , reverses the premise:   through some mishap by a wacky scientist a tarantula ends up growing as tall as a ten-story building and, as is the case in this film genre, threatens civilization as we know it until it is nuked out of existence in a flaming finale.


Question:   imagine these two premises as options for real-life circumstances.   Which predicament would you prefer to find yourself in: a) shrinking person confronting normal-sized tarantula, or, b) normal-sized person confronting giant tarantula?    What’s the difference, your thinking, you’ll end up as spider-lunch either way.


Not necessarily.   You should choose “b”, the giant tarantula option.   You see, a ten-story high tarantula would not only not be able to chase you down and gobble you up.   If it could move at all it would probably crumble under its own weight.   Its the same reason that an ant, which amazes us by being able to haul a leaf sixty-times heavier than itself, wouldn’t be able to carry its own weight if it were human-sized.   It has to do with the structure of these creepy-crawlies, and with the laws of physics.


So what’s the point?   That you should feel a little more secure?   No. I mean yes, you should feel more secure, but that’s not the point of the quiz.   It’s a simple one:   size makes a difference.   So what, there’s probably other ways that you have already learned that lesson.


Speaking of outsized critters in movies I recently saw the third version of the movie classic,King Kong (see also Archives, No. 11.5, August 2004).   It’s one of my favorite movies—the 1933 version, with Fay Wray as Anne Darrow, that is.   This second remake [1] by the vastly overrated Peter Jackson, is pure crap and a sop to 19-year-old video game wankers who wouldn’t watch a black and white film if you promised them an endless supply of Pepsi, Doritos and Clearasil. The 2005 version really plays the sex thing, with Ann (Naomi Watts) in a perpetual state of dropped-jaw awe at something she apparently sees, but is not revealed to the audience.   One would think that they had met through that eHarmony on-line thing but he hadn’t mentioned his size.   In any case, they spend a good part of the film actually mooning at each other and, presumably after intimate dinners and quiet walks on the beach and, of course, watching sunsets.   C’mon, Jackson, we know that Ann and the ape just can’t get it on, so why are you screwing up a classic American film? [2]   It should have been re-titled as King Klunk .


I argue for keeping to the “purity” of the 1933 version because all the high-tech video effects of later version obscures the fact that the story is really a film about the relationship of humans to the rest of nature.   I have two related “takes” on this, both with religious undertones. [3]   One is that it is a story about sacrifice .   Remember, Ann Darrow is hung out there by the creepy natives of Skull Island to appease the giant ape; she can’t help it if he’s finally discovered he like blondes.   It’s a reference back to all those sacrificial practices of bygone times, the notion of offering youthful, virginal purity to propitiate the gods.   Sacrifice has been at the core of religion since before God tested Abraham.   It most likely harkens to early man’s fear of forces he could not comprehend and to animals that lurked just beyond the illumination of his camp fires.   Throw ‘em a bone.   Almost all religions have a form of sacrifice in one form or another, perhaps the most gory example being the Aztec rites.


The other dimension of King Kong deals with our relationship to Nature.   Unlike Frankensteinand giant spiders, which are man-made aberrations, Kong is Nature’s aberration, and especially one that can be—in the character of Carl Denham, [4] the film-maker-promoter—commodified, put to profit.   So it’s more than blond meets ape love story, its about how we exploit nature to our own ends, how we drag Kong off his island and take him to the island of Manhattan for the amusement of sybarites, and force him in desperation to climb up the Empire State building (with the blonde in hand, of course—they really do have more fun).   Then, as is the denouement in so many such films and novels, we solve the problem we have created by blasting him with our advanced technology.   Finally, taking a cue from that Garden of Eden scene in Genesis, the guy who hauled him off his island and put him on exhibit, has the gall to say in the movie’s very last line:   “It wasn’t the airplanes [that brought him down], it was beauty killed the beast.”   That’s right, blame it on the blonde.

©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 6.5.2006)

[1] The 1976 version is by Dino DeLaurentis, and holds closer to the original, and at least has some humor, and Jessica Lange as the blonde love interest of Kong (She calls him “you big ape!”).   It is also the version where Kong ascends the World Trade Center in the final scene and is vanquished by jet fighters.   The 2005 piece of garbage   is an insult to bother the viewer and the giant ape.

[2] I know, there was that joke going around for years that Fay Wray died giving birth to Kong’s child.

[3] There he goes again.

[4] Nobody plays him the way Robert Armstrong did in ‘33