The history of “King Kong” is the history of cinema’s experimentation with technology. When he was first unveiled in 1933, he revolutionised the possibilities of cinema. The original Kong was the creation of Willis O’Brien, the godfather of stop-motion technology who fashioned a miniature ape from clay and rubber and secreted a football bladder inside to mimic his breathing. More than 80 years on, a new film, “Kong: Skull Island”, stars a rippling, raging CGI colossus.
For the first remake in 1976, Kong was played by an actor-animator in an ape suit, injecting life into his eyes and comedy into his lust for Jessica Lange’s sacrificial blonde. A giant model was also built for the film, at a cost of $500,000, but it was so lifeless that it was used for only 15 seconds. Spool on another three decades and Peter Jackson, whose version of “King Kong” came out in 2005, had access to computers. Thanks to his work on “Lord of the Rings”, he had spent several years at the frontier of special effects. As Kong he cast Andy Serkis, the actor who’d played Gollum, who wore extended prosthetic arms, a motion-capture suit and 150 3D digital sensors on his face to record every twitch. The result was an emotional ape of breathtaking naturalism. Serkis went on to do similar work in the “Planet of the Apes“ franchise alongside Terry Notary, Hollywood’s go-to movement coach who is the motion-capture performer now playing the monster in “Kong: Skull Island”.
It’s not just in the realm of technology that Kong has been a barometer. Each of the films has been a timely tale of American hubris. In the original, the character of Carl Denham captures Kong, brings him to New York and displays him on Broadway as the eighth wonder of the world. Denham is an explorer, film-maker and impresario whose profiteering brings destruction in its wake. When Kong – whose lifelike roars were the amplified blend of a tiger’s growl played backwards and a lion’s roar played forwards – clambers up the Empire State Building, the assault on the newest symbol of American pre-eminence captures the fears of Depression-era audiences suffering the results of financial speculation.
By 1976, the profiteer is an oil mogul played by Charles Grodin, who descends on Skull Island in search of mineral wealth. An up-to-the-minute portrait of a new kind of American archetype – J.R. Ewing was still two years off – his ecological carelessness is much deplored by the long-haired hippy and palaeontologist played by Jeff Bridges. To ring the changes, once Kong has been ferried to New York, he conquers the gleaming World Trade Center, which was just three years old. Posterity has conferred an awful resonance on the moment a helicopter smashes into its flank and explodes in flames.
The films have also tracked changes in gender politics. Set in the Thirties, Jackson’s movie is a homage to the original. But it is also an update. In 1933 Fay Wray played a Depression-era waif called Ann Darrow who screams at her captor but says almost as little. She certainly doesn’t fall for him. In 2005, Naomi Watts’s Ann Darrow claims all the emotional power in her relationship with Kong. Seducing him with comic dance routines and circus skills, she bonds with the vulnerable romantic loner lurking inside all that digitised fur.
In the latest Kong film, its director Jordan Vogt-Roberts takes this a step further. Tapping into the iconography of Vietnam epics by Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola, he sets his film in 1975, with a prologue in 1944, thus bridging America’s heroic and tragic wars. A chopper-borne troop escorts a federally funded expedition to find new life on an uncharted island. For company they have Jack Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a tracker whose surname is a nod to “Heart of Darkness” and Coppola’s retelling, “Apocalypse Now”, and Mason Weaver, a self-described “anti-war photographer”. Brie Larson plays her as tough as any of the hardasses in helmets, though she does get a moment of tender connection with the great ape.
So who is this new Kong? It would spoil the fun to reveal the full arc of his character, but it’s fair to say that he shares the moral duality of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg in the “Terminator” films. He’s either a dark destroyer of American exceptionalism or a saviour come to rescue America, powered by self-belief and a very limited vocabulary. Sound familiar? Truly this is a Kong for our times.