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Ding Dong! King Kong!

Although I claim not to like the visual media very much, I do sometimes watch things on the haunted fish tank in the corner of the room. Indeed, on occasion, I even venture forth into the air conditioned luxury of the cinema and watch things on the big screen. Over the Christmas period I sat in the comfy leather seats at the Embassy Theatre and soaked up the spectacle of the big gorilla. I was completely enthralled and also slightly scared, although not for the usual reasons.

King Kong is Peter Jackson's homage to one of the icons of the Western cinema. Jackson has, of course, made a superb job of it. That almost goes without saying. Doubtless by this time you have all read umpteen reviews of the movie and most of you have probably been to see it and doubtless you have formed your own opinions about it as well. So I'm not going to write yet another review – that would be silly. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed the movie immensely, and let's move on from there.

There were some aspects of the movie that made me feel uncomfortable. It highlights certain disturbing social attitudes and it gives at least an implicit approval to some rather dangerous ideas. It is those ideas and attitudes that I'd like to examine a bit more closely.

Jackson decided not to update the original movie at all and so what we see on our screens is a faithful re-creation of the world as the makers of the original movie saw it in the 1930s, warts and all. At the beginning of the film we meet Carl Denham, an ambitious movie producer who is wheeling and dealing in an attempt to obtain more funding for his projects. It very quickly becomes obvious that Denham is utterly selfish, unscrupulous and amoral. He is concerned only with his own well being and is prepared to ride roughshod over anyone or anything who stands in his way. He is a manipulative scoundrel with no redeeming features whatsoever. Nevertheless he manages to persuade a lot of people to do his bidding by a combination of blackmail, emotional manipulation and ruthless action. By the time his helpless victims realise that that they must go along with his mad schemes it it usually too late. Carl has removed all other choices from them.

Once they reach Skull Island, he goes from bad to worse. He cares not a jot nor a tittle for the plight of the islanders (well, they're black, aren't they?). He doesn't even care about the hideous deaths suffered by his own people. He has dollar signs in his eyes and all he can see are opportunities to exploit. Kong is just Carl Denham's key to fame, fortune and glory and he isn't going to let anyone stand in his way. Particularly not some stupid, screaming female.

The movie plays on Kong's relationship with Ann Darrow and much is made of the emotional attachment between the two – indeed it is one of the major points of the movie and the somewhat soppy last line ("It was beauty killed the beast.") has a certain ironic truth and grandeur to it; but Carl doesn't give a shit about that, of course. He hasn't even noticed it, being too wrapped up in his own selfish interests.

Another line, spoken by a spear carrier just after Kong has died is much more telling, though. In response to someone wondering what Kong felt about the whole experience with Ann and with Carl's own exploitation of him, a journalist remarks (I paraphrase here), "He was only a dumb animal, he didn't know or feel anything."

We, the audience, know that this simply isn't true. And any of us with any empathy at all who have been involved with real live animals are certain that they do know and understand things; they do feel emotions and they recognise and have attachments to individuals. And yet Carl, the journalist, and indeed almost everybody involved with Kong, simply refuse to recognize that. Consider all the rich and famous people in the theatre when Kong is unveiled for the first time. They are there simply for the spectacle of the raree show and I saw no evidence that anybody in that audience had any thought to spare for Kong's emotions and feelings. No one had any pity for that glorious creature brought so low. And nobody involved in the show seemed to think this was strange or in any way unacceptable. That's what I meant by the disturbing social attitudes and dangerous ideas that I mentioned at the start. It worries me that there are people who see the world as consisting merely of things to be used for self-aggrandizement. If we don't have empathy, if we don't have an appreciation that other attitudes and feelings exist outside of our own, how can we possibly claim to be civilised?

I suspect, from histories I have read, that such attitudes were quite overt and not uncommon in the 1930s. There was (and still is) a sneaking admiration for the man who fights his way to the top, and there's often an acceptance that the only way to overcome the competition is to be completely ruthless. To that extent, Carl was only doing what he felt society expected of him.

Such an attitude means that, almost by definition, potential gold mines like Kong are there simply to be used as we see fit. After all, as the journalist said, they have no feelings, they are only animals, they are not human beings.

Rather like <insert your favourite despised ethnic group here>, really.

And that's where it really sticks in my craw. If we can't even recognise other human beings as people, what chance do the animals have? And extrapolating forward a few years, what chance do the alien societies have, should we ever come across them out there among the stars? Are we going to try to ride roughshod over them as well? Are we really that wrapped up in our own concerns to the exclusion of all else? Are we that amoral and wrapped up in our self-importance?

The movie tells us, quite explicitly, that inferior beings are there simply to be exploited or exterminated, whichever makes more money for us. And it tells us that everyone and everything that isn't just like us is by definition an inferior being. The movie tells us that the world of the 1930s admired and rewarded such behaviour and such views and considered them to be quite natural. And there is a strong implication that nothing has changed in the years since then.

Just look around you. The evidence shows that the twenty-first century is not all that different from the twentieth. If someone sailed to Skull Island today I'm sure that they would do just what Carl Denham did. Perhaps they'd be a little less blatant about it, but they'd still make money out of Kong and eventually they'd kill him.

Human nature hasn't changed and sometimes it makes me despair. The attitude exemplified in the film is why the Japanese still hunt whales; it's why the Americans still have the most appalling human rights record in the Western world, and it's why most of the Eastern countries treat their women like sub-humans. Kong himself is simply a metaphor for all of these excessive obscenities.

In our arrogance, we think of ourselves as lords of all we survey. Money, fame, fortune and possibly food are the only things we value. The world is there for our benefit and we're the ones in charge. And because we're the ones at the very top of the heap it's our right to rape the resources while we can, and to impose our own rules.

King Kong holds a mirror up to our eyes and we see ourselves reflected in it. That's why the story, silly though it is, is so powerful and so moving. It's a story for all times and all places and all people; a story which just happens to have been told about 1930s America in two magnificent films. But that's an irrelevance in terms of the larger picture. The story is timeless – it will work in any time and any place. We're talking archetypes here, and something deep inside each one of us recognises it at a visceral level. The movie works so well because it talks a universal language. That's why it is so damn scary.

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