Man Over Nature
By: Anthony Zangrillo
Somehow, Tarzan has returned to the big screen. In a film, which audiences seem to barely anticipate, the King of the Jungle makes a substantial return in a big budget extravaganza. Behind impressive performances and nice visuals, the screenplay fails to sustain a successful box office swing. The volatile tone sloppily mixes dreary dramatic scenes with pulp action and groan-worthy comedy. Still, David Yates has orchestrated a fine film, albeit with a $180 million budget. Undoubtedly, the cinematography will lure viewers into the majestic captivity of the African jungles. While some of the special effects result in shoddy green screen, most of the visuals will astonish viewers. The Achilles heel of these stunts is the lack of an emotional core to the CGI graphics.
The film has Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) begin his journey in Victorian London as John Clayton, 3rd Viscount Greystoke. Tarzan has left behind the jungles of Africa, where he was raised by the great apes. With his beloved wife, Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) at his side, Tarzan has been invited back to the Congo Free State to serve as a trade emissary of the House of Commons. However, Tarzan is unaware that he is a pawn in a deadly convergence of greed and revenge, masterminded by the corrupt Belgian Captain Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz).
While the notion of a civilized, celebrity Tarzan could make for an interesting premise, the film never really explores this de-evolution storyline. As soon as Tarzan arrives in the wild, he can immediately communicate with killer animals and utilize his “natural” instincts. This “superman” trope is ok, but rushing through Tarzan’s return to the wild seems like a missed opportunity.
In essence, the movie feels like a prolonged video game. Tarzan must battle through groups of enemies in order to reach the boss characters who have a tangential connection to Tarzan himself. This can be seen in the battle with Chief Mbonga. Even though flashbacks establish a significant tension between the characters, the payoff is not worth the effort. The fight’s conclusion attempts to teach an introspective lesson, which ultimately feels cheap and useless. However, the finale is an energizing spectacle rampaging across the screen.
Skarsgård is an impressive Tarzan, but seems to be used more as eye candy than as a dramatic heavyweight. Robbie perfectly captures Jane, and the script successfully avoids a damsel in distress misstep by openly acknowledging Jane’s fire and tenacity. The script thoroughly protects Jane, managing to lay the groundwork for many of her later actions. The real treat on screen is the mustache twirling Waltz. Christoph excels in these seemingly harmless villain roles. While his character doesn’t have an in-depth dastardly plan, the dynamic between Waltz and Robbie is fantastic, even though the similar steam ship shots will grow old very fast. Perhaps the most interesting trait of Captain Rom is his unusual rosary beads, which can be turned into a savage weapon, while still maintaining Rom’s poise and aristocratic demeanor.
The most befuddling character in the film is George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson). The obvious comic relief role takes the tension out of too many scenes. While Jackson performs with his usual intensity, his character is utterly unnecessary to the events of the film. Still, the weakest performers of the film are the nondescript, devoid of character apes. Even though talking apes would ruin the illusion of realism, these mute apes barely have any personality throughout the film. Grunts and snarls will lead viewers into the illusion of in-depth characterizations, yet most of the ape scenes make very little sense, merely representing an expensive piece of CGI.
Overall, fans of the jungle myth may appreciate this visually updated continuation; however, general audiences will likely find this jungle affair too human for the wild.