Why is Hollywood still obsessed with the wilderness odyssey?

In Film by Will Carroll

‘That is no ship. That is no forest.’ These words are some of the last uttered by the fateful band of Conquistadores travelling through South America under the banner of Lope de Aguirre in search of El Dorado. Overcome with fever, those who have not yet succumbed to the elements begin to question their material surroundings, seeing only mirage and hoax instead of impending death. They sit on a battered, sinking raft, facing an immense jungle of unknown horrors, as they slowly give themselves over to oblivion. Werner Herzog’s masterpiece Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) marks perhaps world cinema’s first true embrace of the Conradian wilderness epic, and its sizeable imprint is still visible today. For all of the outlandish CGI and special effects available to filmmakers today, capable of transporting audiences to entirely new worlds, it seems that some just cannot leave the jungle behind.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) is a colonial narrative that perennially manifests itself in some way or another on the big screen. Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now (1979) is perhaps its most famous adaptation, transplanting the horrors of colonial Africa onto the jungles of Vietnam during the eponymous American conflict. Jungles that seem to stalk those who walk their floors; evils both human or otherwise lurking in the vines; it’s a setting that metaphorically befits the human psyche almost too well. But for all of the plaudits aimed at Coppola’s drug-fuelled meander through the Asian jungles, Herzog’s 1972 film rarely receives credit for invigorating the genre of the wilderness odyssey, and it is his psychological horrors and colonial bloodlust we see flowing in contemporary films like Kong: Skull Island (2016) and The Lost City of Z (2016). We have never truly come out of the woods, it seems.

Conrad’s questionable treatment of race in his novel can often mar his overarching criticism on colonial Europe, with his protagonist Marlowe famously decrying London as ‘one of the dark places of the Earth.’ Conrad’s novel treats the human psyche as one far more fragile and precious than the lands of unknown Africa, and one far more susceptible to change than the physical world found there. Why, then, should a reboot of the King Kong franchise head for such troublesome psychological waters when it is, at heart, an action-adventure blockbuster? It seemed unlikely right from the get-go that Tom Hiddlestone would undergo some Kurtz-esque meltdown on the absurdity of life, or wax lyrical about the amputated arms of vaccinated children, but yet the film’s aesthetic is rooted straight in Conrad-Coppola lore. A deliberate design choice has been made to align Kong: Skull Island with films like Aguirre and Apocalypse Now, perhaps on some level to appeal to fans of psychological meat in their films. It rings hollow and puddle-deep, however, when compared to both of the 70s masterpieces that inspired it. That’s because a film simply cannot be a blockbuster and a psychological critique on the human condition, those two things just don’t dovetail. No one will ever read Skull Island as an analogy on the human mind and its penchant for breakdowns, and that’s okay with everyone flocking to see it.

On the 45th anniversary of Aguirre, fans of psychological trauma in the vein on Conrad should revisit Herzog’s masterpiece not simply to appreciate the work of a true auteur, but to refresh themselves of the glut of quasi-Conradian cinema. The wilderness odyssey can lazily leave itself open to obvious interpretation, with little effort needed by the filmmaker to explore human psychology when the conveniently dark and humid jungle does all the talking for them. Films like Aguirre and Apocalypse Now, however, are anything but lazy. They show the wilderness odyssey in all its raw, dark horror. If you do trek back into their overgrowth, be warned of the things you’ll find there.