David Yates’ has made a solid summer blockbuster, but he’s made it 40 years too late.
Like its legendary hero, David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan is a very strange beast. It’s a film completely out of time, a blockbuster better suited to another century; the only recent project its comparable with (in terms of ill-judgement, expense and delusional franchise aspiration) is 2013’s Lone Ranger reboot, a similarly unexplained 4th of July release with no apparent target audience, presumptively born of a studio handing a blank cheque to a profitable filmmaker (in that case, Pirates‘ Gore Verbinski; in this case, Harry Potter‘s Yates). Tarzan, the character and the novelistic world, could not be less relevant to today’s cinema audiences, and Yates’ team have made no effort whatsoever to update it for the sake of topicality.
We are thrown, John Carter-style, into early-2oth century London, where Tarzan has assumed life as Lord Greystroke. To anyone unfamiliar with the character’s backstory (and considering the lack of Tarzan films recently, that is a large proportion of the viewership), the initial half-hour is astonishingly difficult to follow. The remainder of the film is, for different reasons, not that dissimilar.
Greystroke and his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) return to the Congo and soon come into conflict with Belgian colonial big-shot Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz). Cue a great deal of swinging through the trees, complex racial politics (certain aspects of which are more successful than others) and an extraordinarily dull central performance by Alexander Skarsgård as Tarzan, highlighted further by an unusually restrained Samuel L. Jackson, doing his best blockbuster work in years. Tarzan shares more appealing chemistry with a large CGI elephant than he does with the reliably colourless Robbie, and the lack of audience engagement in their romance makes the film’s plot entirely void of interest.
What David Yates has proven himself masterful at, however, is an atmosphere of scale. None of the film’s cast set foot on the African continent during shooting, yet the environments feel grand and worthy of exploration. The animals may lack the stunning realism of Jon Favreau’s pioneering The Jungle Book or the recent Planet of the Apes prequels, but there is impressive visual choreography served on screen throughout. Even the obligatory “buildings collapse amid loud noise” finale has a unique sense of exoticism about it, with the film’s setting – in geography and juncture – bearing an air of sinister mystery.
A few decades ago, The Legend of Tarzan may have been heralded as a spectacular summer treat. Tastes and fashions have changed; David Yates’ uncompromisingly dated vision seemingly hasn’t. The Legend of Tarzan is sincere enough in its attitudes to colonialism and the natural world that it’s unlikely to enrage anybody. Neither, in a few months, will anyone recall a single frame of Yates’ film.