Throughout The Legend of Tarzan, I couldn’t stop staring at Alexander Skarsgård’s chest. He plays Tarzan, who as a boy was raised by apes in the African jungles, and is now returning to the Congo as a man to help oversee a European expedition. Quickly shedding his fancy British garb to track down his beautiful, kidnapped wife Jane (Margot Robbie), Lord Greystoke reconnects with the wildness within himself, which means the actor flashes six-pick abs and a ridiculously chiseled torso to show how feral he is at his core. Every time the camera lingered on Skarsgård’s perfect body, I couldn’t help but gawk. It wasn’t because I was turned on—it was because I wasn’t entirely sure if what I was watching was real or enhanced by computer effects.
This is has become a real problem with modern blockbusters: Everything looks so good that I just assume that everything is fake and, therefore, nothing is real. The Legend of Tarzan is a film that’s entirely bogus, from the CGI to the story to its entire reason for being. It’s the worst sort of “enlightened” movie that assumes if it just treats a musty pop-culture property with somber realism, everybody involved will be congratulated for how intelligent and progressive they are. But the excess of seriousness only makes The Legend of Tarzan more ridiculous.
As the movie begins, Tarzan and Jane travel to the Congo, in part to put a heartbreaking miscarriage behind them. Led by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a Belgian envoy with a secret agenda, Tarzan, Jane, and a salty American named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) marvel at the untamed jungle animals and gorgeous, unspoiled landscapes—most of which were digitally constructed in such a way that you spend a lot of time distracted by the high-priced attempt at verisimilitude. But soon the wicked Leon takes Jane captive and sends Tarzan and George on a chase that will lead them into the teeth of a vicious tribe whose chief (Djimon Hounsou) wants Tarzan’s head on a pike.
The chief’s reasons for revenge are tied into The Legend of Tarzan’s dopey narrative gimmick. As we watch Tarzan battle jungle creatures en route to finding Jane, the movie cuts to brief flashbacks that flesh out important moments from his past: the day the apes found him; the moment he met Jane; the tragic incident that made him an enemy of this chief. Director David Yates wants to conjure an air of timeless, mythic grandeur, as if Tarzan’s whole life has been building to what’s waiting for him at movie’s end. But no matter how much Rupert Gregson-Williams’s score strains to suggest old-fashioned adventure and dark foreboding, The Legend of Tarzan never rouses itself from a generally somnolent vibe.
That’s largely due to how frightfully boring Tarzan is. The brainchild of writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan is commonly thought of as that dude in the loincloth swinging from tree to tree, he of such compact insights as “Me Tarzan, you Jane”—even though, really, he never uttered that much-quoted line. The Legend of Tarzan wants to elevate the character by giving him more nuance and soul, capturing him at a crossroads when he seems to have successfully reintegrated into European society but still feels the call of the wild. But Skarsgård has been given nothing to play. His Tarzan is the worst of both worlds: He’s a dreary European drip who’s also a sullen jungle warrior. Where Leon and his compatriots have no respect for the Congo’s indigenous people or majestic animals, Tarzan is deeply reverent, and the movie adopts his tone of hushed adoration, which mostly comes off like that one friend of yours who dutifully pays lip-service to the latest social ill as if reading a news story automatically means he cares more.
This is easily Skarsgård’s biggest film role, and one would like to think it’s a reward for terrific work in small, great indies like What Maisie Knew and The Diary of a Teenage Girl. But what sort of reward is a movie that smothers the vital, sensitive intensity he usually possesses? His Tarzan wears traditional pants and even tries to banter a bit with George, who doesn’t enjoy being stuck in the jungle. (You can sense the tamped-down Jackson champing at the bit to go full Snakes on a Plane campy.) But because the script’s leaden humor always hits the ground with a thud, we’re trapped with the least mirthful odd-couple cinematic pairing in recent memory—one that flirts uncomfortably with gay panic during an especially awkward scene, which will then serve as a “funny” callback later in the film.
Is the effects work stunning in The Legend of Tarzan? I suppose so—if your only criterion is whether it keeps calling attention to itself. Very rarely since the dawn of computer graphics have big studio movies opted to harness those effects in a way that erases their noticeability. The Legend of Tarzan uses them so that it’s bloody obvious we’re watching fakery. When this Tarzan swings from tree to tree, it’s done in such a way that it’s impossible to miss that it’s an effect. And later, when the jungle’s entire menagerie of animals descends on Leon during a climactic battle, it’s rendered in such a way that believability was clearly not a consideration. Special effects are no longer being utilized to supplement reality—they’re now a cheat for filmmakers who want to ignore physics and throw whatever they want on the screen.
You could argue that, hey, movies are pretend anyway, so what does it matter? But at their core, even escapist action-adventure films have some sort of human component that anchors all the fantastical elements, keeping us connected to the flights of fancy we’re watching. A movie like The Legend of Tarzan breaks that covenant—even worse, it dresses up its ludicrousness with a false sense of self-importance. I realize I haven’t even bothered to mention the performances by Waltz and Robbie. They’re perfectly adequate, beaten down by the same lumbering, dull falsity that pervades everything else in this movie. If you told me that one of them had actually been programmed in a computer, I wouldn’t be surprised—very little in The Legend of Tarzan feels alive.