“The Legend of Tarzan” presents a curious spectacle—a movie that erases itself from memory nearly as quickly as it is viewed. I watched it today; I no longer remember the names of any characters beyond Tarzan and Jane, and I knew those before I went into the theater. King Leopold of Belgium doesn’t count—he is name-checked countless times, but we never make his acquaintance, and thus one of the bloodiest genocidal maniacs ever to draw breath is squandered. Instead, we meet Christoph Waltz, performing a familiar trick: a fictional baddie dropped into real history, freeing the filmmakers up to reroute events to a more satisfying, if ahistorical, conclusion.
Unfortunately, this is not “Inglourious Basterds”, nor any other movie by Quentin Tarantino; “The Legend of Tarzan” was directed by David Yates, whom alert viewers won’t remember at all, because he directed the last four Harry Potter movies, three of which cannot be viewed before operating heavy machinery. Perhaps the studio wanted the audience drowsy, lest they notice that once again, our protagonist is a white man out-nativing the natives, becoming their leader, and repelling the invading forces of less enlightened whites (see: “Dances With Wolves”, “The Last Samurai”, “Avatar”, “Lawrence of Arabia”, etc., etc.).
But this movie is too muddled even to be effective racist propaganda: it begins with a business proposal so convoluted that Samuel L. Jackson, lurking in a corner, must interrupt and translate it to the bewildered Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård), who promptly refuses it. Jackson’s character must then chase down Greystoke’s carriage and re-explain the proposal with the additional twist that his motives are precisely the opposite of the proposal’s intended effect, because reasons. I was completely adrift, which is not what usually happens when Samuel L. Jackson speaks. Time does not improve matters: Jackson’s character exists only to provide historical exposition and questionable comic relief. One cringe-inducing scene centers on gorilla testes—the joke’s deeply unfunny the first time, yet is mystifyingly called back to in the final scene. On the evil side of the equation, Waltz’s goals are similarly vague: he is first a treasure hunter, then a mercenary, then an intermediary between slaveholders, and he wants to capture Tarzan for reasons that remain unclear until they no longer matter. (Accountants may thrill to a plot hanging upon the question of when mercenary soldiers will be paid, but ordinary humans can be forgiven for not giving a damn.)
Stuck between them is Tarzan himself: Skarsgård is certainly fit enough, but he brings none of the predatory self-confidence to the role that made him such a memorable vampire in “True Blood”, and his inert chemistry with Margot Robbie neutralizes a romance that, in its best iterations, can be relied upon to provide a pulpy thrill. When Tarzan meets Jane, he investigates her by touching her hair, jawline, and neck—then dropping to his knees to sniff her through her skirts. She leaps away, what should be a jarringly carnal moment is played off as a douche-commercial joke, and the embarrassed audience suffers through an extended soliloquy about the mating calls of various animals before being put out of its misery by a climax as unsatisfying as the romance. (Spoiler alert: the mercenaries are not paid on time.) Analyzing why all this hoopla is disrespectful to the Congolese dead would be pointless, because the filmmakers probably couldn’t find the relevant area on a map—the historical window dressing falls away the instant it’s inconvenient, and we’re left watching a CGI herd of wildebeest reclaim a city from the Belgians as Tarzan and Jane kiss on a dock. “Now, isn’t that a sight,” remarks Samuel L. Jackson. I will have to take his word for it. I can’t remember a thing.