King Kong (2005)
Director : Peter Jackson
Screenplay : Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson (based on a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Naomi Watts (Ann Darrow), Jack Black (Carl Denham), Adrien Brody (Jack Driscoll), Andy Serkis (King Kong / Lumpy the Cook), Jamie Bell (Jimmy), Kyle Chandler (Bruce Baxter), Lobo Chan (Choy), Thomas Kretschmann (Captain Englehorn), Evan Parke (Hayes), Colin Hanks (Preston), John Sumner (Herb)
Along with James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson is one of a select few Hollywood filmmakers who truly understands how to marry spectacle and emotion. This is not just a technical gift or a rote mechanical understanding, but rather a core feeling--an instinct--for how the two can been interwoven and feed off each other; it’s a rarified form of visual-emotional synergy that too few directors grasp, especially in today’s digital world where virtually anything is possible. It’s a rare gift (what one might call “finesse,” for lack of a better word), and it turns his big-budget Hollywood epics into pop-operatic spectacles.
Ever since he was a child, Jackson has been enraptured with the story of King Kong (1933), and he even tried to get a version of it made when he first came to Hollywood back in the mid-1990s. Flush with money and awards from the hugely successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson could virtually write his own ticket, which is exactly what Universal Pictures let him do in remaking Kong completely on his own terms (including a three-hour running time and a more than $200 million budget). At first glance, this seems a colossal mistake, a recipe for disaster--going from one massive production to another, remaking a classic film, and indulging a childhood dream that may have very well been best left in childhood.
Yet, it is that very childhood fascination--that enrapture of innocence--that makes Jackson’s King Kong such a fantastic spectacle. Its magnificence derices from its wide-eyed embrace of everything that is larger than life. It is a film made by someone who is in love with the material, and while this can sometimes lead to myopia, in this case, Jackson maintains enough of a studied distance to ensure that his passion is transferable to his audience, not lost on them. Jackson’s take on the material is exceedingly reverent to Meriam C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 original, right down to the Depression-era setting and the reuse of dialogue and memorable shots, but it is also uniquely his own.
The original King Kong is one of the most revered films of the early sound era, and for good reason. Willis O’Brien’s revolutionary stop-motion animation was more than just fine technique; it was imbued with emotion and tenderness that made the giant gorilla, whom Pauline Kael rightfully called “the greatest misfit in movie history,” into a sympathetic martyr. And this was in spite of the rest of the movie, not because of it. Regardless of our warm feelings about Cooper and Schoedsack’s film, a recent reviewing of it confirmed just how clunky a lot of it is, from the flat exposition, to lines of dialogue that land with an embarrassing thud, even by 1930s standards (Bruce Cabot’s Jack Driscoll telling Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow out of the clear blue, “Hey, I think I love you,” has to be one of the worst written and spoken lines of dialogue in the history of cinema).
King Kong has always been a love story, but in the original it was one-way: Kong’s affection for a beautiful blonde who never returned it. (There’s a reason Fay Wray’s scream is so infamous--it was virtually all she did.) When producer Dino De Laurentiis remade Kong in 1976, his screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. wisely revised the romance by making it reciprocal, an approach that Jackson and his longtime coscreenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens have taken to rapturous new heights.
Jackson’s King Kong is neatly divided into three sections, the first of which takes place in New York City at the height of the Depression (stunningly recreated as an evocative dreamworld entirely through digital imagery) and introduces us to all the major characters. With his slightly devilish eyebrows and face of an overgrown child looking to get into trouble, Jack Black makes for an interesting casting choice as Carl Denham, the monomaniacal movie producer who sees his hidden map to the fabled, uncharted Skull Island as a ticket to cinematic infamy. Running from the financiers who want to shut down his production, Denham scoops up a struggling vaudeville actress named Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) to play the lead and literally entraps his screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), who wants to maintain his artistic integrity by sticking to the theater.
For all that is good about it, this opening hour is arguably too much, especially since much of the development of the secondary characters like Jaime Bell’s young deckhand or Thomas Ketschmann’s captain is noble, but unnecessary. However, it does build tension and intrigue, which pays off once Denham’s tramp steamer literally crashed into the rocky shores of Skull Island.
Once on Skull Island, the movie takes off and never looks back. The island natives, which are reimagined as horrorshow zombie-monstrosities, capture Ann and offer her as a sacrifice to their jungle god, the great Kong. The enormous gorilla, who stands 25 feet tall, takes his blonde prize and absconds with her while the others follow in pursuit. Jackson then nimbly cuts back and forth between the two plotlines, with Kong and Ann fighting off T-Rexes and giant vampire bats while the others must contend with a stampede of brachiosaurs and a gorge filled with the giant insects that is easily the most squirm-inducing sequence I’ve seen in years (it is a version of the infamous lost “spider pit” sequence from the original film, one of the great holy grails of early cinema).
Jackson deploys all his considerable skill in maintaining the film’s headlong rush while taking the time to develop the growing relationship between Kong and Ann, which is the heart of the story. He may push the action envelop a bit too much, particularly in a drawn-out battle between Kong and not one, not two, but three T-Rexes, but the quiet moments between the storms in which Ann tries to placate the giant beast by doing her vaudeville routines and gets his attention and incites his childish rage by slapping away his hand at one point and yelling “No!” give the story a deeply human dimension.
Jackson also gives the story a new twist by making Kong not a vibrant young ape, but rather an older, slightly beaten down gorilla who is fierce only because it’s a means to survival. An almost throwaway tracking shot inside his cave shows the cobwebbed skeleton of another great ape, surely Lady Kong, which suggests that his internal scars may be even deeper than the external ones that roughen his hide. Even more so than either the 1933 or the 1976 versions, Jackson’s Kong has character.
From a visual standpoint, Kong is a marvel, and the digital wizards who brought him to life have honored Willis O’Brien’s legacy by making Kong’s expressiveness their greatest achievement (Kong’s movements come from actor Andy Serkis, who also provided the movements and voice for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings). Kong rages and rampages, but he also grunts and makes noises that are the giant gorilla versions of a laugh or a snicker. He can be trite and presumptuous, and he is never more endearing than when he turns his back on Ann in a clear attempt to get her sympathy. In other words, he is the most human character on screen, which is crucial once he is captured by Denham and transported back to New York City.
It is here that the film’s third act unspools, with Kong on display in a Broadway theater as “the eighth wonder of the world.” It is here that the film brings the romance between beauty and the beast to tragic heights (literally and metaphorically) atop the Empire State Building, but without the creepy eroticism of the 1933 and 1976 versions. At the same time, it also digs deeper into the nature of human cruelty than the earlier versions. For all the action and destruction on display, the last section of Kong is a deeply felt portrait of just how cruel humans can be, especially to those things we don’t understand.
Jackson makes the crucial decision to depict Kong in captivity as a creature defeated; he sits on the stage like a broken old man and literally has to be hoisted into position to make him appear threatening. Kong has never been more of a martyr, something that only Ann seems to understand because she has witnessed his gentle nature and playfulness. It is testament to Jackson’s confidence that he breaks the action in New York to allow for a moment of idyllic respite in which Kong and Ann enjoy the delights of sliding across a frozen pond in Central Park. The temporary nature of this time together makes Kong’s impending doom all the more tragic.
The sequence atop the Empire State Building is the film’s crowning achievement, one that brings all of the film’s emotion to a heart-rending crescendo. Jackson’s portrait of human cruelty reaches a fever pitch as the misunderstood creature is heedlessly slaughtered. We know it’s going to happen, but the scene still carries a resounding impact that carries with it a sense of grave injustice. Perhaps in homage to the original, Jackson ends the film with the same line of dialogue from Carl Denham in which he solemnly declares, “No, twas beauty that killed the beast,” but the line is either completely out of place or must be read ironically because the film shows without question that beauty gave the beast life. The love in King Kong soars because it is the best kind of love: the kind that redeems. In this case, it truly was the airplanes, sent out by unfeeling militarists who immediately want to destroy anything they fear or fail to comprehend, that killed the beast. Beauty saved it.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 Universal Pictures