I reviewed Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) here on the blog upon its theatrical release over a decade ago, and gave it a positive, even glowing recommendation.
With twelve years of hindsight, my thoughts are a little more even-keeled in terms of the movie’s success as a work of art.
It is still a great looking movie, even if it isn’t a great movie, overall. I'll be honest, I'm conflicted about the film. I love a lot of it, and some of it drives me up-the-wall.
Why was I so enthusiastic in the first place? Well, I was thrilled that King Kong was back on the big screen, and also that he had been given his due with a sprawling, epic, blockbuster adventure, I suppose. After all -- lest we forget -- a King Kong Lives (1986)-style debacle was always a possibility.
Today, I still see many of the virtues I detected in 2005. This version of Kong is, perhaps, the most sympathetic and “human” iteration of the character. He’s a scarred old warrior, whose heart is melted by Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). The character is strong (as his battle with three carnivorous dinosaurs suggests), but also innocent in a way, as his ice “skating” moment in Central Park reveals.
And the production values are still top-notch, especially regarding the third-act recreation of Manhattan. The film’s climax, atop the Empire State Building, is both vertigo-inducing and highly emotional. The moment wherein the weakened, defeated Kong slips backwards from the apex of the building still gets me. I absolutely hate to see the noble Eighth Wonder of the World slip out of frame. The moment gives me a lump in my throat every time I watch the film. It's so sad. And that sadness is earned. We've traveled a thousand miles with this noble Kong.
And what doesn’t work about this King Kong?
Well, some of the CGI effects don’t hold particularly up that well today, for one thing, and neither do some of the central performances. The film is overlong too, and takes forever to get through a story that -- let’s face it -- we all know by heart. Some characters and their subplots only take away from the film’s success, overall, I wager. Kong is the movie. We don't need sideshows with deck-hands and their mentors.
Also, much of the rethinking about Kong for this movie involves making the film more beautiful, and bigger in scope. I feel like there was actually more real thought behind the 1970’s version; transforming the Kong cinematic myth into a story of plundered resources, and the rape of nature. The disco-decade version of the material updated it for a new age, and a new audience. This film, for all its glories, is a straight-up throwback, but with a deeper characterization of Kong. But again, that's a logical development. The 1970's character is more "human" or than the 1933 one.
This Kong is a remake, indeed, and yet it possesses some intriguing notions that are worth mentioning, like a native culture that suffers, it seems, from constant PTSD.
Yet overall, Peter Jackson’s King Kong doesn’t break much new ground so much as develop old ground, or even give us a particularly fresh or innovative window to understanding Kong's world better. I can happily watch the film -- anytime I have three hours to spend, that is -- and enjoy it. A lot. But it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that both the 1933 and 1976 editions of this story give me more to write about, and think about.
I am hoping that Kong: Skull Island (2017), while set in the 1970's, also moves the character and his world in a fresh direction.
“Monsters belong in B movies.”
Down-on-his-luck filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) takes his last chance to make a movie, fleeing New York (and his studio bosses and creditors…) about the Venture with the intended star of his new movie: failed stage actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). Writing the script for his latest opus is playwright, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody).
They all travel to a mysterious destination in the South Pacific: Skull Island. There, traumatized natives seem to leave in fear of a God-like being. Ann is kidnapped by the natives and brought back to be the bride of that God, a giant gorilla called Kong.
Kong takes Ann through the jungle, to his home high on a mountain, battling back any prehistoric monsters that might attempt to hurt her. Meanwhile, Denham, Jack and a team from the Venture attempt to retrieve her. After Denham’s camera is destroyed, the filmmaker realizes that he can still make it big…by returning King Kong to New York.
He executes that plan, but King Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World, breaks free, and runs rampant in New York, climbing to the top of the Empire State Building for a final showdown with the world (and technology) of modern man.
“There is still some mystery left in the world, and we can all have a piece of it for the price of an admission ticket.”
The original King Kong was a taut and lean 90 minutes from start-to-finish. The 2005 King Kong runs over three hours (three hours and seven minutes, I believe.) The extra time is not wasted, but, looking back, the film does seem a little overloaded with unnecessary scenes and characters.
For instance, a deck hand on the Venture, Jimmy (Jamie Bell), and his friendship with Hayes (Evan Parke) get a lot of attention, but ultimately don't impact Kong’s life and death, at the hand of man. It humanizes these characters, sure, but do we really need these characters humanized in a King Kong story? I think the answer is negative. They are superfluous.
Similarly, all the back-story about Jack’s play, and Ann’s hard luck, and Carl Denham’s monetary woes put meat on the skeleton of the story, but as we can see from the 1933 film, that meat is not necessary, either. The characters don’t really need so much fleshing out, and, in fact, the fleshing out may be counter-productive in some cases.
Take Jack Black’s Carl Denham, for example. Let's be charitable and just say that Black is not the most nuanced of performers, and he brings a very black-and-white interpretation to the character. Robert Armstrong’s Denham was a filmmaker, a rogue, and also, in his own way, quite heroic. He was capable physically, and cunning mentally. Jack Black’s Denham is part comic-relief, part cartoon. He is so avaricious and money-hungry that his final line, about Beauty killing the beast, no longer makes sense. In this case, it was greed that killed the beast; Denham’s greed, in particular. It’s silly (and ill-fitting) that he should put the blame on Ann, who clearly loves Kong, while he seems to view Kong only as the goose that laid the golden egg. Nice way to shift the blame, Carl!
Denham is thus less an anti-hero, and more an actual villain in this version of the film, taking on some of the qualities we see in Charles Grodin’s Wilson in the 1976 film.
The dinosaur attacks on Skull Island in Jackson's version of King Kong are so ramped up, so-over-the-top, so much the last word in edge-of-your-seat cliffhanger action that they can’t help but impress on first viewing. You'll squirm and gasp throughout these exhilarating moments.
Later, however, questions of credibility crop up. There’s one scene here where a man shoots another man with a machine gun, to get a giant bug off of his chest. Miraculously, the other man doesn’t get shot himself, even with the bug darting all about, and the bullets flying, staccato fashion. This scene, like a few others, seems to exist by a cartoon set of physical laws. These scenes harm the film, overall.
Also, the movie seems to suffer a bit from the fact that it has so many resources to fall back on. In previous versions of the King Kong story, we have seen the huge wall on Skull Island and marveled at it. It seemed amazing, but also real. The native wall here seems like something out of a fantasy world -- Fellowship of the Rings, maybe -- not out of our reality. The contraption which delivers Ann to Kong is over-complicated and byzantine, when it simply isn’t necessary for it to be so complex. It all reeks a little bit of the idea that just because you can do a thing, you should do a thing. But again, that’s a complaint I have often made of Peter Jackson’s work. His films are long, fascinating, undisciplined, and in dire need of a responsible editor.
On the other hand, I do appreciate how Jackson has re-imagined the character of Kong as a hero, not a monster. It's odd to write about a giant gorilla as a "character," but this version of Kong is far more developed than in previous films. He is a battle-scarred warrior, perhaps a little over-the-hill, even. He is the last of his kind, as you can see from his cave high over the island, where the bones of his ancestors and family lay scattered.
And since the natives in this film are terrible, psychotic people, one senses that Kong has made his loneliness their worst nightmare. They live in mortal fear of their "God," and again, no version of the film has brought that idea home better than Jackson's. When you see the terrors of Skull Island this time around, you'll understand exactly how and why a giant gorilla might long for the company of a Vaudeville entertainer to take his mind off certain things.
He’s got to deal with things like giant vampire bats. Or roving T-Rex packs.
And because the Ann Darrow/King Kong relationship makes more sense in this version, the last third of the film (set in 1933 Manhattan...) is far more effective. Again, this may sound absurd based on the fact I'm writing about a giant simian here, but the film works in the same rare emotional dimension as Romeo and Juliet or any other tale of star-crossed lovers.
Ann isn't just "sorry" for Kong because she has sympathy for an innocent animal, she actually loves him, based on their (harrowing) experiences together. All her life, the script informs us, the people she loves have left her; leaving her vulnerable and in danger. Kong is the one being who is always there for her; always fighting to protect her. That’s a beautiful development of this relationship.
Finally, the portion of the film set in Manhattan, particularly atop the Empire State Building, is utterly enthralling. You will feel awe (at the depiction of NYC during that time...), vertigo (at the dizzying heights), and anxiety (even though, of course, you know how it's all going to end.) You will feel tremendous sadness for the inevitable separation that Kong and Ann will endure. This sequence is Jackson at his absolute best. He is able to use digital imagery, and CGI creations to render a scene that feels entirely human, and incredibly emotional. I said it above, and I'll say it again: I find Kong's final slide from the top of the Empire State Building unbearable, despairing, here.
This review may or may not help to clarify your feelings about this version of the legend. I sometimes love the film, sometimes like it, and sometimes feel that it is scuttled by bad choices in casting, and running time. I wish that it had some deeper relation to its time (as we clearly see in the case of the 1976 version).
Yet you can tell that every frame of this film is a labor of love, and so I wish, 12 years on, I just loved Peter Jackson's King Kong a bit more than I do.