King Kong the movie, like its namesake, is a fast moving, hard-hitting behemoth with a big heart. Between this and his monumental Lord of the Rings series, Peter Jackson has officially unseated Steven Spielberg as film’s foremost creator of big-budget wonders that are actually wonderful.
Too much hollow Hollywood fare these days has a soulless sheen, with one-dimensional characters that are imagined first as plastic action figures and then made to fit paint-by-numbers storylines. King Kong is a marvel, the magnificent dream of a nine-year old boy realized with the intelligence, sincerity, and passion of Moviedom’s currently most sophisticated filmmaking team: Jackson at the helm, co-writing with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, aided and abetted by that mad Kiwi genius, Richard Taylor, and his WETA accomplices.
Jackson’s update is twice as long as the original 1933 Kong, but the story has the same essential beats. He builds tension by frontloading the first act—set in a luscious fantasy of Great Depression New York—with character-driven exposition. A less confident director would have dived into the Skull Island action ASAP, but Jackson’s nothing if not confident right now, and nothing if not smart. He takes his time. He gives us Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a struggling vaudeville actress reduced to stealing an apple from a sidewalk vendor. Her beauty and pathos catch the attention of Carl Denham (Jack Black), a movie producer best described (somewhat rhetorically) as ambitious, manipulative, and on morally shaky ground. Denham’s star is dimming, his financial backers are balking, and he’s in desperate need of a leading actress for his last stab at success: an adventure movie filmed on location at a mysterious, forebodingly named location: Skull Island.
Peter Jackson has officially unseated Steven Spielberg as film’s foremost creator of big-budget wonders...
In a charismatic, unexpected performance, Black gives Denham Orson Wellesian bluster; he’s a mad manic filmmaker with more vision than talent (true of Denham, not Welles). With the boys-in-blue hot on his heels, Denham shanghais soulful playwright, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, brooding), as his hired-hand screenwriter. Driscoll is an intellectual, a voice of the people, but some part of him seems primed for a bit of rollicking adventure. And so a crew of colorful misfits takes off on the steamer, Venture, headed for an uncharted island, straight into the Heart of Darkness.
After the exposition-heavy first hour, the movie shifts into high action gear on Skull Island. Skull Island is the land that Time forgot, a primordial jungle teeming with all sorts of spine-tingling life: vicious natives, rapacious dinosaurs, unspeakable sorts of creepy-crawlies, and a mighty big gorilla. Jackson, a true maestro, orchestrates one jaw-dropping sequence after another, pushing the limits of film technology and the PG-13 rating (think before taking the youngsters to this movie—I was squirming in my seat, half-covering my eyes at certain points).
Jackson reinterprets the creepy sexual overtones of Kong’s devotion in the 1933 movie into something more chaste...
The first hour spent with the characters pays off big-time in the second act: we care about what happens to Ann, Jack, the Venture crew, and even devious Denham. We know how they’ll react, though some surprise us. When Ann is captured by natives in need of their own lead actress—a luscious blonde sacrifice to the giant creature of the jungle—The Venture crew and the movie crew, with Denham toting tripod and camera, set out on a rescue mission.
Needless to say, in the dangerous and unpredictable heart of Skull Island, supporting characters are dispatched in a variety of marvelously entertaining ways (special points to Lumpy, the cook, played with mad glee by double-booked Andy Serkis). There’s a brontosaurus stampede, a hair-raising episode on a highly unstable log, and a long drop into a cavern filled with some seriously stomach-churning insects and arachnids—not for the faint of heart.
I recalled, at this point, Jackson’s early career as shlocky Z-movie director, the gross-out auteur behind such anti-classics as Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles. There’s a lot of more of that lowbrow sensibility on display here than that of the guy who cradled the golden man at the 2003 Oscars. Skull Island is Jackson’s Neverland, his gigantic movie playground. He brings all his giddy enthusiasm and technical mastery to bear on brash, broad-stroke storytelling. It’s great stuff: epic pulp, and a heart-racing paean to the glory days of adventure movie serials. I felt exhausted and exhilarated.
The climax is a violent showdown between Mystery and Machinery.
The action stuff wouldn’t be nearly as fun if the characters weren’t compelling. Though Jack, the writer, and Ann, the actress, share some meaningful glances on the Venture and a perfunctory liplock, the movie’s key relationship is the one that develops between Ann and Kong. Jackson, in a strategic move that surprised many, revealed Kong in all his simian glory in both the trailers and posters leading up to the movie’s release. Why not leave Kong a surprise? Not to do that was canny on Jackson’s part, because the real surprise about Kong isn’t how cool he looks (though he certainly does look cool); the surprise is how well he acts.
There is a real character here. Kong is “played” by Andy Serkis, the same actor who infused Gollum with fascinating pathos and life-likeness in the LoTR movies. He brings the same qualities to Kong. He never steps over the fine line between the credible and the schmaltzy. This Kong is an ape, a king of the jungle—he’s not human. He doesn’t need to be. He’s a battle-scarred survivor, the last of his kind, a ferocious warrior who is touched by Ann’s quirky originality. Jackson reinterprets the creepy sexual overtones of Kong’s devotion in the 1933 movie into something more chaste here. Ann entertains Kong and he protects her. They’re both outsiders, in their way, and Kong develops an obsession with keeping Ann safe.
But while Kong may be king of the jungle, he’s vulnerable in the jungle of Manhattan. In the metallic world of skyscrapers, motor vehicles, and tram lines, the climax is a violent showdown between Nature and Industry—or Mystery and Machinery. It’s a testament to Jackson’s storytelling skills that he’s just as invested in the quiet, tender moments as he is in the big-bang action sequences. A lovely bit between Ann and Kong on Central Park’s skating rink is a brief flush of happiness for the King before the mayhem. The tear-jerking ending is well-earned.
'Beauty will save the world.' How many Hollywood flicks are willing to make that claim nowadays?
We all know the ending (Big Ape in the Big Apple atop the Empire State Building), but Jackson’s got some tricks up his sleeve. Recall that Return of the King did not climax with the earth-shaking Battle of Pelennor Fields, but rather with two hobbits and a slimy creature wrestling over a ring. Jackson is a master of intimate human drama against an epic backdrop, and the poignancy and pathos of the final sequence in Kong could now be called “trademark” Jackson.
Like Frodo, CGI Kong is a compelling a character because he’s spurred by something outside himself. Ann is a catalyst for self-sacrifice. Denham intones, “’Twas Beauty killed the Beast,” but Beauty is the Beast’s salvation. Denham kills Kong, whereas Beauty, Ann, gives Kong a reason to live. Which is better, to die for Love and Beauty, or live alone and unloved as King of the Jungle? To quote Dostoevsky, “Beauty will save the world.” How many Hollywood flicks are willing to make that claim nowadays?
In the end, Jackson’s re-envisioning of the 1933 movie that inspired him to make movies is a love letter to cinema. And like a lot of love letters its reckless gushiness compensates for the occasional grammatical error or misspelled word. Some of the special effects are cheesy, subplots trail off unresolved, and characters remain a tad two-dimensional (I, for one, would like to have seen Driscoll use his writer’s brains a bit more). Yet Kong is a movie so generous, so overflowing with great ideas and visionary imagination, that to fault it for not being word-perfect is like admonishing Mozart for writing an opera with “too many notes.” There’s enough passion, originality, and artistic ingenuity in this extravaganza to rival 2005’s quirkiest indie or classiest Oscar bait. I bow to this King.