A waste of time? That's the first thing I thought when I heard Peter Jackson was remaking King Kong, one of the most hokey and overrated of all classic films. It was already remade once to disastrous results in 1976, and I figured the man behind some of the best films of the last 15 years was seriously wasting his time and talents on an adaptation. Then I heard something that began to change my mind, and that was that Naomi Watts was cast to play Ann Darrow. I make no attempt to hide the fact that I find Miss Watts the most beautiful woman on the planet and will probably see any movie good or bad she's in, sooner or later anyways. Then I heard that they weren't going to modernize the story, keeping it in 1933, and this touch wound up working quite well. With the team responsible for LOTR in tow, I figured this film couldn't be too bad. I'm morally opposed to all remakes, but well I wasn't a fan of the original, so there was certainly room for improvement.
Then came the reviews, and the top ten lists, and lets just say there are some fans of this film out there. I was shocked to find Roger Ebert, who basically dismissed all of the Rings trilogy included Kong in his year end top ten list. Now it appeared I needed to see this film, three hours or not. There were techincal marvels to behold, bold entertainment pieces, and lots of CGI which usually makes me cringe, however duty calls, and just as I'll have to see Brokeback Mountain, so too did I have to pay my respects to Kong.
The film is a classic three act story. Each section of the film divided into a nice hour long segment. There is an hour of exposition, leading up to the arrival, or rather running into, of Skull Island. Then the story takes another hour or so to explore the island, fight random prehistoric monsters, and set up the relationship between Kong and Ann. Finally we get Kong in New York and on Broadway, with the inevitable climb up the Empire State Building. Broken down like this Kong doesn't resemble one film but rather three nice little films. One of which is expository and a collection of details and observations about the time.
The first hour is possibly the slowest in terms of plot and excitement. Jackson is trying to get us to feel for these characters. Jack Black's Carl Denham is set up as the renegade auteur. A constant showman, straight from PT Barnum. Denham never misses an opportunity to profit, and is convinced he is the greatest thing to happen to himself. He is out for glory, and he is out for profit, not necessarily in that order. We find ourselves on his side, because he is on the run. It is his film that's going to be scrapped and sold for stock footage, it is him that's got a warrant out for his arrest, he is dead broke and on the run, with hardly a script, a crew, or even a good idea of where the hell he's heading. We feel for him because he is down and out. Just as we feel for Watts' Ann. She is broke as is, due to the fact that it is the depression, and her vaudeville theater has just been shut down. Her only friend in town is leaving, and she is close to going into a peep show for money (a scene I desperately wish was included). Her and Carl seem to be a quick match, they need each other, but their possible connection and entanglement is bypassed really quickly.
The first film made numerous inferences to Kong being Denham's repressed sexual instinct, which is all but disregarded here. Kong is not the animal side of Denham, but rather his own seperate beast, which we'll explore later. The only character we don't get too much feeling for is Adrien Brody's Jack Driscoll, a writer very much admired by Ann. He shows up, quietly woos Ann, but we don't feel much of his pain, despite being conned into being stuck on a boat headed for a mysterious island never before seen by man. He is the only one really there against his own will, but as Denham says "If you really loved the theater you would have jumped". It is the instinct of Driscoll that keeps him on the boat, which winds up working in some way for him, because without it he wouldn't have met Ann.
On the boat we are introduced to several crew members. A touch military man, a foreign captain, and a somewhat pointless and stupid mysterious stowaway who happens to be a kleptomaniac. This is one character that I found completely useless to the story, and when the casualties were piling up on Skull Island, I really wanted his to be one of them. As a bit of a cheat we never really see what happens to him. Kong smashes the row boat with him in it, and he goes flying, but no body alive or dead is seen again, unless of course I missed something.
The hour on Skull Island is where the story really picks up. I must hand it to Jackson who got his start in comedy horror, the man has some idea of what it may take to make a scare. I found the natives cast on the Island to be among the creepiest "savages" yet captured on film. You truly were creeped out by them, and feared for the lives of those brave/stupid souls that wandered off the ship to go exploring. There is cut footage I'm told, and the scene from the original of Ann attempting to scream on camera for Carl is cut from here, which might have come in handy here. Instead we are shown Kong only in brief glimpses. Of course hearing him before we see him.
Ann is offered as a sacrifice, and I must say Kong has a nice taste in ladies. Her entrance into the world of Kong is one that we see can actually be a place for her. Kong is not going to kill her, as we quickly discover, partially based on the vaudeville talents of Ann, who discovers that falling down is the funniest thing to a 25 foot gorilla, not surprising to find him a fan of the low-low brow. It is this ability to make "people" laugh that saves Ann, and let's us get an early glimpse of Kong's heart. The fact that he beats the holy hell out of several dinosaurs for Ann is another clear indicator that he's out to prove himself. He's the King of this jungle, and in a touch taken straight from the original after killing one particular Tyrannosaurus, he checks its broken jaw to see if it moves.
During Ann's havoc she gets in contact with some rather hideous insects, always something to make me squirm, and two centipedes that would probably make me defecate on myself if in contact with them. These may be the creepiest moments of the film, but the creatues encounterd in the bottom of the canyon by the rescue party are what really get you rolling. Giant spiders, huge bugs, and 50 foot worms with various different mouths looking like creatures from a Star Wars film. In this aspect Jackson has free reign to create monsters, far eclipsing the dinosaurs and bugs of the original. He gets some generally creepy moments here, and as admirable as stop motion may be, it is no match for what is accomplished here.
It is during Ann's rescue that the greatest emotional weight is weighed. Kong's capture is heartbreaking, truly. I probably would have cried if I had tear ducts. It is a startling moment, and one of great power that I would have expected from such "Hollywood" entertaiment. Here is where Ann goes from more than just some animal rights activist to a lover of Kong. She is more than just lashing out at their cruelty, she is weeping for her lover, the one person/thing that could truly protect her, keep her safe, and give her a home of her own. She has lost that as they capture him, and this once might warrior, who battled dinosaurs, giant bats, and anything else on this island was powerless against some chloroform. A truly touching moment.
We get a little reprisal on Manhattan. Kong gets to run amuck and I for one was quite pleased. Unlike in the original where any girl who wasn't Ann was killed by Kong, here he just seems to fling them aside, not necessarily killing them or eating them. Come to think of it Kong doesn't have a taste for human flesh, we never see him eat any person. In fact the only thing we really see him eat is a branch off a tree, making perhaps a reference to him being a vegetarian? Although he does bite the head off of a creature or two, not so much for the taste but for the kill. Once he finds Ann in Manhattan the two have a date, complete with ice skating in Central Park, a romantic evening alone for many couples. It is a sweet touch, and we see that the love these two have is mutual. Here is where we start to feel a little for Driscoll, who can't really compete with Kong. Sure he was brave/smart enough to rescue her from the island, but how can he be more masculine than a 25 foot gorilla that kills dinosaurs with his bare hands? Kong is the "man" that Ann needs, and Ann is the woman that they both want.
I'll spare you much overanalyzing on the ending. It is kept relatively similar, including one cheesy line from the original, but it is what leads up to this that makes it superior. A truly fantastic achievement, and continuing a rather impressive run of films from Peter Jackson, who's making himself quite the bankable Hollywood player these days. Of course as always the film was shot entirely in New Zealand, so perhaps not as Hollywood as others might think.