Peter Jackson’s King Kong is one of those mad movies, like Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! or Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, that fully justifies and deserves all the best and worst that can be said for or against them.
Wholly commercial and popular in content, obsessively personal in construction and approach, King Kong confirms Jackson’s mastery of action-adventure spectacle. Jackson is potentially the next Spielberg, and King Kong is his Raiders, E.T. and Jurassic Park rolled into one.
Even more than Raiders, the prototypical serial matinee homage film, King Kong is pervaded by 1930s nostalgia for its inspiration, the original 1933 King Kong. Like E.T., Kong is the director’s lovingly personal take on a story of a misunderstood creature who shares a special bond with a human but is hounded by authorities. And like the Jurassic Park movies, Kong immerses the viewer in a hitherto unprecedented caliber of slick, escapist B-movie monster-attack thrills. Keep looking and you might find valid comparisons to Jaws and Close Encounters, too.
That may be biting off more than any filmmaker, even Spielberg, could chew. King Kong brings action-adventure spectacle to new heights, but at the cost of a number of major missteps, from jarring tonal shifts to the absence of one of the crucial ingredients of the success of nearly every Spielberg blockbuster from Jaws on: a cast of distinct, likable characters. Without characters we care about, even the most astounding visuals are only so much pyrotechnics, and that can quickly become boring, even numbing. Needless to say, this is the worst thing that can happen to an action film, especially one over three hours long.
King Kong’s biggest problem may be that it has essentially only two characters that really matter. Fortunately, they’re the two that most need to matter. They are Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts in the role immortalized by Fay Wray) and Kong himself, beauty and the beast, and their relationship, such as it is, is the film’s one intriguing idea and its one fundamental advance as a story over the original.
The original 1933 film was based on the premise that a blonde beauty would be of inherent interest to the male of any species, even a 25-foot gorilla. That conceit no longer flies, and anyway, it made the relationship rather one-sided, and thus not very interesting. After all, the whole point of interest in a beauty-and-the-beast story is not that beast should care about beauty — that goes without saying — but that beauty should care about beast.
Jackson and his LOTR writing collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have the best take to date on the bond between Ann and Kong. The key to their relationship is a remarkable scene in which the terrified Ann, a vaudeville performer, instinctively sidesteps the giant ape’s ferocity and rage by performing for him — slapstick tumbles, juggling, whatever she can think of.
Kong is intrigued, and reasonably so. Gorillas are social animals, and animal societies led by an alpha member at the top sometimes have an omega member at the bottom — a member with no power and status who sometimes compensates by adopting a social role not unlike a class clown or court jester, and who, precisely because it poses no threat to the hierarchy, enjoys the tolerance and indulgence of those at the top.
Like a gorilla taking a kitten under its wing, Kong becomes protective of Ann — which she soon has ample reason to appreciate, for Jackson’s Skull Island is even more stuffed with fantastic dangers than the original. As Kong not only protects her but even repeatedly risks his life for her, Ann begins to feel gratitude, and eventually even affection, for her giant captor. Of course, Ann has already repeatedly been told that “every time you reach out for something you care about, fate snatches it away.”
The reciprocity in their relationship makes it more touching and poignant than the original. It also makes Watts’s performance more important than that of “Scream Queen” Wray, and Watts is more than up to the challenge. The other crucial ingredient, of course, is Kong himself, an achievement of bleeding-edge movie magic to rival the original stop-motion puppet in its day, which set a standard for expressiveness and empathy untouched by Kong’s non-ape successors (Godzilla and his Japanese monster-movie ilk; the creatures of 1950s Hollywood sci-fi; the Alien Queen; Spielberg’s dinos).
Like Jackson’s computer-generated Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, Kong’s digital performance was not created in the computer by animators, but is based on a real human performance by Andy Serkis, whose amazing physicality is transferred via motion capture technology to his digital alter egos. Serkis’s performance, based in part on studying real gorillas, brings Kong to life as a character with far more expressiveness than even the original Kong. Between them, Serkis and Watts give Kong and Ann’s all-too-few quiet moments together real heart.
Unfortunately, none of the other characters are interesting or engaging. Opportunistic filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black), a self-promoting Hollywood impresario in the original, has been reinvented as a caricature of a Hollywood con artist, without shame or human feelings, lacking either conviction or self-awareness, monomaniacally fixated on finishing his film at any price.
Ebert says that the original Denham was based on Cecil B. DeMille, and the new one suggests Orson Welles. But Black lacks the presence and authority to play even a parody of Welles. Jackson took a gamble casting Black — possibly on the basis of a superficial resemblance to himself, since Denham can also be taken as a Jackson self-parody — and it doesn’t quite pay off.
Black’s restrained but still campy lines and delivery exist in a different movie than everything else in the film, and his reading of the final classic line — “It wasn’t the airplanes that gone him; it was beauty killed the beast” — is a jarringly unconvincing and banal postscript to whatever poignancy was achieved in the climactic tragedy. It’s a strikingly weak note for such a carefully crafted film to go out on.
Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody), the one quasi-heroic character in the story, was originally first mate but in a facetious commentary on heroism has been reinvented as Denham’s writer. He’s earnest and admirable, but doesn’t come to life as a character.
Other characters recede into the background. As critic Jeffrey Overstreet astutely points out, great characters were something that Jackson got for free with The Lord of the Rings, along with a great story with profound themes. Now, adapting a classic Hollywood B-movie, he doesn’t have the same advantages, and neglected to supply himself what was needed.
The lack of distinguishable or engaging characters becomes a real problem during the long second act on Skull Island, as dangers ranging from bloodthirsty natives and giant insects to sauropod stampedes and Kong himself variously threaten a cast of characters that we don’t really know or care about.
Black’s out-of-place comic presence isn’t the only dissonant element in the film. King Kong suffers from odd tonal shifts, like unpredictable mood swings, in some cases so severe that they threaten to derail the film.
Two sequences in particular — the bloodthirsty native attack and the valley of the giant insects — are just too nasty to work as escapist fun, and become simply repellent. On the other hand, side by side with these are a sauropod stampede scene so ludicrous that it crosses over into self-parody, as well as an extended T-rex fight scene that is perhaps the film’s highlight, one of the most astonishing action sequences ever filmed.
To make matters worse, the first of the nasty sequences, the bloodthirsty native attack, is the very first real action scene on the island, and after the long setup sets the tone for the entire second act of the film. The first hour of the film, in which Denham, Ann and Driscoll set sail for Skull Island, is basically a light comic satire of Hollywood; but as they approach the island the film prepares us for a very different second act — an act so different, there’s even a suggestion that “it isn’t an adventure story” at all, to quote a character who suddenly realizes that the book he’s reading, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, isn’t a seafaring swashbuckler, but something more ambitious.
After this ominous warning, King Kong throws us to the bloodthirsty natives, who are basically inscrutable embodiments of satanic malevolence, sort of like Uruk-hai, but without the shreds of characterization and humor. Whether this is an improvement on the cartoony racist imagery of the original is open to interpretation; what I am certain of, for me at least, is that the scene is grim and joyless, and forebodes a harrowing second act for the strong of stomach only.
To go from that setup to the absurdities of the sauropod stampede is perplexing to say the least. Suddenly, it is just an adventure story again, of the most unabashedly escapist sort. What happened to Heart of Darkness? (Watching this scene, I imagine Peter Jackson demanding, “We need more brontosauruses! More! More!” until finally a frazzled computer technician blurts out, “She can’t handle any more! The valley’s gonna blow!” The climax of the scene is somehow bizarrely reminiscent of an elephant pile-up in Disney’s cheapie sequel Jungle Book 2.)
Then there’s the valley of the giant insects, which manages to be simultaneously as absurd as the sauropod stampede and as nasty as the bloodthirsty savages. What makes both scenes so ridiculous is that Jackson ratchets up the menace to such dire heights the chances of survival are basically nil, and then, with no concession to plausibility, characters survive. After the bloodthirsty natives, it’s hard to accept this sort of thing.
What complicates the insect valley scene is that Jackson is apparently deliberately attempting to match the effect of the infamous deleted giant-spider sequence from the original film, which early audiences found so disgusting that it brought the film to a halt, leading to the scene’s removal. If there were any doubts about the rightness of the editorial decision to yank the scene, Jackson’s homage at least serves to vindicate it.
In general, though, the film’s homage is deft and pleasing — and remarkably specific, from the vintage title design, to such iconic images as Kong shaking men off a log over a ravine and working the limp jaws of a fallen enemy to certify its fate, to particular plot points such as details of Driscoll’s rescue mission.
In a couple of cases, Jackson slyly tweaks dated aspects of the original by relocating them within the context of 1930s entertainment sensibilities. Dialogue from the original between Ann and Driscoll, in which Driscoll opines that women on a ship are a “nuisance,” is used for a scene in Denham’s film-within-a-film; and the dated depiction of the natives, with coconut brassieres and gorilla accoutrements, is recycled in an unexpected and clever way.
The first-act skewering of Hollywood, though it goes on for too long, generally works well, with pointed jabs at conniving producers, preening actors, and uncelebrated writers. I won’t go into the circumstances that lead to Driscoll, the writer, being hijacked by Denham and forced to work in an animal cage, but it’s a wonderful conceit.
A satire of Hollywood, a beauty-and-the-beast love story, a tragedy about the inevitability of losing whatever you love, a Heart of Darkness commentary on human nature, an over-the-top B-movie action-adventure, an homage to a classic monster movie — could any one film possibly be all these things? Perhaps it could, if it had stronger characters outside of Kong and Ann. But Denham is too trivial, and Driscoll ultimately too irrelevant, for either to help hold the story together.
The original King Kong had a thesis of sorts, that beauty is the Achilles’ heel of strength. It wasn’t much of a theme — hardly more than Jurassic Park’s gesturing in the direction of chaos theory and the the gap between the possible and the prudent — but it served to give the film a point of view, however half-baked. In that version, when Denham said, “It was beauty killed the beast,” it seemed pseudo-profound.
That idea is basically absent from the remake, though there’s a half-hearted effort to trot it out at the end. This time around, Denham’s closing line makes you want to say, “Um, no, dude, it was you that killed the beast, when you took him from Skull Island to New York.”
If Jackson meant for that to be the point — if he actually wanted to go the Heart of Darkness route after all, and make the case that man, not beast, is the real monster — he needed a less trivial figure than Denham to bear the weight of such a moral. Denham’s not a monster, merely a buffoon. (Nor is the film ultimately about always losing whatever you love. Ann loves Driscoll too, but she doesn’t lose him.)
Lacking even a loose idea to organize the story around, King Kong ultimately boils down to escapist action-adventure spectacle, Kong and Ann’s oddly touching relationship, and not much else. And even the escapist action-adventure spectacle is really only thrilling when it’s about Kong and Ann, as in the T-rex scene. What makes that scene so gripping — indeed, what puts it right up there with the best action sequences ever filmed, including Jackson’s own Moria sequence from The Fellowship of the Ring and the truck sequence from Raiders — is not just the impossibly grand scope of the action, but the fact that Kong is fighting precisely to protect Ann.
When the action isn’t about Kong and Ann — when it’s about Kong shaking men off logs, or interchangable characters dodging between sauropod legs — it’s technically impressive, but not really engaging, and sometimes less than that. Still, when it is about Kong and Ann, it’s a mighty thing, and I cared about this beast and his beauty right up to the end.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.