Weta Digital Ltd./
Universal Studios

As he was finishing up work on his Lord of the Rings trilogy,
Peter Jackson often told journalists that he was committed to following that
epic undertaking with one or two “smaller” films. Instead, he’s gone and unleashed
an 8,000-pound gorilla. King Kong is massive, all right: At 190 minutes
and carrying a $200 million price tag — about what the three Rings pictures
cost put together — it roars and pounds its chest and says, “Lucas, Spielberg,
Cameron — I’m the king of the jungle now!” And if, in the original Kong (1933),
it was the mighty ape himself who earned billing as “the eighth wonder of the
world,” this time around it’s the movie that lays claim to that title. After
enduring three hours of it, I found myself wondering if such wonders would ever
cease.

King Kong isn’t terrible, but it’s something that none of Jackson’s previous
movies ever was — it’s enervating. Right from the start, the film feels mired
in excess: An opening montage set to Al Jolson singing “I’m Sitting on Top of
the World” cuts from the image of Hoovervilles dotting the Central Park landscape
to performers auditioning for a vaudeville show to bread lines snaking through
the streets of New York City then back to the vaudeville show then . . . well,
you get the idea. Eventually, Jackson moves on to a second scene and then a
third, but the crippling pace of the film has been set, and it’s rarely deviated
from. It takes King Kong nearly the full first hour just to orchestrate
the chance meeting of embattled movie director Carl Denham (Jack Black) and
starving starlet Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and have them sail from the isle of
Manhattan for the isle of Skull — events neatly consigned to the first reel
of the 1933 version. Yet the only thing gained by Jackson’s prolonging of his
(and an army of effects wizards’) meticulous re-creations of Depression-era
New York is a sense of just how much, in the space between Rings and
Kong, the director has become punch-drunk on his own moviemaking wizardry.
The Rings movies, despite their Wagnerian bombast, still managed to maintain
an elemental modesty — which is another way of saying that the elaborate CGI
always seemed to serve the story and the characters instead of coming at their
expense. Kong, on the other hand, never misses an opportunity for ostentation.
It’s like the nouveau richeon the block who drives his Lamborghini to
the corner store when walking would suffice.

Jackson seems stuck in spectacle mode, having all but lost sight of original
Kong directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s industrious,
B-movie crudity — and initially, the Skull Island scenes are scarcely an improvement.
Working together with his usual screenplay collaborators, Fran Walsh and Philippa
Boyens, Jackson seizes every opportunity to distend the action, delaying the
entrance of his star attraction and deploying an army of poorly realized secondary
characters — Denham’s put-upon assistant (Colin Hanks), his resident screenwriter
(Adrien Brody), a mysterious stowaway (Jamie Bell) and a naysaying captain (Thomas
Kretschmann, who was Brody’s Aryan savior in The Pianist) — who serve
little discernible purpose other than to provide bait for the dinosaurs, steroidal
spiders and other fearsome beasties that inhabit the fog-shrouded expanse. Of
course, in all previous versions of Kong, Skull Island has been a haven
for prehistoric fauna, but who knew that Jackson would take that as his cue
to make a movie that, for most of its second hour, feels like a cross between
Jurassic Park and that ersatz insect-world docudrama, The Hellstrom
Chronicle
? Which is to say nothing of the scene in which Darrow is abducted
under cover of night by Skull Island’s indigenous tribespeople and then suspended
over a fiery pit of doom as a sacrificial offering to the great god Kong. While
Cooper and Schoedsack certainly weren’t going to win any accolades from the
ACLU for their view of “native people,” Jackson’s cavalcade of ooga-booga savages
makes Memoirs of a Geisha seem like a monument to ethnic sensitivity.
You can’t believe Jackson actually expects you to take that scene seriously,
but he does, and like so much else about his Kong, it lacks the comic
book insouciance of the 1976 John Guillermin–directedremake, a timely
parable in which the lesson learned by Kong was that, in the world of men, the
oil companies are king.

What Jackson’s Kong gets right — and it’s a big (no pun intended) thing
— is its depiction of the relationship between the beautiful ingénue and her
primate paramour. The 1933 film was advertised as “The strangest story ever
conceived by man,” and of course, the enduring appeal of Kong lies rooted
in that whiff of bestiality, the promise of a primeval fairy tale where the
proverbial beast isn’t turned into a handsome prince by the redeeming kiss of
beauty. It was only with the 1976 Kong that the idea grew to include
the possibility that said beauty wasn’t merely sympathetic to the attractions
of said beast, but perhaps turned on a bit herself, crystallized in that disarming
moment when Jessica Lange’s Dwan falls (or does she jump?) into the cargo hold
of the ship transporting Kong back to New York and lands smack between the ape’s
powerful thighs. Jackson, though, takes the idea further than anyone else has
before. He’s turned the Kong-Darrow coupling into a full-fledged seriocomic
romance.

When Jackson finally arrives at the scene where Kong, having absconded with
Ann, begins to play coochie-coo with her like a child with a doll and she responds
by performing a vaudeville-style routine for him — some juggling, a few pratfalls,
a touch of soft-shoe — it’s the first time you understand why he really wanted
to remake Kong; you see that he’s turning it into a touching commentary
on the eternal communication battle between the sexes. Then Ann grows tired
of entertaining her captor, says she’s calling it quits, and Kong sets about
wrecking his own lair. Suddenly, the massive creature looks pathetic through
Ann’s eyes; she sees how much he’s just like all the other men she’s ever known.
But after he saves her life a few times — wrestling pointy-toothed T-Rexes to
the ground with his bare hands and biting the heads off vampire bats — she feels
contrite for spurning him. Maybe, she starts to think, this ostensible brute
is really a chivalrous hero deep down inside, and her desire becomes almost
tragically palpable. Tragic, because we’ve been down this road before, and we
know that at the end of the day, the strictures of “civilized” society will
demand that Ann take up with a nice, clean-cut white guy (e.g. Brody) instead
of a big, black hairy ape.

The delicacy of the interplay between Watts — who clearly was born to play bubbleheaded
struggling actresses — and the giant computer-generated Kong (acted on the set
by the inimitable Andy Serkis, a.k.a. Gollum) is extraordinary. It may even
be the screen’s most emotionally satisfying animal attraction since Jean Cocteau’s
La Belle et la Bête. In particular, the final scenes in New York, atop
the Empire State Building, are devastating in a way that the original Kong
didn’t even attempt, and they encourage a forgiving attitude toward all
that is wrong with the rest of the picture. But it’s a more forgiving attitude
than I’m afraid I can muster, for there were too many moments during King
Kong
when I felt I was witnessing the end of cinema, the final obfuscation
between movies made by men and those made by machines. Perhaps I’m hopelessly
out of touch, but I remain steadfast in my belief that size does matter, and
that the best things in life come in small packages.

KING KONG | Directed by PETER JACKSON | Written by FRAN WALSH, PHILIPPA
BOYENS and JACKSON, based on a story by MERIAN C. COOPER and EDGAR WALLACE |
Produced by JAN BLENKIN, CAROLYNNE CUNNINGHAM, FRAN WALSH and JACKSON | Released
by Universal | Citywide

 

Click here to read Joshuah Bearman's Monkey
Love: Intimacy on the primate family tree
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Click here to read Ron Stringer's The
Gorilla Inside Me: Preparations for the return to Skull Island
.