(image curtesy of KingKongMovie.com)
For better or worse, once a Hollywood director has proven his mettle with a blockbuster hit it is almost certain to be followed by some sort of vanity project green lighted in the wake of that success. For some it was a gamble well played, for others the lessons from “Waterworld” and “The Postman” were unfortunately very much distant from their memories. History seems to repeat itself with Peter Jackson who was given free rein to remake “King Kong” after his wildly successful “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. While it is unfair to compare Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” to “Waterworld”, I have to say that after watching all 187 minutes of this movie there were times in the movie that I worry that it would cross that line into the realm of an absolute mess.
For the uninitiated, Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” is a remake of the 1933 movie of the same title that has been reported as being the film that inspired Jackson to become a film maker. That particular film was later remade and updated for the times in 1976 which saw some changes in the original movie particularly the relationship between the female lead with the titular big ape. In the 2005 version, Peter Jackson took the movie back to it’s original roots by setting it in Depression era New York as it was shown in the 1933 version that he loved so much as a child. Even though he has been reported as admitting that he hated the 1976 version of the movie, I thought that he wisely took the best parts of that movie and incorporated it in his vision of “King Kong”.
Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” starts with the story of Carl Denham (Jack Black), a struggling and desperate film director in 1930’s New York, who by means of deception and manipulation has managed to gather his cast and crew on a boat bound to the Orient where he was suppose to shoot his current movie with them on location. Unbeknownst to many of the people on board, he had actually intended to take them to an uncharted island known only as “Skull Island” where he hoped to make an even grander movie in scope that he had previously envisioned to fend off the studio people who were threatening to shut his production down.
Along for the ride was Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) a struggling actress who was discovered by Denham and taken into the crew when his original intended actress pulled out of the movie. The beautiful actress soon becomes the object of desire of the film’s screenwriter, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), who as roped into the trip very much against his will by the wily director. While enroute to the mysterious island, Jack was clearly becoming enamored by the Denham’s lead actress as he watches her performed the lines he had wrote for her and her self-absorbed hunky co-star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler).
After an almost disastrous landfall at Skull Island, the cast and crew of the film came ashore to find themselves among a seemingly deserted ruins. It was here when the action really picks up for this film when the intruders were violently set upon by the savage inhabitants of the island. It was only with the help of the ship’s crew and Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) that they manage to escape the vicious mob and return to the relative safety of their ship but not before losing some of their party to the blood thirsty inhabitants. Despite their efforts, they would soon lose Ann Darrow who was later kidnapped by the locals to be sacrificed to the great ape who lived beyond their high walls that surrounded their village.
It was at this point of the movie, about 1 hour and a few odd minutes in, that we finally get to see King Kong himself in all his jaw dropping splendor. While she was initially terrified by the great beast, Ann Darrow quickly found out that there were a lot more to be afraid of on the mysterious island. After a close encounter with a group of hungry T-Rex, Darrow finds herself in the position of being dependent on Kong for her continued survival. In a fairly strange example of the “Stockholm Syndrome”, Darrow eventually found herself drawn and sympathetic to the misunderstood ape. Kong, who seem to regard this blond haired sacrifice as a toy in the beginning, was also seen to be drawn to this strange but brave woman.
While Darrow was bonding with her captor, a rescue party was organized by the remaining crew to get her back before casting off for home. While some were truly concerned with getting the young actress back, Denham came along with the rescue party with the ulterior motive to shot additional footage for his movie. Along the way the rescue party found themselves running for their lives in the middle of a dinosaur stampede. The rescue party continued to press on even after suffering some casualties and found themselves in even more trouble when an encounter with King Kong resulted in them being stranded amongst gigantic flesh eating insects and worms. It was only by the fortune of having reinforcement come to their aid that the remains of the rescue party was able to escape the bug death trap.
Undeterred by the setbacks that the rescue party encountered, Jack decided to continue tracking the great ape alone to his lair where he found Ann Darrow sleeping soundly under the protection of King Kong. While trying to steal Ann Darrow away from the smitten ape, Kong woke up and chase the pair through the jungle only to find that a trap was waiting for him at the end of the chase. Unable to finish his movie, Denham concocted a plan to capture King Kong alive and to display him to paying audience in America. Suddenly finding his survival now in jeopardy, Kong tore through the mob trying to capture him only to find himself overcome by the chloroform used to subdue the great beast.
The movie fast forwards to the 3rd act where we find a heavily drugged and defeated Kong on display to the New York glitterati. Denham, seeing that this was a way for him to make up all the money that he had lost making his movie, created a whole spectacle on stage to tell the story of Kong to the paying customers not realizing that Kong was becoming agitated by the attention. After recovering his senses, Kong became more violent and began to break all the chains that were holding him down much to the increasing panic of the audience. Breaking free of his bonds, King Kong began to rampage all across New York looking for his beauty, Ann Darrow who it seems that he could sense was in town.
Beauty and the beast were somewhat happily reunited eventually when Darrow found Kong rampaging near where she was currently working. Her presence calmed the beast and they both moved on from the scene of the rampage only to find themselves in a magical moment on the frozen lake in Central Park. Their happy reunion would be cut short by the Army who have arrived at the scene with heavy weaponry to kill King Kong. To find respite from the unrelenting barrage of ordinance, King Kong took the object of his affection with him to the top of the Empire State Building. Despite her protestations, Kong eventually fell to the ground after being killed in a climatic battle involving biplanes closing the film on the note that it was his love for his beauty that eventually killed him.
Unlike the much superior work in his “Lords of the Rings” series, Peter Jackson made several questionable choices in casting this movie. Jack Black was terribly miscast as Carl Denham and his manic energy in his performance at times made Denham feel like a refugee from “The School of Rock” instead of a 1930’s movie director. The distinction of being the worse casting choice of the movie (if not the whole year) must surely be the idea of casting Adrien Brody in the mold of an action hero. A single shirtless scene to show off his newly sinewy buff body does not make him any more believable as an action hero than any of his actions on screen. Intentionally or not, his character came off as wimpy and creepy in equal amounts in his interactions with the female lead character which made it hard to root for the character. The chemistry between the two human leads at times whittles down to nonexistent levels so much so that the story seemed to grind down to a complete halt in an already plodding first act when they were on screen together.
Fortunately for Jackson, the choice of casting Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow paid off more than all the other choices put together. Looking eerily like Nicole Kidman in almost every frame, Watts delivered an Oscar worthy performance considering she was acting against nothing more than a green screen with Andy Serkis acting out Kong’s actions behind the camera for inspiration. To bring the character of Ann Darrow, Watts to traverse a vast emotional range, from horror and fear, to acceptance, to caring which the audience got to see done masterfully on the silver screen. In the hands of a less capable actress, a bad interpretation of this central role could easily have sunk this production faster than an 800 pound gorilla falling of the Empire State Building.
Another major component of the movie that Jackson had to really make right for the movie to work was “King Kong”. Brought to life vividly by the motion capture stylings of Andy Serkis who previously collaborated with Jackson in “Lord of the Rings”, this 25 feet 800 pounds great ape was awe inspiring and jaw dropping to watch on screen. In this movie, Kong was terrifying in anger, tender in compassion, majestic in action and at times can be snarky from a point of view of a human. The range of emotions that was accomplished through this use of CGI for Kong was mind-boggling to watch. At times this version of “King Kong” seemed to have more personality than some of the life action actors in the movie.
This movie is also a visual feast for movie enthusiasts. On par with the visual complexity last seen in “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith”, each shot in the movie was filled with information not easily absorbed in one sitting. Jackson’s love for the original material was clearly apparent in the making of this movie as several scenes from the 1933 movie were lovingly recreated and expanded for this movie. The most notable for me has to be the triple T-Rex fight, a tour de force in itself that lasts almost 10 minutes on screen. The straight out fight scene was thrilling to watch and for a time Jackson’s excess in his directorial style could be forgiven for giving us such an iconic scene. Unfortunately I could not say the same about the scenes involving the flesh eating insects and worms which I thought was a tad too long for comfort for the more squeamish audience like myself.
While it was visually excellent, there were some glaring problems with the story telling that was hard to dismiss. By virtue of not having a strong lead up to the supposedly relationship between the human characters, Jackson made it harder for the audience to root for the humans when the relationship between the beauty and the beast was so much more interesting to watch. In a seemingly thankless on-sided affair, Jack’s motivation to rescue Ann from Kong seemed too stalker-ish and their embrace at the end of the movie felt hollow. Another criminally under developed story point I noticed involved Jamie Bell’s character. After building the character of Jimmy so much during the second act it was strange to see Jackson leaving the character arch without a proper resolution. It felt as if there were much more to Jimmy’s story that was left on the cutting floor but at almost 3 hours runtime I have to wonder why it was left as it was.
Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” is indeed a majestic movie made by a director who has again proven that given enough money and technological know how, anything that one can imagine can be put on screen. Bad casting and unresolved character arcs aside, this archetypal tale of beauty and the beast was one of the better visually appealing film to sit through in 2005. It could have been better with a firmer editorial control (much like this drawn out review) over several of the unnecessarily long and plodding sections of the movie but it delivered fully when it mattered most. A welcome addition to the fast forgotten monster movie genre, “King Kong” is a must see for audiences willing to put up with the 3 hour and a few odd minutes screen time.
Monday, December 19, 2005
(image curtesy of KingKongMovie.com)