King Kong (2005) Review
This review contains plot spoilers, but don’t most people know the story by now...?
Kong is a massive creature, twenty-five feet high. And he’d collapse under his own weight, but let’s not be boringly literal about these things. He takes a big film to contain him. That’s the thing with Peter Jackson’s remake-cum-homage to the 1933 classic which inspired him to become a filmmaker. It’s a long film – three hours long, almost twice the length of the original – which sometimes feels as if the extended DVD cut and the theatrical version are being released in reverse order. The film is certainly impressive, but it’s overwhelming and exhausting. Jackson has done it because he can. Whether he needed to, is another question. This King has elephantiasis. (The 1976 remake-cum-spoof has a bad reputation, but I haven’t seen it in a very long time so memories are too dim for me to make any comment. It may well be worth revisiting.)
One thing that Jackson gets right is to take the film back to a Thirties setting. Too much postmodern irony will wreck a film like this, but more importantly it’s just about believable – in days without satellites photographing the Earth’s surface – that there could be an undiscovered island out there. There are unexplored parts of the world today, but they tend to be inaccessible jungle areas or the depths of the ocean. If there were a Skull Island in some remote part of the ocean, we’d know about it by now. The film’s first act establishes the Depression setting, and facilitates the plot where out-of-work actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) travels with producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) and screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). Look out for a neat in-joke: Denham can’t get “Fay” for his film as she’s making a movie at RKO with Cooper…
Jackson deliberately takes his time. It doesn’t seem that long ago – actually, eighteen years - that James Cameron’s tactic of having a long, slow build-up to the action in Aliens was considered a brave move. Jackson takes this even further: it’s seventy minutes before Kong (a combination of actor Andy Serkis and CGI motion-capture) makes his appearance. Once he does appear, and carries Ann off, the film goes into overdrive. For the next hour, Jackson unleashes monsters galore: a brontosaurus stampede, Kong fighting two Tyrannosaurs, and a recreation of the original’s legendary deleted scene in the spider pit with Denham, Driscoll and others fighting off some truly revolting giant bugs and slugs. This is intense stuff, and probably nightmare material for the very young: parents of such children should take note of the 12A certificate. Fortunately there are other films you can take them to this Christmas.
Finally Ann is rescued and Kong captured. We’ve been here two and a quarter hours now…the film must be coming to an end? But no, we’re back in New York for the final act. After the pummelling our eyes and ears have taken in the middle section this does seem a little anticlimactic, but Jackson does pull off a nice quiet scene in the middle of the mayhem, when Kong and Ann share some time on a frozen pond. The 1976 update had its climax atop the World Trade Center, but reasons of period setting (and, obviously, post-9/11 taste) disallow that, so up the Empire State Building again he goes…
This isn’t really an actor’s film, but Jackson does score points by realising that the role of Ann requires more than just screaming. If that were all it demanded from Fay Wray then – though she did scream very well - the climax would have been much less affecting, King Kong would have been just another 30s horror movie and I wouldn’t be writing about Jackson’s new version. Jessica Lange did turn into a fine actress, but much of the 1976 film was about how much of her could be revealed while safeguarding a PG rating. There’s none of that here: Watts does give some shading to the role, and Black does (rather toned down than usual) comedy and Brody square-jawed heroics with aplomb. Technically, the film is marvellous, though it’s worth pointing out that the CGI here is not such a quantum-leap as Willis O’Brien’s stop motion was in 1933, however creaky it may look now. I wouldn’t have the 1933 version in anything other than black and white, Academy ratio with a mono soundtrack, but the new film does have in common with the 1976 version a wider screen to play around with, not to mention multi-channel digital sound. DP Andrew Lesnie apparently suggested this new film be shot in black and white, which would have been interesting, though needless to say the suits putting up the budget wouldn’t have worn that for a second.
In the short term, this Kong will do its job and put plenty of bums on seats this Christmas, even if many of said bums will be more than a bit numb by the end of it. It’s a technically more than proficient labour of love for Jackson, but will we still be watching this in 72 years’ time? I very much suspect I won’t be around to be proven wrong, but somehow I doubt it.