14 December 2005

current cinema: King Kong

this review also appears in the Wissahickon

starring: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, and Andy Serkis
written by: Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson, from the story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
directed by: Peter Jackson
PG-13, 187 min, 2005, New Zealand/USA

Peter Jackson's remake of 1933's King Kong is pretty much exactly what you'd expect it to be--longer, bigger, and more expensive--yet it still takes your breath away. The story, for those who haven't been initiated, follows maverick filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) as he sails for Skull Island, hoping to find the footage needed to salvage his film before the studio takes it away from him. His lead actress won't make the trip, so he recruits Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) with tales of Singapore, and they sail away--one step ahead of the cops. Denham, being the conniving fellow he is, has managed to con most of the people on board this ship, including playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and movie star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler)[1]. They run into Skull Island as it emerges from the fog, and while the ship is undergoing repairs, Denham and the film crew go ashore. After a run-in with the natives, Darrow is captured and offered to the island's biggest inhabitant, a 25-foot gorilla the natives refer to as Kong. Understandably Darrow isn't thrilled with this arrangement, but after Kong rescues her life several times, she begins to grow fond of the beast and he begins to see her less as food and more as something to be treasured. But Denham, seeing box office gold, conspires to capture Kong and bring him to New York, where he proceeds to go on a rampage, eventually ending up on the top of the Empire State building, swatting at bi-planes before he falls to earth.

Kong, while always compelling in a primitive way, is really brought to life by Andy Serkis and WETA's team of artists. Serkis, who famously played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trillogy, now stretches his range to include the beast. With the help of 132 sensors on his face alone, he humanizes Kong in a way the original filmmakers couldn't fathom. Thanks to Serkis, Kong becomes a sympathetic character with a range of emotions that truly rivals the real people on screen. He laughs, he roars, he sulks, he very nearly cries. It is a performance that deserves serious consideration this award season in the supporting actor categories. Between this and Gollum, Serkis has perfected an entirely new form of acting in a medium where five years ago actors were worrying about losing their jobs to computers. He has shown that to do the job properly, acting is precisely what's needed.

Whereas in the original Ann Darrow spent most of the film terrified and screaming, Jackson makes the wise choice of moving Darrow over to Kong's side of the battle. It always seemed strange to me that a woman who's been saved numerous times would still be trying to escape from the very thing that's keeping her alive. So when she steps back under Kong's protection as he faces down a T-Rex, it rings true. This is a pretty scary island, and it becomes quickly apparent that the only thing she can trust is that Kong will protect her[2], so for them to form a bond is only natural. This allows Jackson to include several scenes of quiet intimacy between Darrow and Kong that increases the impact of the final battle in New York. He wisely realizes that if the affection is mutual, Kong's death is much more devasting both to Darrow and the audience.

After his last project, Peter Jackson is the natural choice to helm this remake. He's been trying to get this film made for years, and it's clear that he has a great affection for the original. Wherever possible he includes moments from the original film, either in their original context or not (for example, the tribal dance of the natives now takes place as part of the Broadway spectacle). He fully understands the core of this film and is enough of a fan and film historian not to do anything to devalue Kong's legacy. Where he gets in trouble, though, is when he tries to add a sense of foreboding in the scenes leading up to Kong's introduction. For reasons beyond my comprehension he throws in horror film zooms and other such nonsense that really stand out from the narrative flow, and not in a good way. They seem lifted directly from his early low-budget efforts, but the problem is that the vast majority of those efforts were pretty bad[3]. All it really ends up accomplishing is a sense of dread in an audience member who wonders if maybe Jackson isn't quite up to the task, if perhaps The Lord of the Rings was a bit of a fluke. Thankfully, though, once we meet Kong all of that disappears. The scenes where Kong battles 3 dinosaurs at once[4] is as breathtaking as anything you'll see in a theatre for years. Though he may lose focus at points, Peter Jackson gets this film is ways most wouldn't. He very nearly creates his best film yet.

A quick word before we finish on Jack Black. When I heard he was cast in this film, I was initially concerned, as he didn't strike me as even a remotely good choice for Carl Denham, but it turns out he's perfect for exactly the reasons I thought he might be a disaster. There's always a manic insanity in Black's performances, as if he's about to introduce the next Tenacious D song, and he uses that to play Denham as a scheming version of P.T. Barnum. You can see him plotting how to turn this into a film that will make him rich or a Broadway attraction for the ages. He's always got something up his sleeve. Even as Kong is tearing himself free of his restraints, Denham is the only one in the theatre who isn't running. And why is that? Could it be that he expected this all along? With a guy like Denham you never can tell.

[1] Chandler is best known as that guy from the TV show about the guy who gets tomorrow's newspaper today and uses that knowledge not to win the lottery, but to help people. My parents used to watch it a lot.

[2] More so, even, than she can trust Denham and the rest of the crew from her ship.

[3] The exception, in my opinion, being Heavenly Creatures (1994).

[4] The filmmakers were unable, however to include the disclaimer that "no dinosaurs were harmed in the making of this film", so if you have an ethical dillema concerning the treatment of dinosaurs, this may not be the film for you.


Levi said...

eh. as in the end of Return of the King, there are too many lengthy moments; this time between Kong and the chick. I actually asked myself what the hell we were doing spending time on this odd relationship one of the 3 or 4 times it happened in the empire state building sequence. how could she care more for the monkey than the man? i didn't buy it.

action sequences most definately rocked, though.

lucas said...

she cares for the monkey more than the man for the simple reason that the man led her into danger with little to no regard for her well-being, while the monkey risked his life for hers multiple times. just think of how many times he saved her life. you'd care for someone who did that for you, regardless of "who" he was.