by Lucius Shepard
December 18, 2005
The title of this piece, purportedly a quote from Dino De Laurentiis in response to why he would remake King Kong in 1976, seems an honest capitalist response, yet why his statement holds true demands some explanation. Why do most people like the big monkey? In 1933, when the original Kong was released, America was more overtly racist than now, and the movies expression of white supremacy, the gorilla, a king in his own land yet brought to this country in chains, so enamored of a white woman, an Aryan blond, that in the end he must die for his love and his ersatz violation of her, sadism and carnage and racism all blended together into a fairy tale, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast rendered iconic by virtue of its simplicity . . . it had a potent effect on American audiences.
One assumes that in the 21st century this particular effect would be less dominant, or at least more diffuse, and that the main appeal lies more in the idea of spectacle, in the fanboy dream of seeing Kong fully realized. Real-er monkey, real-er dinosaurs, real-er everything. If Peter Jackson is to be believed, he wanted his remake to be a love letter to the original, the picture that made him want to be a filmmaker. Well, he might have been better off writing his love letter, because what he has wrought is an attempt at one-upping of the original, a humongous super-extravaganza that, at three hours plus, nearly twice the length of the 1933 version, so attenuates the basic story, the simplicity and style that made Kong a Depression artifact is lost, the fairy tale glaze is shattered, and what remains is the masturbatory product of a cineaste who no longer understands the virtues of restraint. Jackson, once an edgy, intriguing filmmaker, has fallen prey to the same ethos that underscores the films of his immediate predecessors, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas: To make a mark, a movie must play as though to an audience of children . . . and not especially astute children at that.
Jacksons Kong breaks into three segments of equivalent length, and its the first segment that is the most excessive and unnecessary. Instead of starting his movie at the docks with the sailing of the SS Venture, as did the original, Jackson hauls us around his conception of 1930s New York City, indulging in labored social commentary while introducing us to his central characters, who speak in dialogue so rancidly camp that, while it might have been appropriate to a Depression-era B-movie, seems indulgent and out of place in a 200-million-dollar spectacular. Director Carl Denham, played by Jack Black with his usual impish cynicism, is a rascally and (it turns out) rather hateful would-be impresario whos in serious trouble with his producers. Theyre about to cancel his picture in mid-production. In order to keep shooting, with the help of his assistant, Preston (Colin Hanks), he steals the footage he has shot thus far, recruits as his star an out-of-work vaudeville actress, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), who, in order to avoid starvation, is on the verge of sacrificing her naive, plucky self to the horrors of burlesque, and, at last, boards the Venture, where we meet, at some length, Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody), an asthenic playwright slumming as a screenwriter.
Thats the first fifty minutes.
Jackson spends the next twenty-some minutes sailing to the South Pacific, introducing us to the ultra-Teutonic Captain Englehorn; Lumpy the cook (Andy Serkis, who also does time as Kong); Bruce Baxter, the movie-within-a-movies craven leading man (Kyle Chandler); Jimmy (Jamie Bell), an ex-feral-child grown into the sort of gee-gosh-golly teenager found only in the pages of Boys Life; Hayes, the ships erudite Afro-American mate (cast, doubtless, as a counterweight to balance the other, less palatable people of color in the film), who is Jimmys mentor; and the remainder of the scarred, tattooed crew who, ere long, will be either munched, trampled, or dismembered. As they steam eastward, a romance blooms between Jack and Ann (its a pale bloom, however, for it never feels earned), and Denham produces a map of the mysterious Skull Island and persuades Captain Englehorn to steer for it. At approximately the same time, Jimmy, who just happens to be reading Heart of Darkness, begins to discuss the book with Hayesthis discussion continues throughout and appears to be Jacksons lame attempt to inject some gravitas into the proceedings.
About seventy-five minutes into the movie, the Venture arrives at Skull Island, the pacing goes from zero to sixty, and the mood changes abruptly from period wackiness (highlighted by the several cartoonish Thirties songs attached to James Howard Newtons forgettable score) to horror-movie darkness. The debased orc-like primitives who inhabit the island dwell in a ruin that resembles a Vlad the Impaler Playground set, tucked away behind a great wall. They hiss and gabble and engage in eye-rolling frenzies, kill Colin Hanks (nepotism will only take you so far), kidnap Ann, and leave her tied up as a sacrifice to Kong, who snatches her and flees like he stole the last cookie in the jar. A rescue party is formed and sent into the islands interior to retrieve Ann. By this point, the original movie had almost started rolling the end credits, but Jackson has barely gotten started.
What ensues is more-or-less the Skull Island version of a WWF Smackdown. There are, I think, three major action sequences that occur in the middle section of the film . . . or maybe there are four or five. I must admit I lost track. The centerpiece of the show pits Kong against a tag-team of three T-Rexes and is, quite possibly, the most astonishing such sequence ever filmed, taking place both on the ground and in the depths of a vine-enlaced abyss (they would need to be vines made of some heretofore unknown element to support the weight of Kong and three thunder lizards, but it so much fun, hey, who cares). Other sequences, however, notably a stampede of brontosaurs down a narrow canyon, during which human beings manage to survive while running among the beasts, a streets-of-Pamplona-like situation, are too obviously achieved by shooting the actors against green screen, as are all the shots containing both monsters and actorssome are better than others, but they all look shabby by contrast to the vine cage match with the T-Rexes.
But three hours is a long time to suspend ones disbelief, and when a movie is this relentlessly absurd, you begin to ask some questions in considerably less than three hours, questions you probably would not ask of a hundred-minute movie. How, for instance, does Ann avoid suffering a broken neck, a broken spine, and assorted internal injuries thirty seconds after being picked up by a house-sized gorilla on the run, let alone survive being whipped about while he fights the T-Rexes? How come Barry Baxter, a thorough coward, morphs into a vine-swinging action hero? How does scrawny Jack Driscoll become transformed from a bookish fellow with pipe cleaner arms into an indefatigable force? Love? Im not buying it. Not earned. Under attack by giant insects and spiders and worms that resemble living foreskins, the party is saved when Jamie, firing with uncanny accuracy, picks the various beasties off their backs and arms and etc. with a machine gun and doesnt harm a hair on their heads . . . How come? How come any of these people are capable of lasting more than five minutes in Jacksons Deathworld? How come the orc-like primitives are nowhere to be seen when Ann and Jack and the rest retreat through the ruins?
Theres a simple answer to these questions and the many other similar questions that the movie poses.
Because, along with the ten zillion dollars he earned from LOTR, Peter Jackson also earned the right, like Spielberg, like Lucas, like De Laurentiis and DeMille, to say, Logic be damned! I am Oz! I can do whatever I want!
Shortly before he dies and shortly after having been chased by multiple dinosaurs and a really big monkey, Jimmy is still doggedly discussing Heart of Darkness, and asks of Hayes, whos also soon to die, Its not an adventure story, is it?
No, its not, Hayes assures him. But despite the implication that Kong has the depths of Conrads novella, it is an adventure movie, one embedded in a vanity project that goes on far too long.
In the original, Fay Wray had the good sense to be terrified throughout; in the remake, Ann, following that first heart-stopping rush through the jungle to Kongs aerie, wakes to find herself surrounded by the bones of several former sacrifices and seeks to entertain the beast by dancing and juggling, a brave show that wins the big guys heart. By the next evening, she has taught Kong to sign the word beautiful when reacting to a sunset (this, perhaps, foreshadows a Jackson sequel, King Koko) and is sufficiently comfortable with the ape to sleep curled up in his palm. She goes willingly with Jack when he comes to her rescue, but when Kong is overwhelmed by chloroform on the shore, stretching out an imploring paw to her as he succumbs, her sympathy verges on grief. And when, back in New York, about ten or eleven hours into the movie, Kong bursts free of his chains on stage at the Empire Theater and goes rampaging through the streets of Manhattan, overturning trolleys and taxis, searching for Ann, picking up blonds and casually tossing them aside, tossing them forty and fifty feet in the air . . . despite his brutality, Ann goes to him.
Theres nary a hint that Ann is sacrificing herself to save the blonds of New York, and though I think Jackson intends her actions to be motivated by gratitude, theres scarcely a hint of that. As shot by Jackson, this is a lovers reunion. Hips swaying, doing a vamp walk, Ann moves slowly down the center of a foggy street toward Kong (since the night was previously crystal clear, with ice and snow unmelting all around, we are forced to assume that the fog has been generated by their heated passion); and this impression is amplified when Kong, fleeing gunfire, stumbles onto a frozen pond in Central Park and takes Ann, who giggles with girlish delight all the while, for a protracted slide on the ice as the soldiers close in.
Naw, weve gone way past sappy here.
As stated earlier, the fairytale aspect of the story has long since been trashed, and we are prevented from having that take on it. Given their circumstancepursued by riflemen and artilleryand given Anns subsequent actions, her dogged pursuit of Kong to the radio tower atop the Empire State Building, her attempts to shield him from attacking biplanes, we are led to suspect that this little lady must be a superfreak who has a kink for a creature with fatal halitosis and football-sized fleas. Maybe something happened aboard the Venture on the return voyage (which we are not shown) to consummate their love. Or maybe she enjoys being Kongs pet hamsterthat would appear to be the actual nature of the relationship.
It might be thought that I hated this movie, and I did. Its not a movie, its a hodge-podge of special effects and unearned sentiment, too long, too confused in its aspirations to secure a place in the collective consciousness, as did the first film. It seeks to be a horror/science fiction movie, an action/adventure movie, a love story; and it strives weakly to evoke a Conradian moral complexity. It seems conflicted about its own elements, posing contradictory motivations for its characters and expressing contradictory themes. Stripped of all context, the famous last line, It was Beauty killed the Beast, has the feel of a non-sequitur. That said, there are about thirty or forty minutes of spectacular CGI action that make King Kong worth seeing in a theatre. Yet almost every scene is overlong. If Jackson had used a judicious edit or two and surrounded that material with ninety minutes of character development and plot structure, he might have achieved the improbable and made a remake that was itself a classic.
Some of my friends were so adamant that I had missed the boat on Kong, a couple of days ago I sat through it a second time. I returned from this viewing with an even worse opinion of the film. There are some who will watch King Kong, be overpowered by the effects, and claim that caveats like those in this review are nitpicks. While its fine to feel that way, I stand by my assertion that an hours-worth of nitpicks equals one terrible movie. From my second viewing of the film, I primarily gained the impression that Jackson, who has begun to quote himself visually (compare, for instance, the swooping crane shot of Helms Deep to the swooping crane shot that gives us our first glimpse of the great wall on Skull Island), is a tired filmmaker and badly needs to recharge his batteries. Its probably a good thing that his next project, The Lovely Bones, is not a big FX movie, yet Im concerned that, in the tradition of Spielberg and his ilk, he may inflate the story, over-sentimentalize the already overly sentimental source material. Jackson has risen to such a height, he can only fallhe appears to be caught up in trying to top himself and that is a fools game. Yet I doubt he will change. He has become a franchise, a money machine, and people will march through the turnstiles to see anything with his name on it. He has taken the stage alongside Spielberg and Lucas. The sad thing is, and a likely harbinger of Jackons fate, neither of those men is capable of making good movies anymore.