Film Reviews: Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Naomi Watts holds hands with the love of her life in ‘King Kong.’
King Kong
Starring Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, and Jack Black. Directed by Peter Jackson. Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson, based on James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose’s script. Rated PG-13.
Gorilla Filmmaking

You won’t go ape for King Kong, but it still reaches some heights.


Oh, to have been a moviegoer in 1933! To have been among the first to see King Kong! For audiences who had just experienced the advent of sound films, a movie that convincingly depicted a giant ape rampaging through New York City must have been uniquely mind-blowing. Nowadays, special-effects breakthroughs in movies arrive seemingly every month. (Indeed, a space alien looking at our movies might conclude that Hollywood’s main reason for existing is to pioneer new developments in CGI technology.) That’s why, accomplished filmmaker though Peter Jackson is, there’s no way his remake of King Kong could possibly duplicate the achievement of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’s cinematic landmark. That said, it’s not a bad idea at all for this director to take arguably the first Hollywood blockbuster/action-thriller/disaster movie extravaganza and update its now-primitive special effects. His fundamentally serious approach, though it has its limits, helps make this a top-drawer piece of entertainment.

The story remains mostly the same: Ethically dubious movie producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) somehow obtains a map showing the way to a little-known place in the middle of the ocean called Skull Island — the movie doesn’t really explain how he comes by the map. He bribes a ship’s captain into transporting his film crew there to shoot his next movie, which includes struggling playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) as a screenwriter and unknown actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) as a leading lady. After a bunch of guys get eaten by Skull Island’s wildlife, Denham and his crew discover the mighty King Kong, manage to tranquilize the gigantic simian, and bring him to New York.

Jackson’s King Kong displays many of the same strengths and weaknesses that have become familiar from his Lord of the Rings trilogy. The filmmakers aim for romantic tragedy, playing up the angle of a doomed love affair between Ann and King Kong. The romantic leads make it somewhat more successful than the Aragorn-Arwen thing in LOTR. The computer-generated Kong (played by Andy Serkis via the same technology that allowed him to play Gollum) is quite expressive, and Watts does as well as any actor can reasonably hope to do playing love scenes to a green screen. It certainly helps that she’s beautiful enough here to be worth tearing up a major city for. Despite all that, the relationship doesn’t pull the weight it’s supposed to, partly because Kong is so obviously a computer-generated creation, and partly because the romance is wordless, not to mention interspecies. Oh, and I really could have done without the interlude late in the film where Kong takes Ann on a ride across the frozen lake in Central Park. The filmmakers try for “lyrical” and land on “silly.”

The movie takes too long to get going — the plot developments in the opening 45 minutes could have been dealt with in 20. And some of this movie’s racial subtext frankly bothers me, what with Skull Island’s population of black-skinned (though not necessarily African) savages who capture Ann and try to sacrifice her to the big ape. When you put that together with the fact that the only people of color in LOTR are the orcs, well, it raises some troubling questions that not even the presence of the heroic black sailor on the ship’s crew (Evan Parke) can quell.

What can’t be questioned, though, is Jackson’s flair for action set-pieces, which is evident everywhere in the movie’s last two-thirds. Once the characters reach Skull Island, the movie ignites, as the boat has to navigate some huge rock outcroppings on a foggy night. Jackson delivers a bravura sequence, making you feel the sway of the ship and the impact of the rocks. The brontosaurus stampede on the island is below Jackson’s standard of excellence, but when Kong takes on three T. rexes in a protracted fight sequence, you don’t care that Spielberg did the same thing 12 years ago. The complex mayhem that erupts when Kong escapes in New York and unleashes destruction on Times Square is handled well. The best sequence of all is when the ship’s crew is attacked in a ravine by hawk-sized wasps and some truly disgusting giant earthworms. This will induce sleepless nights among anyone with a fear of insects.

The movie also benefits from Black and Brody, who are vast improvements over their counterparts in the original and who look comfortable in this setting even though neither fits the Hollywood action hero template. They give this epic-scaled film a measure of personality that it sorely needs, though they can’t quite keep King Kong from feeling a tad cold. Nevertheless, as an example of pure cinematic spectacle for the holidays, there’s little fault to be found with this masterfully middlebrow monster movie.

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