The Theory of Chaos

Friday, October 12, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - King Kong

Originally published 12/14/05
Full review behind the jump

King Kong

: Peter Jackson
: Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Peter Jackson, based on the screen story by Merian C. Cooper & Edgar Wallace
: Jan Blenkyn, Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh
: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Jamie Bell, Kyle Chandler, Lobo Chan, Thomas Kretschmann, Evan Park, Colin Hanks, and featuring the physical talents of Andy Serkis as “Kong”

Strip everything else away – the glamour of stars, the ritual of storytelling, the eternal parade of pop culture – and at the heart of it is this simple truth: We go to the movies to see what we cannot see anywhere else. The best movies do something for us no other medium could; take us intimately inside an extraordinary character, splash vista and spectacle across the screen, combine photography and drama and music and the magic of the cut to create a world that can sweep us away from this one for awhile. The best movies are rapture in the dark.

I’m reminded of that boldness and unabashed ambition when I see Peter Jackson’s epic re-creation of adventure classic
King Kong. The original 1933 Kong, with its pioneering stop-motion effects and ceaseless inventiveness, appeared in an era where the cinema wasn’t afraid to be Big. Big action, Big romance, Big sweeping music, and of course a Big gorilla looming over it all, pounding his chest and roaring. We no longer live in a world where lost islands still hide in the mist, recorded only on yellowing maps, and we could believe a place exists where dinosaurs and giant insects and other creatures sprung from our nightmares battle for supremacy, and humans are just tasty intruders. That’s retro, nostalgic, and for too many storytellers, faded and inaccessible.

But not Peter Jackson, who with Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens and his army of New Zealand filmmaking wizards dared to bring
Lord of the Rings to stirring life, and now with much of the same crew (composer Howard Shore is ably replaced by James Newton Howard) pays orgiastic tribute to the favorite movie of his childhood using every tool the modern cinema offers. This is The Movies delivered at a volume and intensity you’ve forgotten, and when this beast entertains you, you’re going to stay entertained.

Smartly, Jackson preserves the storyline of the original, even down to some of its most famous dialogue and melodies from Max Steiner’s score. And he keeps the 1930’s setting, because it shouldn’t be anything but biplanes that swarm Kong atop the Empire State Building. But in more than doubling the length of the original he gives himself the space to flesh out, to burrow into his characters and unleash without limit his demented imagination for thrills. Unlike in Rings, whose eleven breathless hours still couldn't contain the scope of Tolkein, Jackson here gets room to stretch, and set his canvas the way he likes it.

It’s the depths of the Depression, and the streets are filled with the starving and desperate. Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is a Vaudevillian, a gifted dancer and comedienne, but there’s little money or room for laughter and the doors of her theatre are soon shuttered. Enter Carl Denham (Jack Black), who either makes films because they’ll allow him to explore dangerous places, or explores dangerous places because they’ll allow him to make films. His eyes gleam with immoral schemes and Machiavellian self-justifications – he’s one of those rogues you love right up to the moment where he does to you what he does to everyone else. The studio wants to pull the plug on his picture, so he flees with the film canisters, pulls Ann off a sidewalk because she’s hungry and will fit the ex-leading-lady’s costumes, and dragoons his writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) aboard a tramp steamer sailing in search of the mysterious “Skull Island”.

Driscoll is a playwright who writes Serious Work (Ann is an impassioned fan) but needs money – because no room was set aside for him on this trip he must sleep in the cages below deck, tapping on his typewriter behind wooden bars while animals shriek at him. What comment this might make about Jackson’s early years in Hollywood after his breakthrough with 1994’s Heavenly Creatures is an amusing consideration.

And for the first of the picture’s three hours (and the only one you’ll think could stand to be trimmed a bit) this is our world – we watch Denham try to keep his film and expedition alive, see Ann and Driscoll court hesitantly, and get acquainted with pompous himbo co-star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) and the ship’s crew. It’s led by the mercenary Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) and features colorful misfits like the perpetually squinting, drunk and angry ship’s cook Lumpy (Andy Serkis). Serkis, who provided the voice and body movements for Gollum in the Rings trilogy and also “performs” Kong’s body and face brilliantly, is making a habit of providing unforgettable exits in Peter Jackson’s work, and with a human character he now gets to provide two in the same movie (one will make you cry, the other will make you squirm).

It is no big surprise to confirm that they do reach Skull Island, where their ship is damaged against the rocks, they are attacked by superstitious natives (and on an island like this, who could blame them for being superstitious?), and things only get worse from there. This middle section – wherein Ann is offered up to the great gorilla Kong but survives by calling on her skill and pluck, and the ship’s crew, led by a perpetually filming Denham and a smitten, determined Driscoll, ventures behind the island’s great wall to rescue her – may be the most astounding and audacious sustained barrage of relentless action you ever see.

It’s not simply in the limitless variations on peril and cringing fright Jackson and his co-writers conjure up, not in the sheer number of terrors which must be fled from, shot or hacked through, but in the utter confidence with which each moment where we catch our breath and watch relationships develop, alliances shift and fates be decided is always just brief enough that the grip on our throats does not slack. This virtuosity of pacing and tension vaults Jackson into the ranks of the Spielbergs and the Kurosawas.

And we care every step of the way because this is also, as with the original, the story of the beauty that killed the beast. If not for the work of Serkis and the technicians bringing Kong to life, if we didn’t believe what’s communicated in the grunts and gazes as Kong figures out what Ann means to him, and what he will do to keep her, all the action in the world would not save our experience. But it is real to us – the most compelling relationship in the movie and a credit as well to Watts, who must imagine her companion before the technicians can paint him in. This Kong is stern, scarred, he’s had to work for his place atop the food chain. What a surprise to him to realize he’s also lonely.

Movies have become cynical and cheap. Sincerity has become something to be derided. To have a heart is to invite mockery. Peter Jackson’s King Kong is the most daring, rollicking, fun movie to hit the screen in many a year, and its great big heart carries it right to the top of tallest skyscraper to survey the world beneath it and scream triumphant.


  • Peter Jackson’s King Kong is the most daring, rollicking, fun movie to hit the screen in many a year . . .

    I don't think I had agreed back in 2005. And two years later, I still don't.

    But it was a pretty good movie.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:23 PM  

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