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King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005, 187 min.)

It takes a heck of a lot of… well, something to remake a film that’s universally acclaimed as a classic. That something is often sheer hubris, which I think was the motivating factor behind the 1976 remake of 1933’s King Kong, and I’m sure that some people think that’s the something behind this, Peter Jackson’s remake of the same film. I think I was highly skeptical when I first learned of it. But most, if not all, of my reservations were conquered around 40 minutes into this blockbuster with a heart and a brain. Jackson managed to best his source and inspiration emotionally, and probably technically, although that’s a touchy issue.

Of course the special effects are more technologically advanced. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack were inventing modern special effects as we know them: Willis O’Brien’s models, along with the stop-motion animation, rear projection, mattes, and other visual trickery, led the way, for better or worse, to the modern effects extravaganza, but to modern viewers, they can look pretty amateurish. Jackson’s Kong looks like a real giant ape, while Cooper and co.’s Kong looked like… like what? Like a creepy combination of animal and human, with those ever-twitching features (a relic of the stop-motion filming) and those wildly rolling eyes. The modern Kong uses the most advanced technology of the day to create a surrogate reality, while Cooper and company used the most advanced technology to create a nightmare on the screen.

Jackson has made a film that is both a remake of the 1933 film and a celebration of its impact on movies. He’s created a fanciful version of 1933 New York City inside a computer and placed human actors inside it to make it feel real. For the most part, it’s a masterful use of CGI. Computer effects should never be the point of a film; instead, they should enhance the story, interacting with its people in a believable way and adding something that would be impossible otherwise. There are places where he slips, where the effects attempt to stand alone but fail, but they are relatively few, and once the film gets rolling, they’re mostly forgotten. There is hubris here, as evidenced by the film’s three-hour running time. There’s simply not enough story here to justify that, and much of what feels like padding in the first hour is, in fact, padding. Compare the first third to the final two-thirds: it’s amazing how extraneous much of that first hour feels.

The story is much the same. Maverick director Carl Denham, played by Jack Black in an oddly fitting performance, flees New York City with equipment stolen from his backers, on his way to make a film on a remote island that only he knows exists. He’s basically kidnapped much of his crew: Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), his screenwriter, was kidnapped, but his female lead Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), was only somewhat misled. She was a struggling vaudeville actress left jobless by the Depression, and Denham convinces her to come along on the trip by dropping her idol Driscoll’s name. They embark on the voyage on a ship commanded by the crusty Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann). Many of the first scenes are taken word for word from the 1933 film, and they’re little gifts to fans of that film: Denham coming to the rescue after a starving Darrow steals an apple; the dialog for Ann’s first scene aboard the ship, which is word for word, and almost gesture for gesture, a recreation of Fay Wray’s scene. There are also sly references to the making of the original film, as when Denham mentions wanting to hire an actress named Fay, but she’s busy doing a film for a director named Cooper. Anyway, eventually, after the beginning of a romance between Ann and Jack, and a near-mutiny by the ship’s crew, they get to Skull Island—and its inhabitants.

I don’t know what to do about the islanders. In Kong-33, they were treated much as Cooper and Schoedsack treated the Thai in Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, and much as Joseph Conrad saw Africans in Heart of Darkness—just as most of the West has viewed everyone else since the dawn of contact. Cooper and co. wanted us to understand that wacky villagers, especially black villagers, are the same the world over: they have weird customs, they’re prone to violence, and above all they want to get their hands on the white women. Kong-33‘s cameras sat back during the white people’s first glimpse of the natives, sort of like a National Geographic special, giving the impression of recording some authentic behavior which is in fact just fanciful invention. Anyway, the question, when it comes to doing a remake, is what to do with the villagers. Do you reproduce this racist model, or do you chuck it in favor of—of what, really? I suppose they could have replaced the dark-skinned islanders with albinos or something. To change them too much would have had commentators on one side screaming about the PC police and those on another side screaming about how unfaithful it was to the original. Jackson chose, if anything, to one-up the original and turn the islanders from quaint primitive natives into ravening semi-humans. I think that’s the only route that Jackson could have taken, really. During that chaotic attack scene, I wasn’t judging how the islanders’ behavior fit with stereotypes of black people—I was wondering if they were human at all, or perhaps zombies, and wondering why they seemed to be painted a slate color. I don’t think this answers the question—is Jackson’s film racist?—but I honestly don’t know what he could have done with them to make them less offensive. Perhaps he could have jettisoned them altogether, although that would lead to the problem of how to put Ann Darrow in Kong’s paws.

I think maybe Jackson knew that the islanders would be a hot-button issue, and I think the first mate, Hayes (Evan Parke), is a half-answer, half-apology for the islanders. Here’s a black man who reads and offers commentary on Heart of Darkness, who is in a position of authority, who serves as a role model and father figure to the film’s mascot Jimmy (Jamie Bell). His character was basically invented for this film—the first mate in Kong-33 was Jack Driscoll, who is now the playwright—and he occupies a heck of a lot of screen time. This subplot, of the first mate and his charge, is the first place I’d have trimmed what I consider excess fat from the film; as I said, there’s no reason for this film to be three hours long, and dropping this whole storyline would have dropped at least twenty minutes, which is a good start. But I can see why Jackson wanted to keep them in, if in fact I’m right about Hayes being a sort of counterweight to the islanders.

Another large chunk of fat that could have been trimmed is the lengthy brontosaurus stampede, which was probably intended as some kind of homage to giant monster movies of the 1950s, and sadly comes across looking like it is some low-budget sci-fi monster movie. As magnificent as Kong is, I don’t understand why Jackson and company couldn’t have made these rampaging dinosaurs look a bit more three-dimensional. As it stands, this extremely long scene, which feels like an hour but probably clocks in at around ten minutes, looks like the actors running in place in front of a rear-projection screen showing Lost Continent. And where’s the resultant mayhem? If hundreds of brontosauri and several smaller, toothier dinosaurs were running along a narrow canyon where humans were also running, how many humans do you think would get trampled? My guess is more than four, but the film disagrees. Yes, I know: it is incredibly nerdy to argue about how many people would die in a brontosaurus stampede, but I didn’t bring it up. My point is that this sequence, which is nonsensical and looks terrible, should have been excised. But Peter Jackson, fresh off the triumph of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, wasn’t going to let anyone tell him to cut his own film.

But if we survive the islanders and the brontosaurus stampede, we’ve made it to the heart of the film, the thing that makes it memorable: the love story. It’s a platonic love story, between a 30-foot gorilla and a 5’5″ blonde who have no hope of consummating the relationship. It’s also one of the most touching love stories to come along in a long, long time. I saw it the same day as I saw Brokeback Mountain, and I couldn’t help but seeing some parallels, mostly about the impossibility of the relationship and the saving grace of a few snatched hours atop forbidding mountains, one called Brokeback and the other called Skull. At first we think Kong wants to eat Ann, or at least shake her head off, the way he manhandles (apehandles?) her on his run through the jungle. She escapes, but she realizes she’s safer with him than with the various beasties that really want to eat her. There’s a touching scene where she makes nice by putting on a vaudeville tumbling act, and we see the first cracks in his tough exterior. But the most beautiful scene, at least until the end, comes when he takes her to his mountaintop outpost to watch the sun set. He’s staring, brooding, out over the ocean, and she teaches him the sign for “beautiful” before falling asleep in his arms (rather, on his arm). When the intrepid Jack Driscoll arrives to save her, can you blame her for hesitating a little? Andy Serkis, the same actor who brought Gollum to life in the LOTR trilogy, provided the movements and facial expressions for Kong, who is the most lifelike and emotive CGI animal yet brought to the screen. He made me cry three times: the first when he’s drugged and captured; the second when he’s revealed onstage, chained and almost lifeless with sadness; and the third atop the Empire State building.

That’s the heart of the film, and it’s the one undisputable improvement over the original. In Kong-33, Fay Wray never stops screaming, not for a second, when she’s in Kong’s grasp. He leers at her wildly; in footage removed by censors but restored recently, he attempts to peel her clothes off, and we don’t know whether he would rather rape her or eat her. This Kong wants to impress her, then he falls madly in love with her. It might just be the love of an owner for a pet—and maybe that goes both ways—but it’s real love, and both Watts and the CGI gorilla make that quite plain. There’s a nice contrast set up during Kong’s rampage through New York City that illustrates this. Kong keeps picking up blondes and tossing them aside when he realizes they’re not Ann; meanwhile, Ann is a member of a chorus line, one blonde in a sea of blondes. She leaves the production in search of the one guy in New York for whom just any blonde won’t do.

And just any blonde won’t do to play Ann Darrow, either. Naomi Watts is a revelation. I’ve been chastised in the past for not appreciating her wondrousness, so let me praise her now. She begins the film as a fatalist, the Depression set in her bones. Aboard ship she shows a deft hand at comedy, both subtle and slapstick. She shows her qualifications for being a scream queen once the crew hits Skull Island: here she seems so fragile that she’s transparent. When she wins Kong’s heart, she wins ours, and in the final moments of the film, when it’s just she and Kong on top of the world, how can we not love her too?

And here’s where Jackson so beautifully demonstrates the proper use of special effects. I watched the last hour of the film with a knot in my stomach, the result of a combination of the love story and the brilliant special effects Jackson and company marshaled on screen. I’m afraid of heights, and never has a film managed to produce that fear in me, until this one. As Kong clambered his way up the Empire State Building, that knot in my stomach grew. Each lurch, rendered by some alchemy of CGI and Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography, had me grasping my arm rests, afraid that the movie would dump me out into the aisle. The vertiginous and hopeless fight between Kong and the buzzing biplanes, which mirrors an earlier scene where Kong battled giant bats, nearly made me seasick, but in a good way—this as I mourned for the big guy and his little girlfriend, who were never meant to be. This film ends, as did the 1933 film, with Carl Denham approaching Kong’s corpse and saying “It wasn’t the airplanes; it was beauty killed the beast.” But he’s wrong, at least here: it was Carl Denham, representing the modern world, killed the beast. Beauty made him happy for a little while before he died.