Universal (2005) 188 min. PG-13
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenplay: Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Fran Walsh based on King Kong by Merian C. Cooper & Edgar Wallace
Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie; Editing: Jamie Selkirk; Production Design: Grant Major; Set Decoration: Simon Bright & Dan Hennah; Costumes: Terry Ryan; Score: James Newton Howard
Stars: Naomi Watts (Ann Darrow), Jack Black (Carl Denham), Adrien Brody (Jack Driscoll), Andy Serkis (Kong/Lumpy), Kyle Chandler (Bruce Baxter), Jamie Bell (Jimmy), Evan Parke (Ben Hayes), Colin Hanks (Preston), Thomas Kretschmann (Cpt. Englehorn), John Sumner (Herb), Lobo Chan (Choy), Craig Hall (Mike), William Johnson (Manny)
When reigning Best Actress Brie Larson began absenting herself from the award show circuit last season, I was aghast to learn it was due to her prior commitment to Skull Island, the latest contribution to standing King Kong lore. Like most movie monsters Kong just doesn’t want to stay dead, so considering that Peter Jackson’s prior 2005 adaptation just passed its 10th anniversary, the time has come to revisit a modern classic.
The director had long nurtured the idea of remaking his favorite film since his starry eyes first beheld the original as a boy, inspiring him to become a director. The makeup and effects crew he recruited, most of whom had just worked on his Lord of the Rings, were no doubt equally enthused to collaborate on a film that served as such a bellwether in their own areas of expertise, presenting their take to a whole new generation of FX animators. But while that original Kong was produced by RKO, its smashing success saving the studio from bankruptcy during the Depression, Jackson’s version was distributed by Universal, the same studio that gave us most of our other classic movie monsters – Dracula, Frankenstein and his bride, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, etc. By underwriting Jackson’s dream project, they finally managed to lasso the big one that got away. And considering the creative hot streak the director was on at the time, fresh off his Lord of the Rings success, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that when he finally got the green light, his loving rendition would be so well made. Jackson’s Kong proved a worthy follow-up to the director’s other high quality fantasy epics, the result of an artist in full creative bloom.
Working from the premise that his public had already seen the original and was well aware of what was in store for them, Jackson determined to exceed preconceived expectations. Consequently, he keeps trying to top himself, mounting a three-ring circus, his own greatest show on earth, by stuffing this version of Kong with so much action, and so many possible interpretations, it nearly trips head over heels from its own top heaviness. Artists like Jackson don’t spend a lifetime fluffing a pet project like this simply to let it flow free and easy when time comes to turn their dreams into reality. The original movie dealt with one Arabian proverb concerning beauty and the beast. Jackson’s is comprised of more than one can count, from ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ and ‘don’t capture what you can’t control,’ to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Cluttered with metaphorical meanings, what should be a straight forward action adventure gets all gummed up. The director apparently believed he was still working in the rarefied realm of Wagnerian opera he’d risen to for Lord of the Rings, and still heady with success, was having a hard time coming down from that career high. Consequently he wasn’t in the best possible frame of mind to assess when his audience had had enough of a good thing so just keeps whaling away at them. Spoiled by the length and breadth of his slow bake trilogy, which spanned three years, nine hours and two continents, it was a challenge to scale down his visionary ambitions. As greedy about each precious piece of footage as Gollum, Jackson seems to have been reticent to part with a single frame. But despite best efforts he couldn’t do justice to all his grandiose ideas. So as long as this version of Kong is, it still feels as if it had been drastically foreshortened from a dramatic standpoint. Even the seemingly energetic shipboard jig former Billy Elliot Jamie Bell performs on deck with Naomi Watts’ Ann Darrow during the voyage to Skull Island has been reduced to a few frustrating flashes and inserted as simple montage to indicate the passage of time. Which is unfortunate since it’s an important scene, not just because it shows us a new side to Ann’s talents (as well as those of the actress playing her), but because without it we can’t fully appreciate why Jimmy feels so attached to her that he would join the rescue party against direct orders, to help track her down. Instead it just seems like he’s desperate for a heroic journey, a chance to prove himself a man. For all Kong’s fine pruning in instances like this, there still seems far too much time taken up by this prelude, before things really get under way. I saw the film in theaters back when it was originally released and it also seemed too long then, but following the ship’s arrival at Skull Island the pace picks up considerably. With nary another dull spot, the film becomes a non-stop joyride, chalk full of imaginative thrills.
This helps to balance things out, though the extended edition on DVD and Blu-ray pads out the running time even further, with additional scenes that weren’t included in the theatrical release. While some provide finer rounding to characters and relationships, others are comprised of completely new action sequences, such as the men’s initial encounter with a triceratops, which allows Driscoll (Adrien Brody) an early chance to display his bravado by saving Preston (Colin Hanks) from being trampled. But one can also see why the scene was excised since it lessens the impact of the similar, brontosaurus stampede later. Similarly, having blown the introduction of these signature sauropods early on, inserting another brontosaurus during the swamp crossing, akin to the Loch Ness Monster that beset the sailors in the original, would have seemed like unnecessary addendum. Instead we’re given crablike scorpions that swarm their rafts before being scared off by something even bigger winding its way through the water like a prehistoric piranhadon. In an exciting scene out of Lake Placid this oversize coelacanth fails to clamp its massive jaws around Driscoll, who’s ingeniously taken refuge among the twisted, submerged roots of a firmly planted swamp frond at pond bottom. And while the swapping of the brontosaurus for this new swamp dweller makes sense, we can’t fathom why the pterodactyl of the original has been changed to a much less impressive swarm of bats, nor why Kong doesn’t again stomp out some of the creepy Skull Islanders, who would here warrant such treatment. It remains equally unexplained, even in the extended cut, how the men manage to make their way back through this nightmarish rain forest to the relative safety of the village without similar incident after abandoning their search for Ann. Nor how Ann manages to cover the same terrain in her stocking feet, which is almost as impressive as watching her zip around New York in heels. Characters like Jimmy just sort of peter out. By film’s finale he’s disappeared entirely, so we never learn what becomes of him, if he follows through on Hayes’ (Evan Parke) advice to forego the tramp steamer and pursue an education. Things are mentioned and ideas raised, such as Hayes’ comparison of the young Jimmy he discovered as a stowaway in steerage to the sort of wild animal we’re soon to encounter on the island, without ever being properly developed or followed through. Some of the continuity progresses in non sequitur fashion. While sneak thief Jimmy is forced to return the pen he lifted off Driscoll, he’s subsequently seen using it to deface the self-promotional movie posters hanging in the cabin of matinee idol Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler). But just as nothing further is made of Jimmy’s kleptomania, vain star Baxter’s sneaking suspicion that he might actually look better with the mustache he finds scribbled on his mug likewise comes to naught, since no new growth ever appears. Occasionally the continuity is so nonsensical as to leave us scratching our heads, such as when Hayes assures Denham (Jack Black) that if he’s foolish enough to go ashore with his camera he won’t be coming back, when it’s actually Hayes himself who doesn’t return from the island. Other elements are left hanging. After his mentor is killed off for instance, Jimmy appropriates fallen Hayes’ skipper’s cap as if declaring himself the captain now, but we’re not sure what we’re supposed to be thinking. It’s not as though he’d suddenly been promoted to first mate, though his joining the search party and being given a gun against Hayes’ better judgment seems intended as some sort of rite of passage.
The extended version includes a scene where Jimmy gushes about Hayes’ heroic war record as he leads the sailors through the jungle like a troop platoon, making it clear why this vet doesn’t think it a good idea to put guns in the hands of children, having witnessed firsthand the damage they can do. And Jimmy will subsequently prove Hayes’ contention, that he’s too young to be trusted with firearms, correct when he hotheadedly shoots off a round at Kong as they escape the island in lifeboats, simply serving to enrage the beast, driving him into a wild frenzy, as Hayes had done earlier by firing into the cave, and Denham did that lake monster, provoking it to overturn their raft. Nervously entering the Carboniferous rain forest with its overgrown flora and fauna out of an earlier age, the trigger happy sailors open fire at every snapping twig as they pick their way through this lost world.
Andy Serkis’ ship’s cook Lumpy almost beans the surrounding men with his frying pan while swiping at bloodthirsty mosquitoes, the sort of pesky critters fated to end up in Jurassic amber, then leads us to believe he’s accidentally shot Ann herself when her mad dash through the forest is intercut by editor Jamie Selkirk with the sound of an unseen creature moving through the undergrowth toward them. Jackson seems to be working through some abstruse anti-NRA statement in such scenes. But then, with what must be the best aim in the world, Jimmy ends up shooting all the insects swarming over Driscoll without nicking him once (and this with his eyes closed mind you), even as one tries to adhere itself to his maw, in an apparent homage to the face huggers of Ridley Scott’s Alien. That’s some impressive shooting for a first timer; beginner’s luck I guess.
Kong remakes like Jackson’s tend to pop up perennially, each time advances in modern technology makes a more graphic representation of the big ape possible. This version appeared in the wake of both Mighty Joe Young, released a few years earlier, and the light year leap in computer graphics occasioned by Steven Spielberg’s still ongoing Jurassic Park franchise. Just as the stop motion work pioneered by legendary wizard Willis O’Brien for his silent classic The Lost World made possible the even more demanding frame by frame animation of Kong, so Jackson’s version wouldn’t have been possible without the pioneering green screen dinosaurs created by Spielberg, as well as Jackson’s own trial and error with motion-capture, necessitated by his extensive use of it in Lord of the Rings. The refinement of such processes made possible the creation of a new Kong that was both more visually dynamic and anthropomorphically correct than ever before, making the original, by comparison, look even more like one of those charmingly dinky Claymation models devised for Rudolph’s Shiny New Year.
In truth, Jackson’s reimagined version of the tale seems informed equally by his own Lord of the Rings and Jurassic Park as it does the original film. Surely no one in the mainstream had ever heard of velociraptors, who put in an appearance here in the slightly modified form of the fictional venatosauruses, until Spielberg introduced them to us. Taking this salute to the extreme, Jackson had even begun to physically resemble the shaggy ‘70s Spielberg to an inordinate degree around the time he made this movie, slimming down and growing his beard out. The movie’s in-joke back in ‘05 of course, was the unspoken contention that a classic monster like Kong could still wipe up the mat with T. rexes, even Jurassic Park’s newfangled ones, slapping their ears back and putting them in their place, while inadvertently going the additional distance of suggesting that Jackson’s dinosaur movie likewise trumped Spielberg’s. We were watching two twin titans square off in more ways than one.
And unauthorized though it may be, this Kong is well-nigh the only sequel to Jurassic Park that’s ever completely worked. Jackson satirizes Spielberg’s dinosaur movie, shifting the scope and reorganizing the set pieces in such a way that they become entirely his own, while at the same time building on our knowledge of it as well as the earlier Kong to both milk his laughs and undermine expectations. We already know Kong did battle with a Tyrannosaurus rex for instance, so Jackson gives us Kong doing battle with the one from Jurassic Park itself, onto whose set he seems to have wandered. Certainly Jackson’s T. rexes have been patterned so closely after the distinctive looking ones in the Spielberg film their appearance here can only be meant as an inside joke, a special guest star cameo. But apparently being the only person to have never watched Jurassic Park, Ann doesn’t realize T. rexes can only see moving targets, so keeps drawing their attention by racing about.
Just as the characters unexpectedly found themselves rescued from the menacing velociraptors by the eleventh hour appearance of an even bigger bad ass at the end of Jurassic Park, here Ann is saved in similar fashion from the monitor lizard-like foetodons she stumbles across (squat, landlocked crocodiles that begin burrowing their way into the rotting log where she’s sought safety) by T. rex. A nearly identical battle royal was staged between King Kong and this king of the thunder lizards in the 1933 classic, so the director quadruples the size and magnifies the effect, elaborating on what the viewer knows is coming by throwing two additional T. rexes into the fray just to make sure we get our money’s worth. Scaling up Kong’s original rumble in the jungle in this way, upping the ante by pouring more into the mix, Jackson goes a ways toward proving that in Kong’s king-sized world, bigger is better.
So we can’t imagine why these carnivores toss aside the satiating kills they’ve just made to chase after Ann, who doesn’t have an ounce of meat on her. They’re willing to battle to the death over her, though she couldn’t afford more than a tasty morsel, being too itsy bitsy for them to even get into their cavernous maws unless helpfully dangling from a branch like bait on the hook. Still it’s thrilling to watch Kong pummeling the T. rexes with right hooks and uppercuts like a heavyweight boxing champ. Clobbering them with one arm, the one holding Ann, tied behind his back he impressively weathers having his biceps repeatedly clamped down on by those serrated jaws when we’re convinced they should be quartering him limb from limb. Kong keeps tight hold of his prize in one of his four paws at all times, tossing her back and forth like those pins she’d earlier juggled.
Every time T. rex finds himself in a prime position to make a quick meal of her, such as when she’s held at arm’s length away from one ravenous meat-eater, being unwittingly offered up on a tempting platter to another approaching from the opposite direction, Kong somehow manages to fend them off. It’s anybody’s guess why he doesn’t place Ann out of harm’s way, somewhere safe until he’s finished schooling these ill-tempered saurs, as he will later when fighting bats and biplanes. But it deviously places viewers in her position, fully immersed in the thick of battle, worrying about her safety as if it were our own, the same way the movie simulated Ann’s sense of disorientation when Kong first absconded with her. Unthinkingly shaking her this way and that as he scouted about for any predators that might be trying to claim his kill from him, and running on all fours while repeatedly banging the paw grasping her into the ground, the propulsive torsion proved too much, leaving her limp as a rag doll. The final part of the T. rex battle, set in the forest glade, may regress back to the original, with Kong breaking the jaws of the reptile, but where this special effects action sequence, one of the most astonishingly choreographed and skillfully maneuvered ever concocted, becomes truly innovative is at the very point where it begins deviating from form. Inventing a new technique, Kong heaves each tyrannosaurus down a steep mountain slope where they slip and slide one after another into the chasm below. At least until the very last one tenaciously latches on to the furry foot holding Ann, like a dog with a bone, dragging both her and Kong down with him. This clash continues, toppling further and further through the crevasse, all three becoming webbed in the crisscrossing network of vines spanning the drop, breaking their fall.
Having inextricably tangled himself in a quagmire to match the La Brea Tar Pits, the still living T. rex who’d fallen in first has nothing to do but wait patiently as the force of gravity operates like a pendulum, swaying his final meal closer and closer toward his waiting chops. As Ann tries to swing herself away like Tarzan or Jane, and the devious dinosaur swings himself ever closer in her direction, they appear to be performing a horrifyingly beautiful trapeze act together, drawing our nerves so taut we almost can’t take it. At one insane point Ann even finds herself dangling from the tooth of one T. rex directly above the gaping jaws of another positioned below, waiting to catch her midair the instant she drops. A swift kick from Kong throws the trajectory off so that she lands on the thunder lizard’s head instead of its tongue, bronco riding the bucking raptor as he makes every effort to dislodge and flip her into his mouth like an airborne piece of popcorn.
In Jurassic Park, our first introduction to the dinosaurs was the sight of brachiosaur free grazing through the grasslands, so here Denham is likewise left to stumble upon a herd of brontosaurus peacefully lolling in the valley, looping in Baxter’s question concerning “What the hell kind of place is this?,” which he utters after the encounter with the triceratops in the extended version. When Denham ushers Baxter into frame with the beasts so people won’t think they’re fake, those of us watching the film knowing full well they are, are still subliminally influenced into believing the same. But rather than the awe-inspiring moment of wonder the appearance of extinct dinosaurs managed to evoke in Spielberg’s movie, here it’s been turned into prelude for a pure adrenaline rush. Capitalizing further on Jurassic Park by reworking the diplodocus flight from that rampaging T. rex, during which the humans found themselves caught in the middle of the mass migration, Jackson creates a brontosaurus stampede that’s even more thrilling.
Their approach heralded by quaking earth and falling boulders, much as the appearance of Spielberg’s T. rex was presaged by ripples in a glass of water, the rescue party finds itself overtaken in the narrow canyon pass, sandwiched between the colossal forest of panicked, prehistoric pachyderms and the pursuing venatosauruses picking them off here and there, along with a stray sailor. Catching the men up in its own forward momentum and pushing them along, the sailors are eventually surpassed and wedged underfoot, smack in the midst of a towering forest of stomping hooves. And audiences don’t know whether the greater danger lies in the men being trampled to death in this fashion or torn to shreds by the carnivores swiftly zigzagging between the brontosaurus’ legs, like those jet fighters in the Endoor Forest of Return of the Jedi. It’s the most perfectly nerve-wracking visualization of being caught between a rock and a hard place ever conceptualized. Either one of these horrors, the stampede or the raptors, would have been enough to stop the heart, but a masterful Jackson mixes in the whole brew, building and building his scene to the brink of endurance. We can’t fathom how any of the men manage to avoid the crush, just as we can’t later, when Driscoll tries to reach Ann, who’s separated from him by the heavily treading heels of a Kong blindly whirling about, battling a swarm of bats. Barreling along at full tilt, slamming into each other and anyone else in the vicinity, the dinosaurs mindlessly squish both man and raptor alike, occasionally even proving the sailors’ surprising saviors by unwittingly crushing a threatening mini-rex just before it pounces.
The intricately complex choreography and effects, which place both the real actors and computer generated raptors in the thick of the brontosaur herd is absolutely mind boggling. But though I hadn’t noticed in the theater, the visuals didn’t seem quite as convincing when I watched the film again at home. Jackson throws in so many of them that we can’t help but notice the dino-mation at work on some wobbly occasions. Perhaps it’s the digital transfer. But for what this breathtaking scene attempts, and the degree to which it succeeds, it’s a thing of true beauty to behold. When Baxter’s popshot at a raptor flies wide of its mark, hitting a brontosaurus in the leg, the whole herd is sent tripping over their long, serpentine necks, as if they were untied shoelaces. They tumble head over heels into an enormous stack of heaped meat, wedged four deep at the entrance to the pass, a humorous mass of writhing horror, resembling a pit full of vipers.
The movie is set in the age of ballyhoo, shameless, bigger than life self-promotions like Ringling Brother’s Gargantua, and bring ’em back alive big game hunters like Frank Buck (avowing that no man gets left behind, war vet Hayes says of Ann, “We’ll find her. Alive or dead, we bring ‘em back.”). And there seems something of “preening self-promoter” Carl Denham’s same bombastic, carnival barker’s spirit about Jackson himself on occasion. At times while watching the movie, one can practically hear him thumping his own chest like a self-satisfied ape. Part of Jackson clearly admires the dogged determination in the artist side of Denham, identifying with this rotund little entrepreneur’s willingness to go to any length to get his film in the can, so it’s interesting to see the love-hate way he chooses to present him. Despite all the havoc he wreaks, the Denham character is still depicted in an affectionate serio-comic manner for some reason, treated as an irascible, slightly dotty scamp.
He’s more akin to the overenthusiastic Robert Armstrong’s original interpretation, modeled after intrepid adventurers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, than Charles Grodin’s oily 1976 Denham, who deservedly got squished at the end. But then, directors can’t turn on their own kind. Jack Black, who would himself become the oversize ape loosed in a land of miniature Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels, was influenced in his interpretation of the shifty-eyed Denham by other uncompromising, mad visionary filmmakers such as Orson Welles, who he studied and patterned himself after. Like out of work vaudevillian Manny (William Johnson), Denham too is considered all washed up (“I’m finished.”) by the hot shot financiers backing his latest safari picture.
Absconding with the footage they want to write off, in order to finish it on his own terms, he’s living out every director’s cherished dream of final cut. Willing to do anything for the perfect shot, he’s just as self-absorbed a sociopath as Peter O’Toole in The Stunt Man. Instead of a God complex however he’s more a conniving figure of cosmic absurdity, given his outlandish conviction that he can take an inert unknown and mold her into a star, breathing life into his creation. As much as Welles and O’Toole, the conception of Denham here brings to mind Werner Herzog, who used to ship his cast and crews to the most inhospitable and inaccessible corners of the globe in the crazed determination to take his camera where no man had gone before. Denham’s chief adversary, the ship’s captain Englehorn (“It’s over, you god*mn lunatic!”) even speaks in a German accent, as if he were Klaus Kinski.
Playing tongue-in-cheek, Black revels in his role, lighting into it with true relish, capturing the madness of such men, if not the attendant spark of genius that might be driving them on, making all the tortures suffered for their art worthwhile. There’s no artistry evident in this course, clumsy Denham to compare with his creative juggling when bending cast and crew to his will. Intent on making his film by hook or by crook, he even lies to Ann’s face about shooting in Singapore, in a way Preston couldn’t their previous actress. With his harebrained, moneymaking schemes, he’s the opposite of playwright Driscoll, who does what he does for love of the art (“I don’t do it for the money, Carl. I happen to love the theater.”). When he bags his big prize and dollar signs dance before his eyes, we can be sure Denham intends on keeping all the profits made off marketing Kong, despite assurances that he’ll share the wealth with survivors. As drunken on the limitless possibilities as a wine besotted Bacchus, he takes on the same shifty, untrustworthy eyes and soothing false promises as Gollum.
Knowing he’s ruined if he returns home without anything to show for his effort, each time another crew member drops dead, a diffident Denham, rather than being perturbed with misgivings, pledges to power through and finish his film, dedicating it to their memory and donating all the proceeds, causing Preston to do a double take the second time this same oath is aired. The way he repeats the carefully rehearsed lines verbatim makes it clear the blustery blowhard is full of hot air. To Denham’s mercenary mind, which can never admit defeat, every unforeseen obstacle besetting his master plan becomes another self-aggrandizing opportunity to make his picture greater still, even when cast and crew are being impaled on the spears of natives or eaten alive by venatosauruses. Though he asserts that Ann can trust him, Denham’s obsession with shooting what he believes will be his masterpiece just ends up getting everyone killed. “That’s the one thing you learn about Carl,” Preston observes as they follow him to their deaths single file, “His unfailing ability to destroy the things he loves.” We learn more about Preston himself in the extended cut which gives his statement an added edge as Denham, full of false assurances when his assistant cautions that he’s putting their lives at risk, vows he would never endanger a friend.
Jackson employs a slo-mo effect on grainy stock, similar to the one he used in Lord of the Rings (and Spielberg had earlier in Saving Private Ryan) to emphasize moments of import, such as when Driscoll blurts out the name of the island Denham wants to keep very hush, hush, and is overheard by Jimmy who quickly spreads the news among the rest of the crew, spooking the superstitious sailors. The director employs the same effect when the party is first assailed by the Skull Island natives, the camera lurching up from oblique angles as seconds seem to slow to an eternity. The prelude is littered with ominous forebodings such as this, same way the original classic was, with an uneasy Englehorn’s reluctance to change course for what he believes will be an empty expanse of sea far outside normal shipping lanes, and Denham and Preston being confronted by Lumpy and the others who, in a spellbinding speech to rank with Robert Shaw’s tale of the Indianapolis in Jaws, relate the ravings of a castaway they’d picked up after he’d been shipwrecked on the mysterious island (in the extended cut there are said to have been twelve men mutilated along with him). When the ship enters the storm tossed coastal waters, it appears to have strayed into the Bermuda Triangle with the compass spinning erratically, unable to detect magnetic North, an absence of stars in the sky to dead reckon by, and an electric fog descending over the ship, further frustrating navigational efforts. The location of this uncharted isle is indicated on Denham’s Pereis Rei map by a Rorschach ink blot in the shape of a screaming monkey skull. And when the wind whips this ancient yellow parchment back into the oblivion from which it emerged, they’re left steering blind as pounding waves lash the ship, threatening to dash it to pieces. In the original Kong, the island had a promontory resembling an enormous skull. This one is surrounded by hundreds of carved stone edifices, ranging from small to humongous, like the faces on Easter Island. Even the great, ornamental wall, with poles propped against it to serve as additional reinforcement, suggests an art deco death mask while the sheer, irregular cliffs cutting off the shore resemble the tortured vertebrae of an exposed spinal column. When caught in the shallows, as they try to negotiate a narrow strait with huge boulders looming on either side, it appears for all the world as if the steamer had been clamped in the massive jaws of a granite giant.
The film is graced with an abundance of imaginative scenic design such as this, wielding a measure of the same fantastical visual force the original held. Much of the green screen work recreating Skull Island appears modeled after the mattes and process shots of the earlier version, but certainly inspiration for these fantasy landscapes owe as strong a debt to Jackson’s own Rings trilogy. The craggy, cobweb covered interior of Kong’s mountain lair and the crane-like drawbridge spanning the steep drop beyond the wall, respectively recall the spider cave episode from Return of the King as well as the storming of The Two Towers, which climaxed the second installment. Jackson lets the slow-moving first half of the film lull us into a false sense of security before we come to realize, like Jimmy, that the movie isn’t an adventure yarn after all, switching to straight out horror the way Jurassic Park did after the grid went down. Structured along the lines of the very book he pinched from the library, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the movie takes on an increasingly surreal and ominous tone as the crew of the Venture journey into the jungle in search of a self-proclaimed god and his native disciples.
Denham is being pulled forward by inexorable fate, much like Ann, who ignores that still small voice warning her to turn back before stepping onto the gangplank and forever altering her destiny. (“She can’t escape the feeling that forces beyond her control are compelling her down a road from which she cannot draw back. It’s as if her whole life had been a prelude to this moment. This fateful meeting that changes everything.”). She’ll waver again at the mouth of the cave leading inland when confronted by additional signs and omens, an array of real human skulls arranged in ceremonial pattern. Continuing on against her better judgment, part of her wants to turn back, but as Jimmy learns when their plight is compared to Conrad’s, another, stronger, impetus is compelling her onward. As the party traverses the ruins of the lost civilization, regressing back through time, Hayes recites directly to make the correlation complete, “We could not understand because we were too far, and could not remember because we were traveling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone leaving hardly a sign and no memories…” Like the protagonist of Heart of Darkness who continues his increasingly ominous journey upriver, Denham’s trip through the island interior leads to death and destruction (“Seen enough?” a disgusted Engelhorn asks him). When the sailors go ashore with rifles to shoot the beast that abducted Ann, the director accompanies them with camera, intending to shoot it after his own fashion. Not unlike those nature photographers who sit objectively by filming all manner of savagery in the animal kingdom, Denham’s movie becomes an inadvertent snuff film as he records the party being picked off one by one without making any effort to intervene. Checking to ensure the shutter is still working after the swamp attack, he unintentionally snatches shots of the final sailor being devoured, to Lumpy’s scorn, “You get that, did you?” As Englehorne denigrates the director’s character further by correlating him with insect life, “That’s the thing about cockroaches. No matter how many times you flush them down the toilet, they always crawl back up for more,” Denham is given cause to bristle back “Hey, buddy, I’m out of the bowl. I’m drying off my wings and trekking across the lid,” without bothering to question the comparison, or refute the charges.
It’s his whirring camera motor that initially appears to panic the peacefully grazing brontosauruses, inciting them to stampede before there’s any sign of pursuing predators. When Driscoll stops to help Denham, who has slipped and fallen, the dedicated director still refuses to give up his cumbersome cargo, though jettisoning the film equipment would lighten his load, allowing him to beat a hastier retreat. After Kong topples the fallen trunk he’s on into the ravine, Denham lunges for his falling camera with a glinting eyed desperation worthy of Gollum, who took a similar flying leap after that golden ring at the end of Return of the King. Sloshing out of the swamp in the extended cut, Denham’s first impulse is to relieve Preston of his precious burdens rather than ascertain his wellbeing. And when he’s forced to choose between camera and cameraman Herb (John Sumner), somehow it’s the camera that gets saved. Learning he has a wooden leg, having lost his real one to a sea lion on a previous expedition where Denham’s crew secured the “best footage we ever shot,” completely changes the way we see Herb’s demise in the extended cut. When a venatosaurus first latches onto his wooden peg now, the joke is not lost on us. Assured by Preston that Herb’s death wasn’t his fault and he shouldn’t blame himself, Denham is all too willing to oblige, thereby absolving himself in his own mind of any culpability. Never was the need for actor’s equity and worker’s comp more implicitly implied. When Denham claims to be risking everything he has on the picture, his presumption is quelled by the captain who corrects, “No, Denham. You risked everything I have,” as well as the lives of his cast and crew. The director will even end up using his actress as bait to lure Kong out of hiding. Refusing to lower the drawbridge that will allow them to cross to safety until Kong is in his sights, it’s sycophant Preston, finally recognizing the director for the megalomaniac he’s become, who cuts the suspension wires in the nick of time, as if severing his own umbilical cord to him. When this Kong takes a moment to mourn the dead, as the surviving men are roused back to consciousness after falling into the crevasse, Lumpy holding the limp hand of Choy, Jimmy collapsing in Driscoll’s arms as the memory of poor Hayes’ demise comes flooding back, Denham laments over the lost footage that meant just as much to him. For all his mercenary shenanigans and assurances that he wasn’t going to let the backers kill his film, when his negative still ends up exposed and ruined Denham comes to the sad realization it wasn’t worth the celluloid it was printed on, much less all the lives it cost. Finally galvanized to action, as the other men start fighting the insects fed up with the toll taken on their number, Denham takes out his own impotent fury over the futile footage he’d shot. His dander up, without a camera to worry about any longer, he jumps headlong into the fray he’s been maintaining an objective distance from heretofore, until bugs are dropping from the sky like a rain of frogs. Director Jackson, for his part, takes this occasion to pay tribute to an even more irreplaceable piece of lost footage by recreating from scratch the original Kong’s legendary pit sequence which likewise occurred after the men were shaken off the log into the mud pit below, fulfilling every film connoisseur’s wildest dreams by proxy. Where we’d earlier seen poor Ann menaced by all manner of overgrown creepy crawly, from a spider that began to emerge from beneath a rock, to dragonflies and centipedes in that rotting log, Jackson goes himself one better as this pit suddenly explodes, coming alive with an unspeakable assortment of icky insects. The sailors, bereft of a can of bug spray when they need it, have only a moment to reconnoiter before they’re set upon by an entire mess of multi-legged things – cockroaches, crabs, spiders, scorpions, praying mantises, and carnictis, tentacle like slugs with retractable fangs for faces. They emerge from the primordial ooze to feed on the dead bodies as if scenting fresh meat, the ship’s cook becoming his own last meal as he’s dramatically drawn, quartered and eaten alive. This rather grisly scene remains the most exceedingly unpleasant in the picture, so one can only imagine the similar effect it would have had on Depression era audiences or wonder why it was excised (though Cooper always maintained it was removed for pacing purposes).
It may be pulling inspiration from the past but this Kong can’t make anything respectable out of the original’s dated racial schematics, so skims over them without comment. The movie doesn’t address why Ann would be considered a more valuable sacrifice to Kong than the dark-skinned native women, why he finds her special enough to preserve intact when he rends all the others limb from limb. The cynical side of me thinks Hayes and the interchangeable Asian sailors (one of whom we could almost swear was killed off twice, once aboard ship [Louis Sutherland] by the native who abducts Ann and again when Kong crashes through the gate and unceremoniously gnaws off his head [Toa Waaka]), were simply inserted in proceedings to deflect charges of racism in the film’s depiction of the Skull Island natives as hissing, cannibalistic, sub-humans – amputees with eyes bloodshot red or unnaturally rheumy, comprised of a bizarre mélange of blacks, Asians, Maori, Polynesians, and an old crone (Vicky Haughton) who seems to be doing a Yiddish gypsy turn similar to the one in Drag Me to Hell. They’ve been painted up to resemble the skin pallor of South Pacific islanders or Australian Aborigines, a cross-section of ethnic ‘others’ that could never have coexisted in any feasible primitive tribe heard tell of. They’ve been made to seem so unnatural and demonic we never question the behavior of the ship’s company toward them.
When a young native (Jacinta Wawatai) suddenly springs up out of nowhere in the midst of the deserted village, he’s the living image of some vengeful specter from a horror film, Watts’ The Ring maybe. Pulling out a chocolate bar, Denham tries to entrance him with worthless trinkets as though he were a 16th century conquistador, but then the film’s entire concept of these natives is straight out of an imperialist European’s ethnographic nightmare of solipsism. Faces pierced with bone ornaments, teeth filed to jagged points, they emerge from every crevice to overwhelm the party by sheer numbers, a human hive to rival those insects, and about as unsympathetic. Rather than being accompanied by the crash of thunder and flash of lightning, their appearance is heralded by sudden drizzle that collects like a grail in puddles of blood at the base of their sacrificial stone altar. The ominous island chant is carried on the winds, the words of the hoarse old woman following Ann all the way back to her cabin aboard ship, as she again experiences a prickly foreboding, looking at her door as if she expected it to burst open any second. In a freakily animated scene, the only truly wonky one in the picture because we know real humans don’t move like this, a native pole vaults from rock to rock clear over to the stranded ship, boarding in search of his quarry. Then the camera, in a breathtakingly glorious one-take, cranes up past the sailors’ heads, clear through the breakers and over the cliffs to the pagan ceremonial rites lit by torch. Ann seems to have far more to fear from these insane islanders than she does Kong, as they lapse into a fevered frenzy during the invocation, eyes ecstatically rolling into the back of their heads as if possessed, or else kept clamped tightly shut, seeing nothing yet knowing all. The movie never explains this apparent sixth sense, the natives’ intuitive spiritual affinity with Kong, summoning him to chow by wood knocking on stone pillars, as if they were communicating over distance by tribal drum.
Even if permitted a poignant death scene, the Chinese character Choy (Lobo Chan), demoted to the rank of ‘janitor’ here for some strange reason, is still treated in the exact same chop suey manner he was in the original. Since this part has been retained in toto, the presence of Andy Serkis as ship’s cook Lumpy, whose specialty porridge, the inspiration for his name, is indistinguishable from his shaving cream, seems rather superfluous. But as with Serkis’ Gollum, a performance many felt he deserved Oscar recognition for, it’s quite possible Jackson was giving the actor, with his perennial cigarette and bum eye that leaves him squinting like Popeye the Sailorman, some actual face time to push for more legitimate supporting actor consideration for his motion capture work. This is really the only logical supposition to make since, despite the fact that Serkis plays both Lumpy and Kong, there’s no clear correlation between the two otherwise, nor reason why he would be cast as both. Indeed the actor so expertly differentiates between his characters that we would have no way of knowing who played Kong without resorting to the credits. Still, the role offers such a phenomenal display of Serkis’ talents one wonders how many other stupendous, still untapped motion capture characterizations remain locked inside him. Thankfully, current technology gives him the unparalleled opportunity to go on ad infinitum, offering up for public perusal an endless assortment of artistically fulfilling ape man interpretations. The character actor’s career never really took off until he almost single-handedly invented the motion capture art form. And when its impact on cinema comes to be assessed, certainly a good deal of consideration will be given over solely to evaluating Serkis’ role in establishing the one acting style wholly unique to the 21st century.
As Kong, he gives the best performance in the picture, stealing the show. And what an entrance! An indistinct figure come crashing though the jungle, jumping from branch to branch as trees topple down right and left around him. Finally emerging from the mist he remains silhouetted against the light so that we don’t get too clear a look at him beyond a rough estimate. He’s so enormous Ann can only take him in via bits and pieces, sectioning his frame into brief flashes, cubist fashion, an enormous paw landing on the ground in front of her here, fingers stroking her fair hair there, a leg pounding with each step as he flees through the jungle with her in his hairy paw. Given that everyone knows precisely who and what Kong is (the title’s a dead giveaway), it’s nice that Jackson (“…believing there’s still some mystery left in this world and we could all have a piece of it for the price of an admission ticket.”) tries to sustain an air of anticipation, rather than fully revealing his unclassified cryptid right out the gate. Cooper and Shoedsack created their original fantasy safari in pursuit of the biggest game ever stalked in reaction to an increasingly shrinking global village whose unexplored regions were fast disappearing, their loss making the far corners of the earth seem less exotic and mysterious, and intrepid armchair explorers like us all the poorer for their passing. As Denham asserts, we’re still privileged since “For 25¢, you get to see the last blank space on the map… a primitive world never before seen by man. The ruins of an entire civilization.”
Serkis’ is, by far, the most realistic looking Kong we’ve ever been handed, the first one to resemble a genuine gorilla, tall as a house though he may be. And thanks to the motion capture used to render him, through Serkis’ touching interpretation he also seems the most thoroughly human as well (those aren’t dull ape eyes). Kong, who Lumpy claims must be the Abominable Snowman, the missing link (‘a creature neither beast nor man but something’ in between), when they stumble across his enormous footprint in the mud, possesses our ancestor’s first vestiges of sentient intelligence. As Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Serkis would take the concept further still, endowing his ape with the power of human speech. But Kong comes close enough, at the very least suggesting Koko the talking gorilla at the end, by repeating back the sign language Ann had earlier taught him.
What this oversize Darwinian ape is doing stalking about an antediluvian world full of dinosaurs as if it were still the Age of the Reptiles, is as moot a question as it always has been, but viewers might still be inclined to search for some Paluxy footprints adjacent to his gigantic one. Indeed, Kong has managed to become king of these beasts by virtue of the very fact that he is a mammal and hence more advanced up the ladder of evolution than his reptile adversaries, the same reason Tarzan became Lord of the Apes. He has an ancient, wizened face, crisscrossed with wrinkles and preternaturally imprinted with the wisdom of the ages. There’s a fierce scar alongside once eye and across his breast, betokening what it’s cost this king to maintain his island throne. When he sits in some ancient, overgrown stone archway flanked by scenic waterfalls and reached by a magnificently carved grand staircase, he seems a majestic, royal figure, holding the bamboo shoot he’s munching on as if it were a scepter, a deposed monarch surveying his once grand, now fallen kingdom.
Kong is the last of his kind (“the last remnant of an ancient civilization is gonna vanish,” we’re told in the extended cut, “The island is sinking.”), as we see when he moves thorough the mountain cave littered with the ancient bones of his deceased ancestors, now covered in cobweb, like an elephant graveyard. In the process, the movie answers an oft asked question that’s nagged the public since the original Kong debuted, as to where all the other island’s great apes had gone to, especially after a son unexpectedly popped up in the sequel. The lonely Kong’s dwindling numbers help us understand why he’s so determined to retain Ann for companionship. Watching the sun slowly set over his once vast domains is a solemn ceremony performed each evening as Kong pauses a moment to pay his respects to the venerable ancestors of generations past. Even Ann can’t compete with the radiating bands of color wreathing the horizon, as she signs to him the adjective that perfectly describes it – beautiful, putting into words what he’d never been able to express before.
The director isn’t just mourning Kong here, but the extinction of species. In this way the movie could be taken as a conservationist statement in its depiction of these big game hunters who want to capture Kong, in the process criminally polishing off the last of his line as the sailors do that triceratops in the deleted scene, Lumpy rhetorically asking “aren’t these things supposed to be extinct?” and Hayes responding that “They are now.” We learn skipper Englehorn himself makes big money selling rare specimens like this to zoos and circuses, though what he’s doing with a munitions full of ammo on board if he’s not a gun runner is anybody’s guess. And when those national guardsmen stand in front of Kong’s body at the end, triumphantly grinning from ear to ear for the cameras, they look for all the world like seasonal hunters with rifles in hand, the trophy they’ve just bagged the most impressive mounted head of them all.
Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll is about as far as one could get from the two-fisted he-man Bruce Cabot portrayed in the original. A Clifford Odets type whose working class plays focus on the plight of the common man, he writes for the Federal Theater under the WPA, drawing the sort of audience Ann’s vaudevillians can’t anymore. Like Humphrey van Weyden in The Sea Wolf, this woolly-headed intellectual who can’t swim (he won’t jump from ship to shore when the steamer sets off for parts unknown) and suffers from seasickness, the man Ann was afraid might be “one of those self-obsessed literary types. You know the tweedy twerp with his nose in his book and his head up his a –,” finds himself shanghaied, the seven labors that will be demanded of him during this odyssey meant to make a man of him. Events bring out the animal in this esoteric aesthete, Driscoll regressing in a positive way down the Darwinian ladder of evolution. As Englehorn asks, “What are you, Mr. Driscoll? A lion? Or a chimpanzee?” Like feral cabin boy Jimmy, who first mate Hayes found stowed away among the crates and cages, “wilder than half the animals in this place,” Driscoll is kept below deck during the voyage, in one of the wooden pens built for transporting game, indication that the bestial side within him remains contained for the present, until his tenure on the island forces it out. His naked ape will need all the animal instinct he can muster in order to battle an even bigger great ape for possession of Ann.
Claiming he’s just an actor with a gun who’s lost his motivation, Baxter points out that heroes in the real world don’t look like the glamorous Hollywood stars who adopt such poses onscreen, such as himself, they look just like Driscoll, mouthpiece for the lumpen proletariat, who saves Preston from the triceratops and Jimmy from drowning, as if he could suddenly swim better than the sailor. Baxter, as played by the talented Kyle Chandler, who seems too innately nice a guy to make a convincing heel, is presented in comically derisive terms, the stereotypical, vainglorious movie star, the sort who travels “the whole world and all they ever see is a mirror.” Initially he’s so self-absorbed he can exhort the men to abandon the search for Ann rather than risk life and limb, causing Jack to sneer “I always knew you were nothing like the tough guy you play on screen. I just never figured you for a coward.” And the movie too treats Baxter as though he had a yellow streak running down his back, its own form of extending the white feather, though former soldier Hayes paradoxically assures Jimmy later that fleeing in the face of danger is not about cowardice but a normal instinct for self-preservation. Yet like Driscoll, Baxter too will discover another facet of himself, indulging in the sort of heroics he had earlier eschewed, returning with Englehorn and a rescue party to save the surviving sailors from certain annihilation in that roiling mosh pit (“Don’t thank God,” Englehorn corrects, “Thank Mr. Baxter. He insisted on a rescue mission.”). Swinging to their aid like George of the Jungle, as life imitates art, yodeling his recurrent catch phrase “coming through,” which he’d earlier only uttered in the process of running away, for the first time in his life Baxter gets to play the sort of real life hero he’d only fictionalized on screen heretofore.
Considering Kong was co-penned by Jackson himself, in collaboration with screenwriting stalwarts Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, it’s probably no coincidence that it’s the writer who becomes hero here, serving as romantic interest and getting the girl, rather than the more dashing leading man in the movie Ann’s making. As with his director proxy Denham, Jackson seems to be projecting again. And much mileage is derived from the idea of this author penning a saga that offers meta commentary on the very movie we’re watching, similar to the undeveloped suggestion that the movie Denham is filming is the same one being projected. Seeing something of himself in his movie’s director and his leading man, Jackson also tries to draw a correlation between Denham and Kong. Whereas in the original it was Driscoll who saw Kong receding into the timber with Ann, here it’s Denham who’s granted that privileged moment, locking eyes with the ancient behemoth. But though they seem to connect in a spirit of mutual animosity, nothing further is made of Denham and Kong’s adversarial relationship, not even when Denham knocks him senseless with a direct chloroform hit, instead reserving combat for the romantic rivalry of Driscoll and Kong. Though Ann initially considers the author an egghead after admiring him from afar, and Driscoll regards her as bird-brained, their opposites attract conflict serves as a solid basis for love at first sight. As she reasons, “I know it wasn’t what you wrote, but Mr. Baxter felt very strongly that when a man likes a woman he must ignore her. And if things turn really hostile, then…” even more violent passions are sure to ensue. As played by Adrien Brody with his hatchet sharp, hawkish features and spindly, stork like frame, his rivalry with Kong for love of Ann becomes a showdown between brawn and brain, like Ichabod Crane, who the actor brings to mind (he would’ve been perfect for Sleepy Hollow), squaring off with Brom Bones. The second Driscoll appears, a woefully inadequate protector in comparison to the mighty Kong, trying to prove himself the better man in pitched battle, Ann is caught between the Darwinian extremes of cultured, intellectualized modern man, who’s had the animal civilized right out of him, and primitive primeval ape man who still instinctively operates by the rules of the jungle. Driscoll believes rescuing her from the big brute, demonstrating his strength and virility will prove to her how much she means to him. But having idolized Driscoll’s mind from afar as the cerebral writer of books and plays, she loses all respect for him when he tries to go caveman on her. It takes the words of his stage comedy “So busy being brave, they forget to use their brains,” slowly sinking in for Driscoll near the end, to bring him back to his senses. While Kong ruled his island throne, when the adversaries square off again in the big apple, on Driscoll’s home turf, he can prove himself king of the mean streets, and Kong’s full equal. Now locking eyes with him, recognizing his adversary on sight, same as he will his true love later, Kong chases him through the theater and pursues his yellow taxi around Times Square, Driscoll outwitting him by drawing him away from the crowds. No longer having to display brute force, slinging Ann over his shoulder and carrying her off in order to compete, the technique which alienated her, Driscoll can literally climb back up the evolutionary ladder here at the end, meeting her at the top of the Empire State Building à la An Affair to Remember, having proven himself quite different from the sort of person we initially took him for.
This otherwise gifted writer who couldn’t put his feelings into words before, assuring Ann it was all in the subtext and silencing her doubts with a kiss, ends up seeking her out to unburden his heart. Prepared to tell her all, he actually ends up not needing to say a thing since she now proves able to read between the lines, construing the love in his eyes, like Viggo Mortensen at the end of the same year’s A History of Violence. What’s interesting is that Ann, who claimed not to be able to understand Driscoll’s feelings without him expressing them verbally, becomes adept at intuiting every silent glimmer of emotion washing over Kong, without him ever uttering a syllable. She knows just when he’s putting on a show of aggression that’s all bluff, when he’s miffed or being wistful, with a faraway look in his eyes, and when he’s acting out, wanting attention. Kong is like a kid with a new toy, an enormous stuffed animal with a brand new human pet. Not given time to rip her to shreds on his preferred killing grounds, with the sailors right on his heels in hot pursuit, Kong is forced to keep Ann around long enough to grow sentimentally attached. We begin to wonder who rescued who, as he behaves like a rowdy puppy who must be domesticated so that he no longer poses a threat when unleashed. He finds it screamingly funny to topple her over like a bowling pin, hooting and cackling like a bemused chimp. Not realizing he’s hurting Ann by continually shoving her, she’s forced to put her foot down and show him who’s boss, sending him off on a temperamental tirade like a spoiled child who’s just been told no for the first time. After pitching his fit, a dislodged rock rolls down off the mountain to knock some sense into him, as if he were one of Warner Bros.’s loony toons. What makes Kong so fascinating is this wild streak of unpredictability. One minute he can be playing with Ann like the most docile and loyal of guard dogs, the next he can be a figure of stark horror, making another great appearance heralded by a flurry of bats as he charges out of the mouth of a dark cave, eyes burning like hot coals, and begins hurling sailors right and left. But we can forgive him because it’s always humans who reflexively attack and open fire on him. Kong is just defending himself, the classic, tragic, misunderstood Frankenstein figure who only becomes “a monstrous aberration of nature” when people drive him to it. Kong seems so menacing at first, but as with our own pets we can see more clearly than nearsighted Ann, who initially misreads his behavior as surely as she mistakes sound man Mike (Craig Hall) for writer Driscoll, that he’s all bark and no bite.
His hesitant uncertainty when pulling a bluff is right there in his motion captured eyes. He even allows Ann to escape, scrambling over to the other side of the mountain when she no longer wants to perform for him like a trained seal. But he doesn’t want her running off and getting hurt either by the big game out there far more dangerous than him. Like any pet, it becomes his duty to protect Ann from harm. This Kong doesn’t try to strip her or entertain sexual designs on Ann as his earlier incarnations had. Indeed, he’s the perfect gentleman, chivalrously coming to her defense at every turn. Having run from him initially, Ann instinctively walks back toward Kong for protection when facing off with that intimidating T. rex, momentarily moving the monkey by this touching display of trust, causing him to thump his chest in a victorious war whoop. But piqued at Ann after such a display of bravado, he turns his back on her as if in a tiff and wanders away like a shambling Nandi bear, finally deigning to toss the apologetic ingrate loyally tagging along behind, up onto his back for a ride. Cradled in Kong’s paws Ann feels safer than she ever has before, so secure in his presence she can curl up to sleep as if he were the biggest, warmest fur coat in the world. Having saved Ann from all manner of threat, it seems an inexcusable betrayal therefore when she leads Kong right into Denham’s ambush, causing him to mindlessly expose himself to danger, pursuing Ann out into the shallows as the party flees by boat. She may have come to trust Kong while on the island, but as the hurt in his eyes conveys, his trust in her proves to have been unwarranted when she spurns the hand reaching out to her for help. Her betrayal engenders his exile from paradise, turning Ann into a duplicitous Eve figure (“The beast was no match for the charms of a girl.”). When he keels over, he might be dying of a broken heart rather than being conked out by chloroform.
Jackson’s version of King Kong exists in some displaced, alternate reality even back in NYC. When his original actress walks, director Denham ticks off the other possibilities as if they were names in his black book – Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, Clara Bow, Mae West. But as Preston points out, “You’ll never get her in a size four.” When Fay Wray’s name pops up, we learn she’s already engaged on a picture at RKO with director Merian C. Cooper. And in truth this Kong consists of a little reimagining, a dash of pure invention, and a good deal of appropriation of that original classic. This isn’t so much a remake as an homage to Kong, and to all old movies, with some newer ones thrown in for good measure, movies that hold special places in our hearts. Having saluted Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, Jackson riffs on Titanic as well in the boat ride to the island. When Ann emerges on the dockyard, the camera captures her from above, like Kate Winslet, as she ogles the grand ocean liner she believes she’s to embark upon, before being directed to the ratty little tramp steamer docked in its shadow.
The airbrushed purple sunsets aboard ship and coal stoked furnaces below, pistons pumping, evoke Cameron’s work as well, as does the initial encounter with Skull Island, which looms up suddenly out of the night, a giant, jagged rock iceberg the watch on duty sights too late for the ship to avoid collision. The two romantic leads even manage to be on deck as if they were Jack and Rose as they brace for impact before the ship is sent listing. As with James Horner’s lushly romantic score for Titanic, James Newton Howard’s music swoops down and sweeps us away, heightening audience emotions the same way Max Steiner’s silent movie inspired accompaniment did in the original. So when Kong again ascends to the summit at the end, surveying his domain from the top of the Empire State Building, we can be excused for expecting him to declare that he’s king of the world.
The director pays more sincere tribute to the film that first inspired him however, framing his opening credit sequence against an identical title background and duplicating wholesale the shots of Ann and Driscoll fleeing through the jungle with Kong right on their heels. Most of Jackson’s other salutes to his source material are equally clever. When Denham films a scene aboard ship for instance, it’s one lifted wholesale from the 1933 classic and when he restages Ann’s sacrifice as part of Kong’s Broadway debut the black dancers in the floor show are made up and costumed after those in the original. These tips of the hat go haywire at the end however when the director repeats verbatim Kong’s classic last line. It might have worked, carried some authentic emotional weight had Fay Wray, who died during pre-production, delivered it as originally intended. But since the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ theme hasn’t really been stressed here, the way it originally was, the final line, when handed to Denham, seems leaden and hollow, ringing down the curtain with a thud. Jackson’s wink at his sources seems threadbare in this case, and such a colorful fantasy deserved something more inspired to serve as send off. Hot off his previous trilogy, Jackson still had more than enough of his own sprightly imagination to spare without resorting to aping others.
The opening scenes are intercut with the sort of cooked up entertainment movies like Kong provided Depression era audiences, a respite from their daily woes. Al Jolson’s anachronistically jaunty “I’m Sitting On Top Of The World” plays over scenes of the most abject poverty, much the way “We’re in the Money” opened Gold Diggers of 1933 before the theater was shut down for arrears in rent. With the actress done up like Ginger Rogers here, it’s Ann’s vaudeville troupe that’s thrown out on the streets, making us understand her desperate straits and her eagerness to accept the equally desperate Denham’s highly spurious offer of employment. Along with the other skits paraded for our perusal, one apparently even modeled after the Nicholas brothers, Naomi Watts does an impressive Chaplin impersonation. Though frugally reduced to its bare essentials, it still establishes the talents she’ll later bring into play to save her own skin, keeping Kong entertained and distracted, Scheherazade fashion. Where previous Anns used sex to cow Kong, this one uses her wits and talent. Initially she’s like a pet that amuses its master with the tricks it’s learned, rolling over, standing, playing dead, fetching, startling him by making sudden movements, using her acrobatic stage skills, tumbling, juggling, dancing to keep the beast at bay. Having played to empty houses before, this one ape is the biggest audience she ever could have mustered and her greatest, most constructive critic. He even has the effrontery to feign disinterest like that vaudeville crowd we saw at the beginning, when her act fails to impress. We admire her initiative in defending herself rather than waiting around to be rescued like the Ann of the original.
In the process, stabbing the irate ape in the hand with her sharp, bone-plated necklace so that he drops her, then surreptitiously trying to crawl away while his attention is diverted, before his arms come down like falling timber, blocking her path, Naomi Watts (“mysterious, fragile and haunted…”) proves the first beauty in the part to fully redeem it from its scream queen origins. This Ann Darrow, while still carrying the famous surname of Clarence Darrow who defended the teachings of Darwin in the Scopes Monkey Trial, has evolved with the times herself. Reimagined, she’s no longer simply the shrieking damsel in distress she’s been portrayed as in the past. Ann’s father figure Manny says ever since she was little people have been disappointing her, every time she reaches out for something fate snatches it away, as it does Kong whenever their arms are extended out to one another. She intuitively fills in the psychological sketch of the character Denham describes to her, reading more into her than he can. Already seeing herself in the part, she incorporates elements of her own life, picking up the story where he leaves off, instinctively grasping the motivations, “… if she loves someone it’s doomed…Good things never last, Mr. Denham.” The director must convince her she’ll make a great dramatic actress, just as Watts’ fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman’s Can-Can dancer had been out to prove in Moulin Rouge a few years earlier. Perhaps it’s the suppression of their similar accents but at times Watts’ line readings even sound like Kidman, such as when she tells Kong that “That’s all there is. There isn’t any more.” Denham assures her that “You’re gonna make them weep, Ann. You’re gonna break their hearts.” Validating her protests to the contrary however, there’s nothing about Ann’s actressy performance in the snippets we see that especially suggests she’s any great shakes as an undiscovered talent. As Ann however, King Kong itself actually contains one of Watts’ finest performances.
With her chipmunk cheeks and tight pockets of tension around the corners of the mouth, her work manages to transcend the material, the way it did in The Ring, another better than average remake that allowed her to use the same great, ear-piercing scream she recycles here. And it’s a performance all the more surprising for emerging under Jackson’s aegis, after the dearth of strong female leads in his Rings trilogy. The director manages to do for her just what Denham claims he can for her character, proving that in addition to horror, action adventure, fantasy, Watts can also juggle drama and comedy with equal élan. The actress doesn’t need to provide the laughs for this one, not with Jack Black on hand. Still, Jackson has managed to orchestrate some bright moments all her own, intended to impress us with Watts’ timing and comic chops. Such as when she rehearses in front of the mirror like Cate Blanchette in Elizabeth, what she’ll say when being introduced to Driscoll, and then hilariously flubs her lines the second she opens her mouth. As Driscoll notes of her scene aboard ship, in which Watts apes Fay Wray, “It was funny, actually. You were funny.” Even if the script contrives to get her into a nightie for the first part in the drenching rain forest and the sheerest of evening gowns during the dead of winter for the finale, this version of Kong gets at something none of the earlier movies did, something few films actually, apart from Klute, have ever directly addressed, concerning the exploitation of actresses in the entertainment industry, which primarily regards them as interchangeable T&A. Like that sleazy producer (Ric Herbert) during Denham’s projection room screening, who asks if there will be any native nudies on display, believing people only go to such nature films to ogle the undraped female form. On the brink of having to prostitute herself, as the mogul (David Pittu) she accosts for the part in Driscoll’s play advises “You ain’t bad looking… a girl like you doesn’t have to starve… play the date. Forget you was ever there.” But debating her options in front of the burlesque house, weighing her dignity against the prospect of three square meals a day, Ann decides against selling her body for an easy buck and is immediately rewarded by a prize offer for picture work, as if there weren’t just as many casting couches flung around the movie biz.
But as the clearly deranged Denham amusingly asserts, “I’m someone you can trust, Ann. I’m a movie producer.” Piquing her interest by dangling the name of Driscoll, Denham fibs that the writer doesn’t want just any actress playing the lead in the script he’s written, that somewhere out there is a girl born to play the part, just as we know no one else has ever played Ann quite the way Watts does, making the character her own. Handing her a load of bull, saying anything simply to get her on that ship, all Denham really cares about is that her figure’s the right size for the pre-standing wardrobe. In the extended cut Ann, in that flutter about meeting Driscoll for the first time, even tries on the various outfits, dipping into the very costume trunks we’ve heard tell of, when none of her own dresses seem quite right for the occasion. Despite Denham’s farfetched claims concerning her uniqueness however, when she’s rescued from Kong’s clutches and returns back to the native village, neither he nor any of the sailors who presumably set out to rescue her register her reappearance in their midst. She walks right past them unacknowledged, as the realization slowly dawns that they don’t even see her, looking right through her as though she weren’t there. Everyone’s attention is instead riveted on netting cash cow Kong in the belief that he’ll make them a mint. Only Driscoll and Kong truly see Ann as anything more than a convenient means to an end or a vapid sexual object, perceiving instead the twinkling star quality in her that the public can’t when she’s onstage. They recognize the remarkable, one of a kind talent she truly is, just as she discerns the essence of Driscoll’s soul through his writing before they ever meet, and the beast’s inner beauty by the end (“Beautiful. Yes, it is.”). It’s why Driscoll writes a stage comedy specifically for her and why she returns to him, the only man left in the world who recognizes her true worth, after Kong’s death. He’s all she has left in the big, bad city by the end, as she told Manny he was at the beginning. It’s also why Kong uselessly throws aside all those other blond haired women he snatches up during his rampage through the city, knowing there’s only one Ann for him out there, the one person in the world who can placate him and talk him down. The part of Ann in the floor show is portrayed by a stand-in just like the lead (Luanne Gordon) in the play Driscoll wrote for her, hammering home how easily replaceable actresses are in the profession. And given Kong’s outsize reaction to this false Ann’s sudden emergence, you would think they’d never gone through this during dress rehearsal. The scene goes sour with no one, not even Baxter who’d earlier displayed his newfound courage, bothering to free the strung up stand-in, despite being more prone and vulnerable than anyone else, a sitting duck. The poor treatment she’s accorded seems a knee-jerk reaction to the absurd assumption that anyone could take Ann’s place, but it comes across as unduly sadistic just the same, as it subsequently does when Kong snatches up all those other innocent blondes he runs across in the street. There should have been a scene inserted to show they weren’t badly hurt after he tosses them aside. As is, Kong is made to seem as ill-tempered as he did in the original, when he needlessly dropped that sleeping woman out of the high rise.
Having left Kong after sunset on the island, Ann returns to him before dawn in the city and when she appears it’s in the guise of a Broadway angel, her silhouetted figure a dead ringer for the image on the cover of her copy of Driscoll’s Isolation, complete with frilly, flowing gossamer drapery. Ann’s own loneliness, especially after her vaudeville troupe disbands and she’s cast adrift in the city, likewise emphasizes why she would bond so deeply with the isolated, remnant ape. Unable to see her face at first, as she wasn’t his upon introduction, to confirm she is who he thinks she is, Ann finally emerges from the shadows to reveal herself fully. Even among the multitudinous throng of this metropolis, she still stands out to him as starkly as she did on Skull Island, where she was a golden haired woman different from all the others who he’d ever been offered. To his mind she doesn’t just recede into the crowd, the way she does in that chorus line, where twenty interchangeable ingénues prance around in feather boas like circus ponies, a depressing prospect from her feminist perspective. In her own sexually objectified way, a nameless, faceless pair of shapely gams, Ann is as much on display in the chorus as is Kong, trussed up on stage as the eighth wonder of the world. They’re both being offered up as glorified pieces of ornamental eye candy, standing around inertly to be ogled. So it’s all the more poignant when we’re misled by the crosscutting into believing Ann has sacrificed her integrity by agreeing to appear in Denham’s big top extravaganza. Instead, we’re pleasantly surprised to learn that, rather than see her name up in lights in exchange for participating in Kong’s debasement, she turned down the fabulous sums offered her, as well as the leading part in the play treacherous Driscoll wrote for her, choosing instead to sink back into the anonymity of the chorus line she’d earlier disparaged. With all the women dressed and made up identically, like those dancers wearing Ginger Rogers masks in Shall We Dance, she’s not even permitted the power claiming top hat and cane we’d seen her sporting back in vaudeville. But we gain a whole new respect for her nonetheless, tantamount to when she’d turned her back on that burlesque house, demonstrating true integrity and strength of character. Her raw emotions are laid bare as she joins in a moving rendition of ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird,’ until the lyrics begin to sink in, hitting too close to home by invoking memories of Kong.
Denham’s absurdly colorful staging of the Broadway floor show appears to be making a mockery of the disastrous expedition. It demonstrates how innocuous entertainment can be wrung from tragic reality, turned to profit for a quick buck by enterprising and unethical entrepreneurs. Similarly pointing up how truth is warped to make for a good show, the hero of the piece is presented as Baxter in full bwana safari gear, rather than Driscoll. Hayes had quoted Conrad earlier, saying “We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster but there, there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.” Developing a similar line of thought, Jackson’s Kong opens on Central Park Zoo, with the defeated, caged specimens looking as miserable as their impoverished human counterparts do, occupying the surrounding hobo jungle. They seem as crestfallen and defeated as Kong will when presented onstage, arms outstretched like a crucified Christ.
Bereft and abandoned, a dejected figure, he’s as though one dead, with no fight left in him. Yet as he proves when he escapes and goes on his final tear, Kong is a king who won’t quietly submit to being conquered like those zoo animals. A force of nature that can’t be controlled, he breaks his shackles as a cautionary warning, allowing arrogant man to look upon the fearful sight of his monstrous form running amok. Wreaking havoc, bringing civilized society to its knees, he might be the physical manifestation of the Depression itself, America’s most threatening bogeyman at that particularly chaotic period in the nation’s history, the collective object of the country’s biggest fears coming back to bite us.
Subsequent events completely shatter the fourth wall, the stage specimen leaping out into the audience, attacking the onlookers, climbing onto the balcony after Jack and breaking through it when the second tier can’t support his weight. An allusion is clearly being drawn between the spectators onscreen buying mystery for 25¢ a head and those of us watching, more or less doing the same. It’s meant to make the audience feel attacked as well, and I’m not sure why the filmmakers would want to start pointing fingers at us at this point for wanting to appreciate what little mystery there is left in the world through such vicarious means (if only it were still as cheap as 25¢ a head!). It’s not as if any real animals had been harmed in the making of the picture.
Appearing in the middle of Times Square, the escaped ape causes massive car pile ups, like An American Werewolf in London. But to lessen the impact, the city has been turned into a purposely unreal, comic strip conception far different from what we saw at the beginning, one comprised of false fronts, basic linear perspective, and bright primary colors, the sort of animated New York we know from Dick Tracy, one straight off the funny pages. Shipped in from his homeland, he’s a colossus surrounded by his own tabletop town, with miniaturized working train model and movable parts; it could fit in a bottle. When Jack hops in that cab to lure the enraged ape away from pedestrians he might be commandeering a Hot Wheels toy car, and Kong proves as determined as a cat after a mouse, pursuing Driscoll down blind alleys where he’s wedged in by his girth, as those brontosauruses had been back home.
It’s only looking upon the face of beauty that stays Kong’s hand from killing, and the entire world seems to become stilled and peaceful when Ann reemerges from out of the mists of his past. The city that seemed so threatening and hostile before is suddenly transformed into a wondrous place, illuminated by the soft glow of the street lamps, as if by romantic candles. Stumbling back into Central Park, we find a miniature forest in the middle of the big, bad urban jungle, full of magical trees dotted with Christmas lights, an enchanted wood. Unfamiliar with ice, having never seen it before, the scene is straight out of Bambi as Kong shakily tries skating over the frozen lake, kicking up a flurry of snow when he cascades into the opposite bank, looking like the Abominable Snowman he was once accused of being with his fur coat now coated in a light dusting. It’s a lovely respite, the calm at the center of the storm. It could be argued that this scene destroys the headlong momentum of the finale, but I think it’s a delightful addition, reminding us that Kong has a heart and soul at the very moment we might have been inclined to forget the fact. It’s the most charming interlude in the picture, before the hunters with guns show up to destroy our idyll.
By film’s end, out of his native habitat and cornered, Kong responds like any trapped animal. He’s become like a once tamed pet who’s now reverted to feral instincts and must be put down in the interest of public safety, like that crazed chimp that mauled off the woman’s face. So when Ann strokes him near the end, soothing him, it’s as though she were saying goodbye for the last time before having him put to sleep. Leaving her vacillating between the protection that a big brute like Kong can offer her on the island, in which everything is out to eat her and the more rational protection a 90-pound weakling like Driscoll can provide her in the city, namely three square meals and a roof over her head, the film’s insistence that Ann needs a man to protect her in one venue or the other tends to mitigate against the otherwise feminist subtext at work in regards to the character.
So it’s reassuring when she ultimately proves she doesn’t need either man’s protection, appearing in the nick of time to save Driscoll’s life when Kong’s about to clobber him, just as she’ll make a valiant effort to save Kong’s own. She refuses to leave his side, climbing up to the pinnacle of the Empire State Building after he had left her in safety a flight below, so the pilots won’t have a clear shot in that fabulously staged, vertigo inducing denouement in which they buzz the behemoth like a pesky swarm of gnats. One must admire her intentions, even if they merely necessitate Kong having to take time out of the situation at hand to rescue her again when the ladder she’s climbing is wrenched loose from its moorings. Still it assuages our conscience that Ann managed to save Kong at least once, using herself as a human shield against those buzzing biplanes, warding them off when they amass for their final death swoop, after all the many times he’d done her the same kindness.
In the original Kong, this climb up the Empire State Building was accorded sexual connotations, but since there is no sexual element in his dalliance with Ann Darrow here, it’s clearly meant to be taken a different way. Just as Jackson had drawn a metaphor with the fallen Twin Towers in his earlier Two Towers, this time when the ape makes his final ascent up the tallest skyscraper in the world at the time, it’s likewise intended to recall New York’s former tallest structure – the World Trade Center, which Kong climbed in the 1976 remake. The interceding years have served to warp this archetypal scene so that, restaged today, viewers can’t help but be reminded of 9/11. So it’s no coincidence when Kong ultimately plunges to his death, there’s only two planes left to symbolically fly into frame. In this film, which was made not long after that national tragedy, our feelings toward Kong swing between fear and affection. While he rampages through the streets causing uproar, his wanton destruction comes across like a willful act of urban terrorism. As one gung-ho general puts it, “This is New York and this is sacred ground…” The streets of the big apple are again turned into a militarized war zone while this one-man weapon of mass destruction uses the iron girders and scaffolding of half-finished edifices like a jungle gym, swinging from girder to girder with greater agility than Spider-Man.
On stage or off, he remains the biggest star attraction in town, even captured in spotlight for this final act. The National Guard is readily deployed to machine gun him, but following Ann’s pacifying reappearance and their romantic rendezvous in Central Park it’s our own military forces that begin to seem more threatening to us. They blast machine guns and bazookas, running through endless rounds of ammunition and wounding untold numbers of innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire, not to mention nearly killing Ann as the airplanes buzz Kong, filling him full of lead.
These ground forces are depicted as being as comically inept as those in Spielberg’s 1941, so we’re actually happy when Kong crushes an armored tank and sends the fighter planes spinning to earth. He becomes a symbol of America herself when straddling that iconic building, thumping his chest and defying all comers, indestructible even as he goes down, his fighting spirit inextinguishable. Standing at the summit, defending Ann from attack to his dying breath, Kong might be defending the nation herself, a masthead as noble as a bald eagle perched atop a flag pole.