In which ego and pretension derail an otherwise fantastic movie…
In the 1990’s, Peter Jackson was a director on the rise. Having made his name on low-budget horror films and proven his salt as a Dramatic Filmmaker with Heavenly Creatures, he was set to take on his own mega-budget blockbuster… So he set his sights on remaking King Kong. Events played out so that that first attempt never went behind cameras, so Jackson cut his blockbuster teeth on another franchise: the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Met with massive financial and critical acclaim (including numerous Oscar wins), Jackson found himself in the rarefied air occupied by directors such as James Cameron and Steven Spielberg. Given the freedom to pursue just about any project he so desired, Jackson went back to Kong - completely rewriting his earlier script and reworking his entire vision for the film. So what happens when a filmmaker fresh off one of the most successful series in film history and a record-tying Oscar run gets to let loose on his self-described dream project?
Well, you wind up with a movie like 2005’s King Kong, a breathless work of spectacular vision and technique, but so overstuffed and overwrought the whole film bursts at the seams to contain it all. Jackson’s original script reimagined the original movie almost from the ground up, opening on a World War I dogfight and turning main character Ann Darrow into the daughter of a famous archaeologist tasked with finding the mythical Skull Island. It was a far pulpier script, owing just as much to Raiders of the Lost Ark as it did the original Kong. Several elements from that script carry over into the later version - most of the set-pieces are virtually the same, and filmmaker Carl Denham is still shoe-horned in more or less as the heavy. But Jackson went back to and elaborates on Ann as a starving actress, hewing much closer to the storyline of the original film.
The main change in Jackson’s movie is turning Jack Driscoll from Bruce Cabot’s wooden tough-guy sailor into the playwright tasked with writing Denham’s movie. Jackson changed the whole tone of the movie from the typical summer blockbuster to a sweeping romantic epic in the vein of Titanic, and already the film’s problems start to bubble up to the surface. Whether bolstered by the success of LOTR or not, it feels as if Jackson is aiming here again with King Kong for Oscar gold. The film is dripping in grim portent and grand, declarative statements, as if this were The Most Important Movie Ever Made. Jackson even goes as far as quoting Heart of Darkness in one of the film’s many useless montages; stretching the length of what would be a ninety minute thrill ride to an almost unbearable three hours. I’m not against long movies (not by a long shot), and usually appreciate big, long movies. But the simple fact of the matter is that King Kong has neither the story nor the thematic depth worthy of such a weighty length, dragging down what would otherwise be a rather fantastic movie.
Jackson helps things along by casting some wonderful performers. In spite of the lengthy runtime, the film never really creates a pair of compelling romantic leads in Ann and Jack. But since they’re played by Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody, the two actors are able to imbue just enough personality to get by. Watts and Brody manage to do a lot with a little, creating believable characters through endless scenes that involve a bunch of running and screaming. Jack Black gets possibly his first truly dramatic role, and proves himself more than able to carry his weight as an actor (although his near villainous turn near the end feels wrong-headed). The rest of the cast performs admirably, although there are way too many side characters in the film - lose nearly all of them and nothing much changes. Not to mention you’d lose all the painful and useless exchanges between the first mate and fresh-faced youth played by Evan Parke and Jamie Bell.
But the most affecting performance comes courtesy of Andy Serkis as the titular Kong. The same soul that Willis O’Brien imbued in his eight-inch wireframe model, Serkis and the animators at Weta Digital accomplish with their CG Kong. Digital effects tend to not age very well, but even now - seven years on - Kong looks as good as he ever did. A lot of that is due to Serkis’ performance, equal parts majestic and heart-breaking and utterly terrifying. His scenes with Naomi Watts are especially effective, as we come to see Kong as not a monster but a natural beast, shoved into a world he wants no part of - the last of his kind looking for some kind of connection.
Jackson crafts many stunning scenes, but again the length undercuts any momentum he starts to build. Consider the three-way dinosaur fight, a virtuoso action scene that is staged with unparalleled professionalism and craft, but goes on far too long. Many of the exciting set-pieces are similarly impressive, but go on and on and on. Which is a shame, as Jackson finds some moments of real beauty throughout, like the haunting shot towards the end where the biplanes approach in the background, as Kong and Ann admire the sunrise atop the Empire State Building.
Somewhere in King Kong’s three hour-long runtime there’s a masterpiece of stunning entertainment. But as it stands, it’s a spectacular film that works in fits and starts - just as liable to fall on its face dramatically as it is to succeed.