Yes! We Have No Bananas!
Pure entertainment. Twenty-five hairy-bottomed, big-dumb-galoot feet of it. And nothing else. Despite the ubiquitous refrain of beauty and beast subtexts and alienation metaphors and caveats against taming nature, searching for deeper meaning within this wholly implausible tale will only lead to senseless cavil and being considered the big ponce for taking it so seriously in the first place.
If there is any message we can glean from this fanciful ape tale, haunting our sensibilities since before there was rock and roll, it is that Women Will Kill You – One Way Or Another. But we already knew that.
Director Peter Jackson actually fixed what wasn’t broke! How he did it is a wonder to behold. The sheer spectacle of KING KONG 2005 over-rides any shortcomings it may possess – trouble is: there are no shortcomings…
Comparison with Merian C. Cooper’s and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 KING KONG is not only inevitable – it should be compulsory, to fully appreciate Jackson’s phenomenal achievement. Purists may want to leave the room, as it is going to get quite – er, hairy for King Kong aficionados, even Fay Wray reportedly remarking to Naomi Watts, “Ann Darrow is mine!” For an actor to succumb to such petulancy over a figment, one shudders to imagine what the action-figure fanbase may be plotting against us.
Into that cauldron of knotted knickers we dive…
Upon re-watching 1933’s static KONG – after viewing Jackson’s kinetic 2005 remake – we realize, to our shock, that the reasons we considered that film a “classic” have all been rendered moot, at the very least, academic. Released during the Great Depression (when “talkies” had been existent a scant five years), it was pioneering for a simpler time and a much simpler audience; filmic sophistication was at an all-time low and suspension of disbelief was at a premium. As dambusting and magical as it was – saving RKO Pictures from bankruptcy – it reads now as riotously unsophisticated and virtually unwatchable, with its token white-supremacist racism, its sophomoric “love affair” between Darrow and Driscoll; the merely-sad look of the then-pioneering rear-projection and stop-motion techniques; and – most heinously – the primitive, community theatre acting styles of all the principals.
Before cursorily dismissing Jackson’s vision for the sole reason that it is a “remake,” I challenge you to re-watch your deteriorating VHS copy of that plasticine ape movie. Note the storyline – juvenile, at best (the two major “breathtaking” sequences – Kong versus tyrannosaur and Kong climbing the Empire State – merely “set-pieces,” to elicit the “wow-factor,” with no plot import or reasoning, respectively); note the motivation of the principals – apart from Denham, no one else has any (Kong especially has no compelling reason for any of the anthropomorphized caretaker duties he undertakes for his puling charge); note the unfolding of the interspecies “love story” – there is none (Darrow is ferried around by an inexpressive Kong, at every opportunity attempting escape – when she isn’t playing the helpless coquette with no leg muscles). And every two minutes we must endure the mind-scratching screaming of Fay Wray, like some kind of Tourette’s victim (perfectly corroborating the 1930’s perception of “Woman with the scientifically-proven smaller brain,” who couldn’t possibly have climbed down that log herself when the tyrannosaur approached to eat her).
In KONG 2005, all these inadequacies have been addressed. Our newest incarnation of Ann Darrow (golden child Naomi Watts) is a vaudeville performer so down on her luck in Depression-era New York that she has reached the stage of, “To get work in this town, which Big Ape do I have to screw?” As luck would have it, director Carl Denham (Jack Black, in a role which will rocketsauce his career), desperate to find a heroine for his adventure movie, “discovers” her in a sequence which not only pays homage to the original film, but which supplies Darrow with suitable backstory and motivation enough to voyage with Denham into the unknown.
To an island merely a scrawl on a sea-dog’s map, Denham’s hired tramp steamer runs aground. The island natives are more than restless; face-pierced, alien and lethal, they kidnap Darrow as sacrifice to their simian god – Kong.
Director Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have taken an unmolded lump of clay (all puns intended) and added all the bells and whistles which the original film strived for and alluded to, but did not quite achieve due to budget, its place in history and lack of film-making experience. KONG 2005 has not only improved on its progenitor’s technical icing one-hundredfold (which goes without saying, and which is NOT the reason this film is better than the original), it also boasts character development, motivation, Method acting, and actually possesses the “love story” foretold, but never realized, in that far, far away galaxy of 1933. (Jackson opted to run with the plot-holed broad strokes of the original story, so criticizing him for merely sticking to the asinine and implausible plot is moot. His bravura re-rendering of that storyline is his gift to us.)
Other improvements on the original include Denham absconding with his movie reels when his funders get cold feet, writing rubber checks to all and sundry to retain the impetus of his outlaw campaign; the boat captain played more believably (than 1933’s calm, unquestioning senior) by a skeptical Thomas Kretschmann (suitably grizzled and indeterminately Euro) and a veritable kidnapping of writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, oozing leading-man cool), who tries to alight the boat as it is about to sail, even while police rush to board it, to arrest Denham. Even seemingly benign and obvious developments, like Darrow and Driscoll engaging in spanky-spanky en route to their destination, gives Driscoll the much-needed motivation later in the film, to leg it over carnivore-infested territory to find her.
KONG 1933 had no such delving into characterization, and KONG 2005’s non-efx exposition might be construed as unnecessary in a “blockbuster spectacle” film – but diving into special effects flummery immediately would serve to diminish the “story” which Jackson takes the time to reverently improve upon. For those who snidely question why KONG 2005 takes 187 minutes to spool a tale originally only 104, we must surely question their apprehension of “plausible backstory.” We see how far they are willing to stretch their suspension of disbelief in the original – with specious backstory and performances so camp you could hold a three-ring circus under it – and surmise that they only support its primacy out of misplaced loyalty. KONG 2005 suffers from “length” only in the minds of those short-attention-span critics whose idea of proper film length is denoted by Big Studio Decree pertaining to crowd attendance, shorter films meaning more screenings, meaning more income; but more so denoted by their spongy posteriors jonesing for a Raisinets-and-plastic-pizza fix after two hours of thankful existence sans junk food. Absolutely zero connection with inherent quality or visceral, wet-panted enjoyment of a film.
Were the original, naïve storyline remade note for note, the same critics would bury Jackson for those reasons. As forewarned, you just can’t please the Purists – or the spongy posteriors…
KONG 2005 is not overlong. It is under-appreciated.
Once upon Skull Island, the movie ratchets into the stratosphere, in sequences where Jackson has no equal, as his creative cameraplay swoops through time-blasted village constructs and lush landscapes tantalizing with vestiges of ancient ruins. Bringing his masterful LORD OF THE RINGS wizardry to bear on these stunning tableaus and ancient designs, we realize that, due to his pedigree, Jackson is the only person who could have remade KING KONG with any semblance of majestic authenticity.
And then – the sauropod stampede… where Lord Peter Jackson illustrates quite definitively that Bigger is, in fact, Better.
Taking his cue from the original’s biologically-incorrect carnivorous sauropod chasing sailors while roaring like an ocelot, Jackson gives us a herd of stampeding sauropods in an astounding pursuit that sees raptors attacking and humans dodging the elephantine legs of the beasts during the stampede – a sequence that needs to be seen to be believed, even if just to view the level of unbridled insanity that the state of computer graphic technology has attained.
In fact, the whole Skull Island interlude is so rife with arterially-bursting CGI that “breathtaking” or “awe-inspiring” are not only understatements, they are sins against humanity. There are words yet to be invented for this bombalicious middle section of KONG 2005 – and our children will be speaking them, wearing their underpants over their heads – or whatever passes for fashion in those far-forward days.
Peter Jackson is George Lucas with a soul. Not having to rely on Lucas’ ILM studios, helming his own company of effects madmen (WETA Digital), Jackson shows George how to do “More is More” without losing sight of the human protagonists at the heart of his tale. A perfect example being the tyrannosaur attack…
…Where everything gets ten times trickier for Jackson and Co. – for in the original movie, the battle between Kong and the t-rex was an effects stunt for the sake of effects (oooh! like no one in the black and white era ever made that lowbrow call), but now, not only is the tyrannosaur battle chair-clutchingly mind-careening, this event is the seal on Darrow and Kong’s “relationship.” The major thematic element of KONG 1933 – the vaunted Beauty and Beast entanglement – was seemingly written in the press junkets, rather than into the movie itself; at the tyrannosaur attack of 1933, Kong had not yet displayed any particular proclivity towards his captive, except for ferrying her about like the spoiled brat she was. Why then, did he risk his life battling a t-rex for her? With 1930s anthropocentrism prevailing, it was assumed that simply because Darrow is Human, she should unquestionably be defended – but to Kong, she was nothing more than a plush toy with an annoying squeal. By 2005’s t-rex battle, Kong has at least invested some emotion in Darrow (albeit as an intriguing and amusing plaything), thereby justifying some smidgeon of motivation to risk his life for her. Still, it’s a stretch that anyone would go the distance with three tyrannosaurs over a pet hamster…
On the boat, Darrow broached the concept with Driscoll that the best way for a man to get the attention of a woman is to ignore her. After the t-rex battle, Kong actually plays this card with Darrow, who realizes that the only way she will survive is to ally herself with the King of this jungle, running after him in supplication. And for the first time in any Kong movie, a palpable connection is made between Darrow and the ape, as he whisks her onto his shoulder, Toomai style. (Film buffs, watch for the homage to the original battle, where Kong breaks the t-rex’s jaw and then toys with it.)
Wray never found any pity for the beast at all, opting to scream like a loon anytime it was near. In the 1976 remake, Jessica Lange (glazing through her role as if on the verge of full-throated orgasm), went a small way towards “loving” the ape with her entreaties to, “Pick me up so they won’t shoot you!” It has taken the talent of Jackson to give bodyheat to the “Beauty and the Beast” catchcry, with Watts volunteering herself to Kong. But don’t touch yourself just yet. This is not a love story – never has been, unless you take into account that “pet hamster” thingy. For what other kind of “love” could exist between a Homo sapiens and a Gorilla giganticus – not counting those types only found on illegal internet sites?
Nonetheless, Kong’s and Darrow’s attachment is so pronounced by the time Driscoll appears to “save” her – as she sleeps in Kong’s palm, having curled there of her own volition, after sharing the beauty of the sunset together – that it actually seems implausible that she would desert her ape captor, as her human savior seems oh-so-impotent compared to the masculinity of the beast; the first KONG movie where this doubt even crosses our minds, all other heroines tripping over their diaphanous gowns rushing into the arms of their man-heroes.
Now if only we could ignore the fact that Kong’s grasp should realistically crush over half her bones, or that her neck should have snapped a long time ago with him manhandling her like a doll, we’d be in that delusional pink that the original’s supporters seemingly wallow in.
In the movie’s only weak sequence, Kong is captured by Denham and the boat crew (- after battling three tyrannosaurs? I don’t think so!). At this point in the original film, Denham (Robert Armstrong) melodramatically bellows, “We’re millionaires, boys! I’ll share it with all of you!” in a ludicrous stentorian swish. Jackson’s team have re-defined Denham – the fanatic movie director so bent on giving the public something they’ve never seen that he will go to any lengths to achieve it – by making Jack Black repeatedly promise hollowly, whenever a crew member gets killed, “We’ll finish the movie – and we’ll donate the proceeds to his wife and kids!” so that when Kong is captured and Black mimics Armstrong’s stagey effeteness, it is now played for what it really should have been – a running gag on his insincerity. Black is playing a heartless man who doesn’t know he’s heartless. Armstrong was playing a carnival barker – with a swish to die for.
If Jackson gave Kong limbs, Andy Serkis breathed life into them. Doing double-duty in this film – as the eponymous ape, and as Lumpy, the cook, Serkis’ effectiveness as Kong – with over 100 sensors attached to his face for motion capture of the subtlest expressions – is wondrously demonstrated when Kong faces off against the last t-rex standing, with Darrow at his feet protectively. Glancing down from Darrow, up to the t-rex alternatively, Kong’s eyes actually register caring to threat, caring to threat, as he looks back and forth! So how to capture that “cute” aspect of the 1933 Kong – whose innocence seemed to grow with his onscreen time – with Jackson’s realistic, battle-scarred silverback? Marvel at the poignant scene on Central Park’s frozen lake, where the displaced Kong finds himself with Darrow in a brief interlude, sliding over the ice with her, ecstatic that he has reunited with his pet hamster.
The reverie lasts no longer than it takes to wipe away a lone tear, as the tragic finale looms atop the Empire State Building, which Kong climbs, with Darrow as willing accomplice, in a misguided attempt to escape the madding crowd. By now, Jackson has stacked his deck with the message that the original film found so hard to convey – that Kong is not the most dangerous beast – humans are. As Darrow sorrowfully watches a final sunrise with her wild and crazy pal, she repeats once more, “Beautiful!” now referring not only to the pastel-palette horizon, but also to Kong, as a part of that natural world – inevitably cut down by a “civilized” world which could find no place for twenty-five hairy-bottomed, big-dumb-galoot feet of nature within its concrete heart.
The Arabian proverb that opened KONG 1933 is barely applicable to that flawed masterpiece, after witnessing the depth of emotion that infuses KONG 2005’s heart-breaking skyscraper flourish. The telling scene atop the Empire State is one of aching perfection: Kong and Darrow, in profile, with the cityscape in pastel dawn behind them, she sitting in his palm, gazing into each other’s eyes. All is silent. A clutch of biplanes suddenly drone from behind the building, across the background sky. Kong huffs. Darrow knows it is the end. “And lo, the Beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.”
Peter Jackson’s KING KONG incarnation has breathed life into the legend for at least another 70 years – until someone with as much vision, economic and technological clout as he can re-vamp it to blow a future generation’s bollocks to the Cretaceous. Hopefully (new words having been invented), my grandson will be able to describe that new version with greater aplomb, with his Webster’s New Malafrabjous English Dictionary by his side, a copy of KONG 2075 in his holo-DVD, and his underpants over his head.