Peter Jackson started off making cheap comic-horror films like Bad Taste and experimental pictures like Forgotten Silver. His 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures proved that there was an artist inside the cinematic anarchist, but it wasn’t until the Lord of the Rings trilogy that Jackson became a household name. As a boy, his favorite film was King Kong; for a follow-up to his Oscar-winning Rings trilogy, Jackson has remade Kong, upping the ante in every possible manner. To paraphrase Spinal Tap, this movie goes to 11.
Naomi Watts plays Ann Darrow, a struggling actress who is thrown into poverty when the vaudeville show she performs in suddenly closes. While momentary considering – and ultimately rejecting – employment at a burlesque club, Ann runs into Carl Denham (Jack Black), a semi-unscrupulous director who offers her the lead role in his new film. The only catch is that Ann has to board a boat immediately. Unbeknownst to her, Denham is sneaking out of New York before producers can pull the plug on his latest adventure. On board the boat is Denham’s motley crew, along with Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), the screenwriter. He and Ann have an immediate attraction to one another.
Denham has plans to shoot on Skull Island, a place that is technically undiscovered but rumored to exist on an old treasure map. The island is creepy, with giant stone walls and a weird altar at its center. Not long after stepping off the boat, the group is captured by a band of native island people. (Jackson nicely plays up the scariness of this sequence.) The tribe ties Ann to the altar, offering her up to the enormous gorilla-beast that lives on Skull Island. Anyone familiar with King Kong knows what happens next: Kong develops a bond with Ann, is captured by Denham, and eventually runs rampant on the streets of New York.
The purpose of Peter Jackson’s King Kong seems to be to remake a classic adventure story using modern computer-generated special effects. That in itself is an interesting proposition, but what makes the film truly special is that Jackson goes a step beyond. He makes every action scene as exciting and intense as he possibly can. There’s genuine imagination at work here. The director builds and riffs on the events in the original 1933 Kong, incorporating things that just wouldn’t have been possible back then. For instance, he gives the audience a shot of Kong from Ann’s point of view as he shakes her, tosses her from one hand to the other, and roars menacingly into her face. Never before has the character been so frightening.
One scene after another is just as magnificent. There’s a sequence where the characters run beneath the legs of stampeding dinosaurs. And a fight between Kong and several other dinos. And an attack by gigantic insects. And a scene where a group of abnormally large slugs come out of the water to munch on humans. We haven’t even gotten to Manhattan yet. Once there, Kong escapes his shackles and runs wild through Times Square, smashing cars and buildings as he looks for Ann. The finale, set atop the Empire State Building, has a dizzying intensity that has to be seen to be believed. The effects are so realistic that I experienced a bit of vertigo. Watching Kong standing at the building’s peak, then jumping up to swat a passing biplane is one of the great movie moments of recent years.
All of these scenes make King Kong an adrenaline-pumping joyride that you won’t soon forget. However, what really makes this a masterpiece is that Jackson understands every emotional beat of the story. Just as he pumps up the action, so does he pump up the tale’s heart. “Motion capture” technology has allowed actor Andy Sirkis to provide the body movements and facial expressions for Kong. (The actor served a similar role as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.) Special effects teams then enter his performance into a computer and create the beast visually. This technique makes Kong more of a full-blooded character than ever before – which in turn makes his relationship with Ann infinitely more affecting.
Naomi Watts is a brilliant actress who convinces us that she’s really sharing space with King Kong. (Will the Oscar voters recognize this for the great performance it is? I hope so.) I love the way Ann wins the beast over by doing her vaudeville act for him. There’s also a sweet moment where Kong holds Ann in his hand, showing her a calming sunset as a way of demonstrating friendship. Later, we can feel his affection for her when he desperately tears through Manhattan trying to find her; when Ann appears, Kong tenderly walks over to her, knowing he’s found the only person he can trust. And as for the famous ending where Kong falls off the Empire State Building…well, it was sad in the original but it’s absolutely heartbreaking here.
Peter Jackson loves the special effects, yet he never loses sight of the fact that this is about a great beauty who tames a great beast. The early scenes where Kong shakes and growls at Ann are frightening, but we feel him soften up as time goes on. Kong protects Ann; she looks out for him in increasingly dangerous situations. Expecting an actress and a computer-generated character to have chemistry is dicey. The film pulls it off beyond any measure I would have thought possible. Unlike Jar Jar Binks, or Stuart Little, or even Gollum, I forgot that Kong was a CGI invention. He seemed real to me as I watched the movie. Having long been a fan of the original, I knew this story very well; nevertheless, the new realism made this tender story of friendship touch me like never before.
King Kong has a three-hour running time that allows the story to be richer and more textured. If it were any shorter, it would lose impact. Never for a moment does the film feel long. Great performances, mind-blowing action scenes, and the moving friendship between Ann and Kong make this a movie that you can get utterly caught up in. Peter Jackson’s King Kong is a great big mainstream blockbuster, but it is also proof that this kind of thing can be more than entertainment; it can be art.
( out of four)
King Kong is rated PG-13 for frightening adventure violence and some disturbing images. The running time is 3 hours and 7 minutes.
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