Directed by: Peter Jackson || Produced by: Jan Blenkin, Carolynne Cunningham, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Screenplay by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson || Starring: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks, Jamie Evan Parke, Andy Serkis, Kyle Chandler, John Sumner, Lobo Chan
Music by: James Newton Howard || Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie || Edited by: Jamie Selkirk || Country: United States, Germany, New Zealand || Language: English
Running Time: 188 minutes
An interesting phenomenon in film culture is when high-profile directors attempt to remake or pay tribute to their favorite childhood movies. Christopher Nolan did this last year with Interstellar (2014), his love-letter to Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi space exploration, and what are George Lucas’ and Steven Spielberg’s Star Wars (1977) and Indiana Jones films (1981, 1984, 1989) if not pastiche-tributes to the adventure serials and Flash Gordon adventures on which they grew up? It’s in these career-moments that directors, producers, and screenwriters show you how self-aware and capable of restraint they can be. The novelty of childhood adoration can be both a blessing and a curse, giving a filmmaker insight on what makes a property tick, plus the loving care of an actual fan who has more at stake in this project than fame or a big paycheck.
Big budget fandom can also lead to something like
Robert Rodriguez’s Nimrod Antal’s shortsighted and shallow Predators (2010), which can fucking suck. But I digress.
The risk of letting a fan touch a film adaptation is that they may be too close to the material. They may love a particular franchise, but they may also fail to understand exactly how and why it works. Fandom can force a creative vacuum.
A further example of this trend is Peter Jackson’s 2005 take on the 1933 classic, King Kong. Jackson had long been a fan of the film since childhood, and it was one of his inspirations for becoming a director. Given his lower tier status before the pop culture milestone that was The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and technological limitations, Jackson didn’t get the go ahead till after he won the Academy Award for Best Director. Though he was a bit hesitant at first at the prospect of remaking his childhood obsession (perhaps that was a good sign of his humility), he later admitted that Kong would be re-imagined sooner or later with or without him. Best to take the reins himself, no?
The scale and scope of Kong’s production is now the stuff of legend. Most fans are aware of the movie’s three-hour plus length, but what’s also notable is that its budget passed the proposed $150 million to a then record-breaking $207 million. That’s a shit-ton of money! It is, in some ways, surprising how well the film turned out despite Jackson’s intent to make the film bigger and bigger and longer and longer. For comparison, the original 1933 film was 100 minutes long and had an inflation-adjusted budget of just over $12 million (in 2015 dollars).
In the end, while Jackson’s long awaited pet-project paled in comparison to his LOTR magnum opus, KK ended up being a strong, memorable film in it’s own right. Though multiple characters take time assert that this film is not, in fact, an adventure story like the 2001-2003 Tolkein epic, a fantastical adventure it remains, if a tragic and warmhearted one boasting complicated characters.
The first thing viewers notice about this 2005-update is, of course, its size and scope. On the one hand the epic scale feels appropriate; after all, this is a Kong-sized odyssey about a 25-foot gorilla who falls in love/becomes infatuated with/gets attached to a struggling actress (Naomi Watts) when a movie production team sails halfway around the world to a place called Skull Island. There are prehistoric monsters, giant insects, and dinosaurs galore, not to mention the natives who offer up human sacrifices to the aforementioned Kong. When push comes to shove, the selfish, egotistical movie producer, Carl Denham (Jack Black) captures Kong with the help of his crew and takes him back to New York to be put on display, where further chaos ensues.
That’s a lot of narrative ground to cover, and one would expect a tale this tall to be well over two hours long. As it stands, however, 3 hours and 8 minutes is pushing it. Jackson really takes his time setting up the adventure and putting every single character, supporting or otherwise, in place while establishing their motivations, personal ticks, and attitudes. Stylistically, Kong feels like a carryover from LOTR — a massive running time, a huge ensemble cast, giant monsters and CGI spectacle, gritty, bloody violence, and searing human drama. Jackson and Co. go for “larger than life”-size in every aspect of this story, often to their detriment. Numerous digital effects are shaky and lack the meticulous restraint of LOTR, hinting at the hours of CG-filler in The Hobbit trilogy (2012–2014) to come, such as the Brontosaurus stampede and numerous establishing shots of Skull Island.
Many others look stupendous, though, such as the killer bugs sequence and the 3-on-1 Tyrannosaur fight. Kong himself (played via motion-capture by Andy Serkis) looks amazing, morphing into an unforgettable character with as much humanity and emotion as any of the human cast. His chemistry with Watts is a mix of great acting and technological wonder, though again, the limits of Jackson’s dependence on digital effects pop through occasionally whenever a scene juggles Watts and Kong touching, riding, or holding each other.
Arguably the strongest parts of Kong (other than the animal’s depiction itself) are the characters and the air of mysticism regarding Skull Island. Though it bloats the movie’s running time, every character is crafted and acted with care, making you feel for relatively minor roles like Evan Park as First Mate Ben Hayes, Jamie Bell as the ship hand (and kleptomaniac) Jimmy, veteran German actor Thomas Kretschmann as Captain Englehorn, Colin Hanks as Denham’s personal assistant, Preston, and even Kyle Chandler as the pretty boy actor, Bruce Baxter. In most any other filmmaker’s hands, this ensemble cast would be forgettable no-names, but this production took care to cast every part well and everybody does their job. Jack Black, Naomi Watts, and Adrien Brody as screenwriter/playwright Jack Driscoll are all good, but they’re just the biggest star-names amongst a stellar cast.
Also impressive is the movie’s tone, specifically its approach to foreshadowing and depicting the mysterious Skull Island, which serves as the primary setting for most of the action. Much like the Indian Jones trilogy and the classic adventure serials of old (of which the original King Kong may be considered a relative), Skull Island and its inhabitants are imbued with a sense of historical weight and foreboding. The journey to the island feels like time traveling to a prehistoric era, or perhaps even a displacement to another dimension; like the Arc of the Covenant, the Thuggee/Devil-worshipping cult, or the Holy Grail itself, Skull Island feels distinctively not of this earth. Clearly Jackson understood the importance of establishing the proper setting for his film, because he absolutely nails the atmosphere.
One final compliment need be made on behalf of the film’s score; James Newton Howard seemingly attempts to best Howard Shore’s work on LOTR, as he pulls out all the stops to conduct one of the most memorable epic soundtracks of the new millennium. It’s incredibly rare these days to find a Hollywood blockbuster with a good soundtrack; gone are the days of John Williams’ classic symphonies and grand movie music, eras when a film’s score was considered a star in its own right. Nowadays, most American films seem content with generic orchestral background music, which is a big reason why most of them suck and why I like Bollywood so much — a film industry based on musicals at the very least pays attention to its soundtrack. As such, Peter Jackson’s King Kong remains one of a handful of modern mainstream American scores worth purchasing.
In the end, while this 2005 Kong is well short of the status of a timeless classic, it’s a faithful and altogether ambitious, balls-to-the-wall adaptation of an intimidating property. Jackson remains, to this day, an auteur in desperate need of a more ruthless editor, but this was a time before he was forced into 7-8 hours of bloated Hobbit movies. There’s a lot of LOTR-era magic in this remake, and it should be appreciated as such. I’ll take it any day over Interstellar, for the record, let alone something like Predators.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: King Kong picks an effective tone and sticks to it, by God. Its commitment to building a believable world out of time is on par with LOTR or even Star Wars. Howard’s music is awesome. Kong’s large, ensemble cast is somewhere in between the brilliant LOTR and the lackluster Hobbit characters, which places it well above average compared to most epic blockbusters. The cast does a great job and every character has an impact — The Dark Knight Rises (2012) should take notes. Some special effects are spectacular, such as Kong himself, the T-Rexes, and the giant insects.
— However… other FX are decidedly less consistent. The Brontosaur stampede may be the single worst special effect in Jackson’s filmography besides the Sauron-lighthouse from Return of the King (2003). Watts never looks quite there in Kong’s hands. This film is over three hours long, so be prepared. It never drags the way, say, Boyhood (2014) or TDKR do, but I’d be lying if I said every scene is necessary for the greater story.
? The way Kong beats his chest after killing the final Rex is how I feel every time I get out of the weight-room.