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 remake or pay tribute to their favorite childhood movies. Interstellar (2014) is Christopher Nolan’s love-letter to Stanley Kubrick and hard science-fiction, while George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s Star Wars (1977) and Indiana Jones films (1981, 1984, 1989) are pastiche-tributes to the Flash Gordon (1936-1955) fantasy media and swashbuckling adventure serials, respectively, on which they grew up. It’s in these career-moments that directors, producers, and screenwriters demonstrate how much self-awareness and restraint they possess. 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 a project than a big paycheck. Big-budget fandom can also lead to a creative vacuum (e.g.
Robert Rodriguez’s Nimrod Antal’s Predators ), whereby filmmakers lose all objectivity having grown too close to a given source material revitalize it.
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 independent grind-house filmmaker 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.
The scale and scope of Kong’s production is 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. For comparison, the original 1933 film was 100 minutes long and had an inflation-adjusted budget of just over $12 million (in 2015 dollars). 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. 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 show 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 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 Indiana 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. Jackson understood the importance of establishing the proper setting for his film, because he nails the atmosphere.
One final compliment needs to 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 this generation. It’s rare to find a contemporary 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). Peter Jackson’s King Kong, therefore, remains one of a handful of new millennium Hollywood soundtracks 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 before he was forced into 7-8 hours of bloated Hobbit movies. There’s much 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. The cast does a great job and every character has an impact — The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR, 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. While it doesn’t feel as gratuitous as Boyhood (2014) or TDKR, the film is fucking long.
? The way Kong beats his chest after killing the final Rex is how I feel every time I get out of the weight-room.