If it wasn't obvious after his successful adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, director Peter Jackson has quickly established himself as the modern king of cinematic spectacle. Like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron before him, merely attaching his name to a project is now enough to draw millions into the movie theaters. So it seems only fitting that he attempt to remake the movie that inspired him to become a filmmaker, as throngs of people flock to the cineplex to see his vision of King Kong.
It's not as if the classic wasn't due for a remake. The original 1933 version was a spectacle for its time and remains a cinematic landmark to this day. The contemporized 1976 version was also a spectacle for its time, though it's become far less memorable thirty years later. If Jackson's goal was simply to reinvent Kong with revolutionary special effects for a new generation, then mission accomplished.
You probably already know the basic details of the story. Movie director meets actress. Crew finds island and meets natives. Actress meets giant monkey. Crew captures monkey with ambitions for Broadway. Monkey meets theater critics and renovates New York. Squadron of aircraft meet monkey on top of the Empire State Building. Monkey meets demise.
What's new is the level of detail, which almost doubles the original's 100-minute running time to more than 3 hours. The audience is introduced to a beautifully rendered Depression-era New York—not exactly the best time for a struggling vaudeville entertainer like Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts of The Ring) to find her big break as an actress. But a chance encounter leads her to struggling film director Carl Denham (Jack Black of School of Rock), who's desperate to find a leading lady for his doomed cinematic masterpiece, which he wants to film at the mysterious and uncharted Skull Island. Also along for the trip is Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody of The Pianist), the playwright writing Carl's screenplay who falls in love with Ann during their long oceanic journey.
Therein lies Kong's chief problem. After making a trio of 3-hour pictures that worked well, Jackson and his co-writers (wife Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) have over-indulged themselves this time. It takes nearly 30 minutes for our heroes to even get on the boat, and an hour before they reach the island. Character development is lacking in too many films these days, but here, it's not compelling character development. We learn that Ann is a selfless, caring girl and that Carl is a delusional creep with a vision for a movie that no studio would support. Jack nevertheless remains underdeveloped as the film spends more time introducing us to select members of the ship's crew, most notably a clichéd paternal relationship between first officer Hayes (Evan Parke) and cabin boy Jimmy (Jamie Bell).
Even when we get to the island, Jackson is too keen on repetitive lingering shots. There's an effective sense of dread as the ship moves cautiously through the fog to Skull Island, but it soon grows tiresome watching them avoid rocks like the Titanic. When the film crew hits land, Jackson relentlessly bombards viewers with images of skulls in the rocks and in remnants from the natives, as if he felt the audience needed constant reminder of where they are. The natives themselves are extremely savage and frightening, but are hindered somewhat by Jackson's insistence for stop-motion camera work (overly used in The Fellowship of the Ring) that makes it all look like a music video.
Ah, but things finally pick up 75 minutes into the film, when our giant misunderstood monkey finally hits the screen. Jackson rightly captures Ann's terror as she's offered as a sacrifice to Kong and viciously carried away. And then he wisely makes their unusual bond the heart of the film. Unsure of how to placate the beast, and in effort to keep from being killed, she uses her stage routine to entertain, and the sight of Kong laughing at her antics is a joy to behold. Later, beauty and beast share a moment together that's sure to become a scene as signature as E.T. and Elliot flying past the moon.
Most of the effects are stunning, none more so than Kong himself. The WETA special effects team again collaborated with Andy Serkis (doubling as Lumpy the ship's cook) to capture Kong's movements as believably as they did with Gollum in Lord of the Rings. But Jackson goes one step further than motion, capturing the emotions and facial expressions of a temperamental alpha-male gorilla with more accuracy than just about any other CGI creation to this point.
I vaguely remember people marveling over the award-winning effects for the 1976 film, but this new one will leave audiences even more stunned, repeatedly asking, "How on earth did they do that?" In particular, there's a sequence in which Kong takes on a trio of T-Rexes that is figuratively and literally jaw-dropping, bound to become one of the most revered movie action sequences of the decade—in the same class as The Matrix and Indiana Jones. As you might imagine, the skyscraper finale is also glorious in scope—if a 25-foot gorilla really did climb the Empire State Building early one morning, this is surely what it would look like.
Not every action sequence and special effect is as believable. One of the film's other action centerpieces involves a stampeding herd of brontosauruses that was probably inspired by The Running of the Bulls in Spain, but ends up as implausible and cartoonish as the massive police car pile-up in The Blues Brothers. Jackson's Skull Island is indeed a Lost World-styled home to a wide array of prehistoric creatures. This is first and foremost a monster movie, after all, and Jackson never lets you forget it—or that he started out as a horror filmmaker. But as amazing as these creature effects are, it eventually becomes one effect too many as characters relentlessly encounter one danger after another—to the point where you don't believe that this crew would have risked so much to save one woman they just met, and whom they've little reason to assume is still alive.
It's also hard to figure out the tone to this Kong, which generally takes itself a little too seriously. There are some funny moments here and there, but most of it is delivered with epic drama and high intensity—the emotions vary so wildly, it feels like the movie is suffering mood swings. One minute we're watching a charming and old-fashioned period piece, next we're watching a wild action thriller, and then it becomes something like a romantic drama because of Ann and Kong. I couldn't decide whether or not the scene where the two of them are skating in Central Park (seriously!) was touching or trite. Ditto when Kong begins to express minimal sign language like Koko the gorilla.
Part of the film's unevenness is due to the casting. Jackson and company were probably hoping to portray Carl as Orson Welles, but Black doesn't carry enough acting weight for the role. The character is ill defined—you're not sure whether he's supposed to be funny or creepy (probably both)—and the film would have been better served with someone more believably smarmy and charming like Robert Downey, Jr. Brody is merely fine as Jack, a role that almost any leading man could have carried out. Only Watts distinguishes herself in a luminous, star-making turn as Ann—warm, funny, charismatic, and far more than you'd expect from the damsel in distress.
King Kong ultimately makes you consider whether or not it's possible to have too much of a good thing. Do we need every action sequence, every scene of character development, every self-indulgent camera shot to establish mood? Viewers may disagree on the answer to that question, but most will agree it is worth seeing. There are some truly stunning sights to behold here, none more so than "the eighth wonder of the world" himself, but you'll have to endure a lot of tedium and repetition to get to them.Discussion starters
- What do you make of Carl Denham's character? Is he sympathetic or delusional and selfish? What is the film saying about the price of fame and its relation to happiness?
- The primary theme driving the character of Jack Driscoll in this movie seems to involve the difference between saying it and showing it when declaring love. How do he and other characters in the film (Kong included) courageously demonstrate love for others?
- Do you believe this movie has a pro-environmental message? What do you think is being expressed concerning man's exploitation of the world's natural treasures?
- In the end, Kong is described as "just another dumb animal." Do you agree? How intelligent are animals? Do they have souls? How do they fit in God's kingdom in relation to man?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Because of the frightening adventure violence and disturbing images, parents should treat this as a hard PG-13 along the lines of Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Though there's very little blood, the creature carnage is considerable and many humans are killed along the way. A scene involving hordes of giant bugs and swamp slugs could be especially disturbing to children and sensitive adults. And the island natives themselves are particularly creepy in their savagery and pagan ritual. The film also includes several uses of the Lord's name in vain. Also, keep in mind the movie's length; at over three hours, children (and some parents!) will likely need a bathroom break.
Photos © Copyright Universal Pictures
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 12/22/05
Many people have noticed the rather impressive transformation of director Peter Jackson. In his frequent appearances affiliated with his Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings films, he was, let's say, a man befitting the big screen. But now, thanks to what must be an effective diet, he's hardly the man he used to be.
According to many film critics, Jackson's newest film—King Kong—could stand to lose a few pounds as well.
Jackson's lifelong dream of remaking King Kong has finally been fulfilled, and as you might expect, critics are celebrating it as a triumph of special effects. The San Diego Film Critics even honored King Kong as the Best Picture of 2005. But in spite of Andy Serkis' incredible collaboration with the special effects team, the reunion of the Lord of the Rings screenwriting team, the extraordinary talents of Adrien Brody and Naomi Watts, and the popularity of Jack Black, Christian film critics have some reservations about this season's 100-pound-gorilla.
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) has mixed feelings about the result: "Lacking even a loose idea to organize the story around, King Kong ultimately boils down to escapist action-adventure spectacle, Kong and Ann's oddly touching relationship, and not much else. And even the escapist action-adventure spectacle is really only thrilling when it's about Kong and Ann." But he concludes, "Still, when it is about Kong and Ann, it's a mighty thing, and I cared about this beast and his beauty right up to the end."
Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says the movie will "cement Jackson's status as a 21st century Steven Spielberg, a master at creating heartfelt, effects-filled blockbusters at a time when been-there, seen-that audiences aren't easily impressed. But what would've made this escapist adventure even better is a little old-fashioned restraint."
Josh Hurst (Reveal) calls it "a thrilling, mostly pleasant holiday blockbuster that almost makes its three-hour running time worth it. … It's a mighty large time investment, and not all of it pays off. But there's ultimately a lot to love about Jackson's rendering of Kong."
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says, "King Kong does deliver plenty of thrills. However, as a promised emotional tour-de-force, it falls short. … For all of the technical prowess on display in Jackson's film, the original, running a relatively lean 100 minutes, remains a model of efficient storytelling, with at least as much emotional resonance as Jackson's bloated, but still effective, remake."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) disagrees: "Jackson's greatest achievement isn't stampeding brontosauruses or eye-filling re-creations of Depression-era New York—astounding though they are—but his strong sense of storytelling and sure-handedness (for the most part) in making the special effects serve the narrative, never losing sight of the fable's emotional core."
Todd Patrick (Christian Spotlight) is enthusiastic. "It is everything that George Lucas's second Star Wars trilogy should have been, but wasn't. Is it a bit overindulgent? Yes, it is. It takes its time setting up and expanding on all its characters, then plunges us into two hours of nonstop action-adventure, reminiscent of the Indiana Jones trilogy or the first Star Wars trilogy. … Jackson is, in my opinion, the undisputed king of the blockbuster, dethroning Spielberg and early Lucas, and kicking to the curb the shoddy work of Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, John Woo, and all the other modern-day blockbuster posers out there who are all flash and no depth."
As a Tolkien fan grateful to Jackson for his brilliant Lord of the Rings series, I walked into Kong with great anticipation. And I was mostly blown away by the special effects. But the first hour drags, uninspired and populated by a bland batch of characters. The second and third hour indulge in too much spectacle and too little character development. Some sequences make the time slow to a crawl. By the time Kong makes his fateful climb up the Empire State Building, if you're like me you'll already be checking your watch.
My full review is at Looking Closer.
Mainstream critics are so impressed by the spectacle that they're rating the film quite highly.from Film Forum, 01/05/06
Peter Suderman (Relevant) says, "After a mildly shaky start, Jackson once again proves to [be] an outrageously thrilling, explosively passionate filmmaker. His King Kong is a heartbreaking, spectacular, celluloid romp, a declaration of Jackson's blissfully sincere love for all things cinema." He adds, "More than anything, King Kong is an exercise in glorious cinematic excess. Every frame seems to demand a cinema that is more expansive and over the top than anything previous."from Film Forum, 01/12/06
Andrew Coffin (World) writes, "Peter Jackson knows how to produce a spectacle—and no word better describes King Kong than spectacle. But this surprisingly violent film is not for young children—the action is graphic and contains profanity."