King Kong (2005) Directed by Peter Jackson
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"And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty, and beauty stayed his hand. And from that day forward, he was as one dead." Carl Denham
Peter Jackson is a man of vision, a man with dreams, and one of his biggest dreams has always been to remake King Kong, giving the 1933 classic the advantage of the today's modern special effects technology. The original was state of the art, ground breaking, and set the standard for years. It is a true classic, 100 minutes of fantasy realized. How was Jackson to improve on this?
Well, he doubled it. The extended version is 201 minutes. It gives the story the time it needs to unfold. The first third of the movie, there is no Kong; instead, it is the story of Carl Denham (Jack Black) a director in the Orson Welles mold who is determined to make his movie, no matter what. Lack of studio support, the Great Depression, even the NYPD will not stop this driven man.
Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is equally driven, but by more pragmatic concerns, like starvation. Fortunately, when Fay, the first star (whatever happened to Fay Wray?) drops, Ann is chosen because 1.) she is there and 2.) she is a size four, Fay's size.
The third member of the trio that forms the core is Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody: he was the only actor considered for the role) the screenwriter. He is a man of dreams, searching for a muse to help him write something monumental. Ann could be that muse...
The first third of the movie makes sure we understand the trials and tribulations that shape these three characters. There are many others Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) of the Venture, Hayes, (Evan Parke) his mate, and Jimmy (Jamie Bell) the semi feral cabin boy who idolizes him. There is Preston, (Colin Hanks) Carl's Jimmy, and Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) Ann's leading man; a Hollywood Hero...hollow, and wooden, and no hero. But all these people are extras, fillers; in Star Trek, they would be wearing Red Shirts.
The Venture leaves NY one step ahead of Carl's creditors, ostensibly for Singapore, but in fact bound for a place not on any charts, a place alluded to in legend, and that Carl has a rare map to...Skull Island.
The mood of New York, a town of desperate energy, where business and poverty live cheek and jowl, is replaced with the much moodier environs of the Venture, a ship of Scoundrels, down, dirty, not evil, but not nice. But the mood only gets more atmospheric as the ship enters the fog, leaving the world they knew, where rational laws held sway, far behind. Skull Island is a land time forgot, and the natives there show you why time was so desperate to forget them. They make their way onto the Venture, and steal their most precious treasure...Ann.
Now, no matter what they think of the danger, they are committed; they have to get her back.
But the natives don't want Ann for themselves; they want her to appease the angry gods who live on the far side of the Wall that separates their miserable impoverished hell from the lush fertile hell of the rest of the island. And the men arrive, as is the habit in the best action movies, exactly too late. Ann has met the secret of Skull Island, she has met it's king, and his name is Kong.
At 25 ft (half the purported size of the original, twice the size of Mighty Joe Young) King Kong is nothing more than a gorilla... Now remember, in 1933 gorillas had only been seen by westerners for 77 years; the first study of their behavior was still underway. A gorilla was a wild and unknown thing...
The world of Kong is built on similar proportions. Dinosaurs roam the land, even the insects are monsters. Nor are there any ‘safe' species. Even the gentle herbivorous Apatosaurus (back in 1933 they were brontosaurs) almost kill everyone as they stampede down narrow gullies and along precipitous cliff ledges. This is not just the jungle, this is The Jungle; that concept that lives in our ancient monkey brain, a place of wonder and constant danger. Here is where Peter Jackson's dream bears fruit. The original King Kong had Dinosaurs and giant apes in a battle to the death, something never seen before. But over the years, the stop motion animation, so ground breaking, became commonplace, then passé, and then dated. Now, using the magic of CGI, Kong comes to life, as does the Tyrannosaurus Rex. (Geek Note: Actually, these aren't T Rexes. The T Rex had two toes on its front leg. These have three, just like the original movie. They are a case of parallel evolution, or would be if this weren't a movie...geekiness over.) And Peter Jackson's dream is validated. If the movie has a flaw, it is this; now, having the technology to realistically depict the ancient monsters of the past, they want to depict them all, turning the expedition to Skull Island into a laundry list of things that want to eat people. (A is for Apatosaurus, who make people Pate, B is for Bat, who help you get away, C is for Cannibal...you get the idea.)
This portion contains a very important scene, vital even. It is when Ann figures out how to reach Kong to prevent herself from becoming a maraca. Her vaudeville act amuses him, particularly the parts where she falls down. And just as importantly, she stands up to him, removing herself from the category of toy, to companion. This is important, because otherwise, you just have that sort of pseudo sexual creepiness Kong had for Fay Wray. They shared a few laughs, and a sunset, and Kong became her protector.
They manage to capture Kong. It is an epic quest, and it reveals each person's mettle. Ann has empathy that is both sword and shield, Driscoll is a hero in the truest sense of the word, though he does not look like one, and Baxter, who looks every inch the hero discovers, "I'm just an actor with a gun who's lost his motivation." Carl is revealed to be both ADD and Obsessive. Able to shift gears at a moment's notice, and to follow the new course past the boundaries of sanity, his determination is inexhaustible.
And now we return to another jungle...the urban jungle, New York, New York. And it proves as cut throat as Skull Island. This is the venue where Carl Denham is the top carnivore, and all the other survivors of his obsession are just trying to see where their niche is.
King Kong is a love story. There is the love between Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow. There is the love between Ann and Kong. There is the love between Hayes, and Jimmy. And there is the love of Carl Denham for Carl Denham's legacy. And these are the forces that drive the urban jungle.
Did Peter Jackson succeed? Oh yes. It is a true and faithful homage to the original...it is not a remake, but an enrichment. Is it as great as the original? Perhaps not. The original was great because, across the board, it was an original. Never before had a story like this been brought to the screen. Now, the later version is just another in a long line of fantasy epics brought to life. Even Peter Jackson's own work, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, is part of what makes this movie just another movie.
That said, it is still great. It is not just a creature feature; it is an exploration of the darkest jungle, the human heart. It is a metaphor for our times, as progress tries to embrace the wild and untamed, and destroys it instead. It is Peter Jackson's dream come true. And he is willing to share.
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