Another of my Film Focus reviews. (Something a bit different tomorrow, promise.)
Reviewed 6 December 2005
Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is an unknown young actress, suddenly out of work during the worst of the Depression. She’s little choice but to take a job on a new movie spectacular, to be shot on location. Though the director’s a swindler, the crew seem rogues, and Ann’s so in awe of the writer she can’t speak to him, things really get difficult when she reaches the mysterious Skull Island where the film’s to be shot, and meets her leading man…
Spectacular, terrifying, and genuinely affecting, Jackson’s brilliant remake of the classic monster flick is a perfect date movie. It could just do with being a bit shorter.
What makes “King Kong” win over other monster movies? In terms of basic story, it’s similar to other, lesser monster flicks, and owes something to Conan-Doyle’s “The Lost World”. Intrepid explorers find prehistoric beasts and monsters, bring one back to civilisation to parade before the masses, and it escapes and causes havoc. Kong, though, differs by not merely making the monster sympathetic, but making him the romantic lead. This is a tragic love story. No, really.
Kong (Andy Serkiss) is beautifully realised, and it’s difficult not to fall for his deep, sultry stare. As one girl sighed afterwards, “If only a man could look at you like that.” The cast are all very watchable, with suitably-arched but well-judged performances all round. Carl Denham (Jack Black) could easily have been a one-note character, but Black makes him real.
Once on the island, things pick up quickly, and the film just gets better and better. There are so many excellent sequences. Ann Darrow not seeing the dinosaur creeping up on her, and the ships’ crew being lunch for a nest of huge insects, had a core of hardened hacks squealing appreciatively in their seats. The fleshy worms that befriend Lumpy (Serkiss again) are some of the best, most convincingly textured CGI ever managed.
There are so many great moments, this could easily have been a five-star movie. However, it’s too long by an hour. It takes an age actually getting to Skull Island, with too many vignettes where we get to know the monster-fodder crew. Jamie Bell, for example, though good, gets two plots. There’s the red-herring of his mysterious background (he’s found on the ship as a boy), and his surrogate father’s efforts to keep him on the straight and narrow. Neither, though, really go anywhere, and the film would miss little without them. We don’t need to be told the significance of his reading Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” – just seeing the book in his hands would have been just as effective.
And yet there are questions the film doesn’t answer. Where do all the islanders go? They vanish the moment they’ve introduced Kong to Ann, never to be mentioned again. Then there’s the ease with which Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and Ann escape back to the town. A party of gun-totting sailors is soon eaten up by Skull Island’s monsters, but two naïve arty-types get away with hardly a scratch.
In New York, the special effects run the risk of being too cartoony, mostly because, unlike with the sailors, we don’t see the bodies. Kong’s easy killing of women-who-aren’t-Ann would be all the more striking if we saw any of the dead victims up close. It would also make more sense of the city’s response to this monster-gone-mad.
Perhaps it’s too much to expect a creature feature like this to worry too much about realism. Yet it does make the effort to confront elements in the original that are difficult. In the 1933 version, Denham’s a hero, and there’s no question that Kong’s a great prize to be shown off in New York. Jackson makes Denham more of a monster than the titular ape, doing whatever he has to just to get his own way. When members of his crew get eaten, rather than taking the hint he grandly eulogises that they’ll finish the film in their memory. And in capturing Kong, as Driscoll says, he’s only able to destroy the things he loves. (A risk Jackson also ran in remaking this beloved movie.)
This is made all the more plain in the film’s callous ending, with the ignominy of flat-footed soldiers having their pictures taken by Kong’s body, the press climbing all over him. Ann and Driscoll, refusing to go to the show in the first place, retain their integrity. Both work in the same “entertainment” industry as Denham, but Ann’s juggling and prat-falling are innocent pleasures that helped her win over Kong in the first place, and on the night of the gala performance she’s taken an anonymous role in another play. Driscoll, who’s written plays Ann so admired, has also by the end discovered the simple pleasure of light comedy.
Again, though, this thread isn’t fully resolved: why isn’t Denham arrested after Kong escapes? He grandly blames “beauty” for killing Kong, as ever refusing responsibility for all the people being killed. Jackson could have had the same, classic last line of the movie, only with Denham being carried away by the police, protesting his innocence. It feels like they’re torn between updating the original and yet not changing it…
But this really is nit-picking. “King Kong” is a hugely enjoyable, eye-popping movie that pushes all the right buttons. If they could only have been as bold in the editing as they were in the making, it would be without doubt the film of the year. The only problem with Kong is there’s just too much of him.