The first thing that comes to mind after seeing Peter Jackson’s KING KONG is wow. Make that WOW. He’s done the seemingly impossible: followed up his magnificent LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy with a film that cements his reputation as a director that can deliver big films that aren’t afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves while keeping the adrenaline pumping full blast. If anything, he’s taken it to the next level.
Jackson and company have respectfully reworked the 1933 classic of the same name, adding a dash more wit and a whole passel more action. He’s set it in that same year, 1933, the height of the Depression that finds eccentric filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) fighting his producers to finish his latest film and actress Ann Darrow fighting to find work, legitimate work, that is, that pays enough to buy a decent meal. Their paths collide when Denham’s size-4 leading lady abandons his film and Ann, thanks to a lack of funds to buy groceries, is a perfect fit for the costumes. One step ahead of the law, Denham sets out for legendary Skull Island to finish his film, ham B-movie star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) in tow, along with his all-but-kidnapped pal, screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), who would rather be writing serious plays than churning out half-baked screenplays. He perks up, though, when Ann’s attraction for and to him morphs from professional to mutually carnal.
The idiom is 1930s heroic with a dash of millennial irony seamlessly tossed in (Baxter’s oeuvre includes such titles as ROUGH TRADER; Denham wants to replace his actress with someone names Faye). Once the accidental adventurers get to Skull Island, though, they and the audience slip in and out of an aboriginal dreamtime, where reality is both heightened and fragmented with the very real sense of terror evoked by the unknown. From the first sight of the island surrounded by rocks that are rough-hewn simulacrums of fantastical creatures, to the primeval rituals that lead up to Ann being offered up to Kong as a sacrifice, a theme at the heart of this film. That terror is made all the more indelible for being shot from the outsider’s point of view, with brief snatches of faces made semi-human by paint and hostility, their language as fierce and as alien as their thoughts. It’s a device exploited to its fullest as the audience experiences from Ann’s vertiginous viewpoint being carried across the jungle as the prisoner/plaything of the giant ape.
If there is a soupcon of overkill when it comes to the action sequences, rife with crackerjack special effects, including an inside view of stampeding apatosaurs (aka brontosaurs), Jackson makes it worth the audience’s while. With wild and gleeful abandon he piles on nail-biting escapes, near misses, and general mayhem while barely giving the audience time to catch its breath before bringing on something else bigger, badder, and even more life-threatening, like the giant scorpions that live near the water-dwelling worms with the retractable spiky mouths.
What compensates, and gives the film its emotional complexity, is the relationship between Anne and Kong. What starts out badly, what with her being a human sacrifice and him being a misunderstood and lonely monster paid in human flesh to go away, gradually, and, this is key, believably, grows into a mutual respect when Kong becomes a sort of knight in shaggy armor for the plucky damsel in distress, and then a palpable affection when she tries to cheer him up as he sits in the boneyard that is all that is left of his kind. Andy Serkis, who brought CGI to startling life as Gollum in the LORD trilogy, does the same magic with Kong. Watts has a dreamy quality that is more than just the soft-focus and color-saturation that mimics the Technicolor of the era. In her eyes there is a wide-eyed wonder at the way the world keeps snatching happiness away from her at every turn. He makes Kong a serious contender for Ann’s affections, competing sympathetically with Jack, whose urbane façade shields the heart of a romantic and the soul of a hero,
From the sublime to the ridiculous, there is Black with his crazed munchkin face as the perfect counterpoint to any real emotion as he keeps Denham operating on the border of sanity, without ever quite committing him to one side or the other, cranking footage when everyone else is sensibly running for their lives.
For all that Jackson has claimed that KING KONG is a project he has wanted to do since THE FRIGHTENERS, spurred on because it was the film that made him want to be a director, one can’t help but wonder if there is something operating on a subconscious level. This is, after all, the story of a director with a middling career that is about to be snuffed out who returns from the South Seas with 25-foot ape that sells out theaters and becomes a pop culture sensation. Substitute “New Zealand” and LORD OF THE RINGS and it all falls into place. But never mind how KING KONG got to the screen. This film is sheer delight, the perfect synthesis of mainstream action flick and sobering philosophical musing on the nature of love in an imperfect world.