Has Peter Jackson’s Kong aged well? Oscar finishes his retrospective with the divisive three-hour epic.
I’ve seen Peter Jackson’s much-debated King Kong on about a dozen occasions since its release, and I feel as though I want to love it more than I actually do. There are a myriad of great visuals and sequences, the actors show commitment to their roles, and the thematic conceit of the original is magnified, but it still somehow feels lacking. Without a doubt, my biggest problem with the film is that it doesn’t give a good reason to be as long as it is. It seems to be a film aspiring to mean all things to all people; a grand, sweeping epic within the action-adventure genre, sort of a Titanic or Lord of the Rings in the vein of Indiana Jones, which doesn’t surprise me much considering the director.
The plot is much the same as the original. After her Vaudeville show closes, New York actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is driven into desperation, when sly film director Carl Denham (Jack Black) persuades her to join him on a filming expedition to “Singapore”, having lost his intended starlet for the film. After hearing renowned screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) is writing the script, Ann joins the crew aboard the Venture under Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann). Between working on scenes with Denham and actor Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), Ann and Jack develop mutual affections for each other. When the Venture turns south, away from Singapore, several of the crew including Mr Hayes (Evan Parke), Lumpy (Andy Serkis) and Jimmy (Jamie Bell) grow suspicious. A nervous Denham reveals his intentions: to find the mythical Skull Island and show it to the world. Hayes and Lumpy warn him of a story of an island hidden in fog, home to a creature “neither beast nor man” living behind an ancient wall, but Denham scoffs at the story.
Eventually, the Venture arrives at a massive wall of fog and becomes stranded on the rocky shores of Skull Island. Denham leads his cast and crew ashore, and they find the ruins of an ancient civilisation, and the crazed inhabitants within. Ann’s screams attract the roar of a creature from beyond the wall. After the crew barely escaped with their lives, Ann is kidnapped by the natives. She is offered up as a sacrifice to Kong and Jack leads a band of sailors to rescue Ann, as Denham accompanies them, determined to take back some proof of the island’s existence.
As far as the cast goes, there are ups and downs. Watts has a little more edge to her performance than Fay Wray, forming a believable bond with Kong despite having to appease him at first. Her relationship with Kong is by far the best in the film, delivered earnestly by Watts and without a hint of irony or leeriness. As great an actor as he is, Brody is too subdued and reserved to really be believable as an ordinary man who rises to be a hero in this kind of situation. Sadly, Brody and Watts’ scenes together are the least interesting parts of the long voyage. Black’s wide-eyed expressions and fast-talking personality are probably an echo to the directors of the 30s, but it’s a stretch to see him leading anyone to a mysterious island. Kretschmann makes for a tough and mysterious sea captain, and a good supporting role. Colin Hanks works well as the straight man opposite Black’s eccentricity as the neurotic assistant Preston. Parke brings a lot of warmth and steely resolve to the role of Hayes, and has a good rapport with Bell. Chandler does fine as the smarmy Baxter, but lends himself well to the more desperate scenes on the island. Serkis is amusing as the cutthroat cook Lumpy, and provides the motion-capture for Kong, which I will highlight later.
Weta Digital create a completely photorealistic ape with dirty, matted fur which looks like you could reach out touch it, with scars and skin colouration matching a real gorilla’s flawlessly. That was accomplished, yes, through the incredibly detailed CGI, but also through Serkis’ expressive performance, based on creatures in the wild, and the effort shows. Serkis as Kong is the centerpiece of the film, making him out to be an ancient and powerful creature but with an almost human mind and soul in his desire for companionship. I may be preaching to the choir, but he really deserved an Oscar for this role (in addition to Gollum and Caesar).
While this Kong remake is certainly famous for its prolific CGI, there were just as many models made for this film as in The Lord of the Rings, such as the village and the wall, creating a sumptuous vision. The set work on New York displays incredible attention to detail, capturing the 1930s perfectly. The jungles are created through a mix of intricate set work and CGI backgrounds; with the trees twisting around each other in an ugly, tangled mesh of plant life. Beyond the obvious technological differences between both Kongs, the key difference lies in the remake’s excess and exuberance; in each sequence, the fight never feels quite over – there’s always one more punch or effects shot than there should be. This would be emblematic of Jackson’s career further down the line.
I like the Charles R. Knight-inspired style of the dinosaurs in the film, and as far as digital creations go, the majority of them hold up very well. The Vastatosaurus Rexes (or V. Rexes for short) are a highlight of the film for being the most detailed of the dinosaurian monsters and are perfect foils for Kong. In particular, Kong’s three-way battle against the V. Rexes is still a dizzying and satisfying fight to watch, even accepting the fact that they take the focus off of Ann. The creepy crawlies in the Spider Pit sequence are another particularly well-realised set of monsters. However, when there is a hiccup in the effects, it is much more noticeable. Despite their old school look, the dinosaurs move about very quickly and lack the impactful presence and fidelity to physics that the Jurassic Park dinosaurs adhere to. The poor lighting and greenscreen work on the Brontosaurus stampede weakens the illusion; it all feels extremely convenient for the heroes and the tension gets lost after a while.
LOTR alumni Andrew Lesnie provides a detailed and distinctive look for the film, giving Skull Island a grimy grittiness as though it could have existed in some far flung time and place in the world’s history, giving New York a nostalgic and slightly dreamlike quality to it. It gets very ominous and haunting, relying on the actors’ expressions, simple visuals like an ink drawing of Kong, or a mass of fog at sea to build fear and tension. The sacrifice ritual is certainly scarier here than in any past incarnation with overpowering tribal drums, sharp photography and a tremendous primal atmosphere. It’s one of the few scenes that actually benefits from the length and indulgence of Jackson’s style.
James Newton Howard provides a strong classical score, equal parts action-packed and melancholic. With soft and beautiful piano movements, injections of jazz, haunting string pieces, chilling tribal flutes, and loud, percussive motifs, Howard crafts a soundscape to suit each key moment in the film. The main theme for Kong is a suspenseful and moody piece, but also hints towards drama and mystery, proving to be very different from the rousing and energetic Max Steiner themes.
This King Kong is not an adventure story, nor is it as an interspecies love story, but a clear tragedy. There is a real melancholy to this Kong’s existence, as it’s made clear to us that he is the last of his kind, making his relationship to Ann Darrow more heartfelt and profound. Ann’s feelings towards Kong are not necessarily of romantic love but more of profound respect and gratitude for saving her on many occasions. She still wants to leave the island, but shows remorse in the fact that Kong will be alone once she is gone. This is the one Kong film to focus on the relationship between Ann and the beast and actually get me invested in their plight as we spend a great deal of time with them. It made me believe the “Beauty and the Beast” story that Dino De Laurentis ultimately failed to capture. Kong’s death atop the Empire State Building is not one of triumph, but of remorse. Instead of the defeat of a monster, it’s the death of a remarkable species underpinned by the hubris and ignorance of mankind, dying far from home in the cutthroat concrete jungle that is NYC.
There is a deliberate parallel made between the voyagers of the Venture and the characters in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, of explorers travelling into an ancient, unknown and forbidding place in which something terrible is discovered. In this case, Kong is certainly a far more noble character than the humans who invade his kingdom. Juxtaposed to these softer scenes is the subtext of human exploitation of nature and the indifference and speciesism towards Kong that mirrors the indifference and racism in Heart of Darkness. I like how you see Denham’s sanity being stripped away from him across the film; at first, he is an eccentric but harmless kook of a madman who doesn’t care about the lives he sacrifices, but his humanity is unravelled by the horrors of the island and the deaths of his filmmaking crew. It makes his decision to capture Kong feel more organically integrated.
There are a few plotholes, such as how quickly Englehorn and his crew were able to catch up to and rescue Denham, Ann, Jack and the others before the Natives could kill them, as well as the fact that Ann did not die of pneumonia whilst walking through New York City in nothing but a white dress before Kong was shot down. This is probably an extension of the fantastical side of the film. Then there’s the ice skating scene – everyone’s made fun of it already and I don’t think it has a place in here, as the visual of Kong peacefully staring at Ann atop Empire State was a stronger final moment of respite.
I enjoy the various homages to the 1933 classic, including the old RKO radio sound appearing during the voyage, and the use of dialogue from the original film as banter for Carl Denham’s picture. The various creature attacks are reimagined, such as the raft attack on the lake in the Extended Edition, Kong fending off the crew on the log, Kong’s battle with the monstrous V-Rexes, the use of Max Steiner’s tribal ritual in Denham’s show, and all the scenes from Kong’s capture to his eventual demise.
After The Lord of the Rings, there really isn’t much that can faze me when it comes to a film’s length. But in this case, a full hour to 45 minutes could have been trimmed from every part of this film and it still would have flowed together cohesively. Perhaps then, it could well have been a modern classic. There are many scenes that are ultimately pointless and seem to set up an aspect of the film that didn’t need setting up, despite being well-directed in their own right. If the point of the elongated ship scenes is to make us feel the weight of the long voyage pressing down on its inhabitants, then it succeeds, but it grinds the pacing to a glacial speed. There are some good scenes with Denham, Englehorn, Jack and the crew once the truth of the voyage comes out, but everything else including the romance between Ann and Jack is not at all interesting.
I can give one final compliment to Peter Jackson’s King Kong – it is epic and theatrical in its own way, proving to be a heartfelt love letter to the Kong mythology. It fully embraced the nature of a period piece drama and committed to its vision rather than being a lean, pulpy popcorn movie. That might have been preferable for many, but I am glad that this version exists. For all its faults, this film really redefined King Kong for a modern audience and, over time, developed a devoted following despite its initial lukewarm audience reception. I still don’t love it like I love Lord of the Rings, but I can feel the passion and energy of the cast and crew in every frame. That must count for something.
- Peter Jackson was paid $20 million to direct this film, the highest salary ever paid to a film director in advance of production.
- It took 18 months to craft the CGI version of the Empire State Building. The real thing was built in 14 months.
- This film held the record for being the most expensive ever made in the US until it was topped by Spider-Man 3 (2007).
- Andy Serkis essentially had to play King Kong twice. First, alongside Naomi Watts in a makeshift gorilla outfit so his co-star had something to react to. Then, once principal photography was completed, he had to re-do his performance, this time in a motion-capture suit.
- Jack Black wore a wig in the film because Jackson wasn’t happy with the way his hair had been cut.
- The tyrannosaurus has hands with three fingers (instead of the scientifically correct two) as an homage to the original King Kong (1933) in which the tyrannosaurus also had an extra digit, and is explained by the idea that the dinosaurs on Skull Island have evolved in the 65 million years since the two-fingered tyrannosaurus went extinct elsewhere in the world.