Hollywood loves remakes. That adage has never been truer than it is today. Audiences are being constantly bombarded by remakes of older popular films, and that’s only if their current hot franchises have run out of sequel steam. With movies costing so much more today to make Hollywood likes to play it safe and go with what people have liked in the past. With much of a film’s budget actually going into marketing, and not the actual production, name recognition is one of the cheapest marketing elements, “Remember that film you loved as a kid? Well here it is again only bigger and better than before.” The 2010 Clash of the Titans is a perfect example of this, that movie had hardly anything in common with 1981 version other than its name. Both movies were based on the classic Greek mythology so it wasn’t like they had to worry about being sued by the original author, but by naming it the same as the older version they got a free ride on the nostalgia train. When I heard they were remaking King Kong I was both excited and worried. Were they just hoping to cash in on the love of the original, much as the less than impressive 1976 King Kong version was, or would we finally get a film that would be worthy of fans of the original as well as something to excite new audiences. That this remake would be helmed by Peter Jackson, who had just completed the incredible Lord of the Rings trilogy, certainly seemed to be a step in the right direction. Needless to say my excitement here outweighed my worry. So how does this lavish big budget epic fair? Let’s take a look.
The Lord of the Rings was an amazing achievement in filmmaking. No one can dispute that. It was an epic in ways that fantasy films had never been able to achieve, but this unfortunately led to Peter Jackson become hooked on epics. Tolkien’s three books about Frodo and friend’s journey across Middle Earth warranted such treatment, but unfortunately not so much a story that is basically an adventure tale about a girl an ape and an island full of dinosaurs. Now the 1933 King Kong clocked in at 104 minutes yet Peter Jackson’s remake is 187 minutes (201 minutes if you watch the extended cut), and that is quite the difference. What can you do with and extra 83 minutes or so? Of course the original movie didn’t spend much time fleshing out characters; Robert Armstrong’s Carl Denham is the movies only real detailed character, so I can understand adding some running time to expand our understanding of the Anne Darrow and Jack Driscoll characters as Fay Wray mostly screamed and Bruce Cabot was your standard 1930s square jawed hero. Both did perfectly fine jobs but one can see how a modern version may want to broaden the canvas a tad.
The story’s basic structure is about the same as the original; depression era filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) brings a group of people to Skull Island to capture on film something that the natives call Kong. Along for the ride is Anne Darrow (Naomi Watts) a starving actress who Carl sweet talks into coming on this crazy voyage. She is sacrificed to Kong by racist stereotypes, a bunch of sailors die trying to rescue her, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) manages to rest her from Kong’s clutches, and the giant ape follows them back to the village where Denham brings down the ape with some well-placed gas bombs. Kong is taken back to New York City as “The Eighth Wonder of the World” where he then escapes, rampages across the City, and then meets his end atop the Empire State Building. This is pretty much beat for beat how the original went down, but that simple and straight forward story was not enough for Peter Jackson, his film had to be bigger and grander, visually and emotionally.
Robert Armstrong’s Carl Denham was a larger than life character, which is kind of awesome as he was based on the real life producer Merian Cooper, but Jack Black’s Carl Denham is an asshole verging on being a complete psycho (also borrowing a little Orson Welles persona). After pissing off investors by wasting all their money on stock footage of animals he wants them to now finance and incredible expensive sea voyage to an unknown island to film some mythical beast. Strangely enough they don’t like this plan. Denham is forced to steal footage and props and flee New York City just ahead of a warrant for his arrest. He also traps screenwriter Jack Driscoll onboard the ship so that he will be forced to finish the screenplay. These are not the actions of sane or even nice person. When shit gets real on Skull Island, and people start dying, he repeatedly insures that all the film’s proceeds will go to that person’s widow. We kind of doubt his sincerity.
The biggest misstep Jackson makes is in having the voyage to Skull Island take 45 minutes. If almost a third of your film’s runtime is just getting to the island you’ve made a huge mistake, and I just wish somebody had stood up to Jackson and told him, “Nobody is going to give a flying fuck about Jimmy.” For some unfathomable reason we spend precious screen time with First Mate Hayes (Evan Parke) as he talks to his best pal Jimmy (Jaime Bell) about Joseph Conrad’s novella The Heart of Darkness, and sure there are nice parallels that can be made between the obsessed Kurtz from the book and Denham’s driven filmmaker, but it’s pretty thin and completely unnecessary. Also if you’re referencing a story that deals with important subject matters such as imperialism and racism, and your film depicts natives in a not so flattering light, you may have made an error in judgement.
I know this sounds like I’m shitting all over this movie, I actually quite like the film, but it’s just that it could have been so much better if Jackson had shown a modicum of restraint. Turning Jack Driscoll into an intellectual instead of the standard adventure hero was an interesting choice, as was having Kyle Chandler playing an actor version of Bruce Cabot from the original, but what works beyond any measure is Naomi Watts as the girl Kong falls for. Naomi’s depiction of Ann Darrow’s relationship with Kong is the heart of this picture, and is what makes you put up with the film’s overlong running time. I’ve complained about how the 1976 King Kong reduced the population of monsters on Skull Island to just Kong and a big snake, but if Jackson had left out every other CGI monstrosity from the stampeding brontosauruses to the triple threat T-Rex analogs, and just had scenes between Ann and Kong (Andy Serkis doing amazing motion capture work), this would have still been a great movie.
At first Ann is terrified of Kong, as any sane person would be if grabbed by a giant ape, but over a short period of time she discovers that Kong is simply a lonely animal in need of a friend. When inside Kong’s cave home we see the skeletons of several giant apes which suggest that Kong is the last of his kind, and that the whole “sacrifice” nabbing thing is probably something that is now done out of force of habit, and that it’s most likely that both sides of this equation have forgotten the original purpose. It’s when Ann enters his life that their is a break in this ritual, as she cracks open Kong’s hard solitary shell. In the 1933 original Fay Wray’s Ann wanted nothing more than to get away from this terrifying beast, we still felt sorry for Kong at the end but not from any chemistry between Ann and Kong. The 1976 version tried to make us believe Ann would scream for Kong to pick her up so that the helicopters wouldn’t gun him down, but other than him giving her a bath and a “blowjob” there isn’t much to their relationship. With this latest Kong Peter Jackson has created a pair that are more authentic and heartfelt than I’ve seen in a dozen rom/coms.
Then the army shows up and spoil everything. When Kong finally meets his end atop the Empire State Building only a person with a heart of stone could not feel the sense of loss and sadness. Civilization had plucked something grand and mysterious from its world, brought it to ours to make a quick buck, and then destroyed it. Which kind of sums up humanity over the years, and Peter Jackson’s King Kong perfectly encapsulates that theme. Both previous versions touched on this idea of the rape of the natural world, but only Jackson nailed. If only he’d trusted that element of the movie and maybe jettisoned much of the film’s chaff. Despite what I said earlier I do want dinosaurs and the like on Skull Island, but if Jackson had shown a little restraint that would have nice. It’s also clear that the bulk of the visual effects budget was spent on the amazingly rendered Kong, but unfortunately that resulted in some pretty poor CGI for many of the other inhabitants of Skull Island. When will filmmakers learn that over-the-top CGI action isn’t all that thrilling?
Peter Jackson’s King Kong is quite the achievement, for Kong alone it deserved every effects award under the sun, but if he’d only trusted the amazing relationship he’d developed between Naomi Watts’s Ann and Andy Serkis’s Kong to hold our interest, and ditched about an hour of unnecessary characters and action beats, this could have been a truly great movie instead of just a very good one.