When Peter Jackson, somewhat shockingly, used his brand-new Best Director Oscar and all the accumulated clout from having forced the three massive hit films of the Lord of the Rings trilogy into existence to get Universal to sign off on a new iteration of the 1933 masterpiece King Kong, it was no less than the sixth legally-sanctioned sequel, remake, sequel to a remake, or spinoff of Merian C. Cooper's magnum opus to have seen the light of day. And I do daresay that Jackson's 2005 King Kong is pretty much objectively the very best of those six titles, though that almost entirely speaks to the profoundly low quality of the other five. The fluff-headed 1933 Son of Kong; Toho's pair of 1960s daikaiju eiga starring rather crummy gorilla suits as the famed Eighth Wonder of the World, King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes; producer Dino De Laurentiis's awful 1976 King Kong and its even worse 1986 sequel, King Kong Lives; none of these establish a bar that any halfway competent movie should have a very difficult time clearing. Particularly compared to the De Laurentiis King Kong, the most apparent comparison point for Jackson's film (maybe even more than the 1933 original), the standard for success could barely be any lower.
So that would be step no. 1: congratulations to Jackson and Co. for not absolutely sucking. That's a bit snide of me, really, because when all cylinders are firing, the '05 Kong does a whole great deal more than to simply not suck. I won't go so far as to say that I think it challenges the quality of original film in any specific way, though at its very best it comes a hell of a lot closer than I think anybody would have been sane to expect in the run-up to the film's widely-trumpeted Christmastime debut.
That is, mind you, when all cylinders are firing, as they are very frequently not. Here's the most basic fact about the '05 Kong, one that I largely saw fit to overlook when I was first blown away by the spectacle of the movie in theaters, and have since grown to loathe like an itchy take that you can't get out of your shirt: this King Kong, somehow, is 187 minutes long. Or 201 minutes long, if you like, because why the hell wouldn't Jackson release an extended cut on DVD? And with as far beyond the realm of basic decency as so much of the film already ran (even the good parts are too long), the 14 additional minutes don't even register, really. When all is said and done, King Kong, in all versions, is about a giant gorilla who gets pissed off when you throw some planes in his face. It can be great cinema, but it's really not High Art, and treating it like an ultra-serious character study (as Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens most definitely do) and a history lesson on the dolor of the Great Depression (as they do in a non-committal, half-hearted way that peters out after some 25 minutes) is at least strange. Not necessarily the wrong thing to do, but strange. And it certainly does drift into wrongness when one does as Jackson &c. do, and make that the basis of the entire first hour of the movie.
So the outline is about 85% similar to the original King Kong, with the emphases re-arranged. Now, the first person we meet is Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a two-bit vaudevillian in a shitty theater in New York. Actually, even before we meet her, the film very carefully introduces us to 1933, a world of Art Deco skyscrapers and Hoovertowns and not too much in between, via a sardonic montage set to Al Jolson's "Sitting on Top of the World". No wait, ACTUALLY, it starts with a brief wink-wink montage of monkeys in Central Park Zoo. The point being, King Kong needs to take a moment to settle down and find its footing, narratively & thematically & tonally, which is apparently something you're able to get away with when you have three hours and change to faff about with. But it is a little annoying, the way the movie keeps trying things out and giving up on them. Not that I'd want the smug, clichéd angle of marrying a peppy song to scenes of squalor to end up actually defining the tone of a Kong movie! But it's an addled opening, and even more so when we factor in the glossy Andrew Lesnie cinematography, adding a slick sheen that aestheticises the onscreen poverty as though it took place just across the mountains from Rivendell or Rohan, working entirely against the ironic flair of Jamie Selkirk's editing.
Regardless: we have Ann, a failed vaudevillian. Then over here, we have filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black, deliriously miscast), a baby-faced conman, huckster, and inveterate showman, who's finding the fad for documentaries of exotic safari footage barely strung together with a human narrative has pretty much run its course, and that the money men won't put up with his bullshit any more. But he's got a mysterious map burning a hole in his pocket, and enough of a crew set up that he's ready to set off that very night to stay ahead of the law and his debts. The only thing he lacks is a leading lady, so with the sharp instincts of an exploitation whiz kid, he heads to the nearest strip club, hoping to find someone skinny enough to fit into his costumes, and eager to do anything more dignified, even it's schlep across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans on a tramp steamer. And, naturally enough, what failed vaudevillian should have just arrived at the same strip club, having been given the address with the promise she can get a paying job? So those are two-thirds of our protagonists.
The last third is also the reason the dubious Ann signs on for Carl's vague tale of adventure. As long as she's been trying to get onstage, her dream has been to work with the great social realist playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). And wouldn't you just love to guess who Carl has lined up to write his movie? Even better for Ann, Carl has managed to trap Jack on the very same tramp steamer, which means they're all in for a few weeks of tight quarters, during which time, of course, Ann and Jack fall in love.
For King Kong '33 - and even King Kong '76 - those three were pretty much all the characters needed; just give the rest of the cast names and that's enough to get the job done. For Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens, that was not nearly sufficient. These people were in the business of making epics, gosh dammit. And so we get a substantially-fleshed out ensemble onboard the tramp steamer Venture, under the command of Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann): first mate Hayes (Evan Park), and soulful wild child turned Heart of Darkness-reading cabin boy Jimmy (Jamie Bell), and grimy cook Lumpy (Andy Serkis), and the comic Chinese deckhand Choy (Lobo Chan). Not to be outdone, Carl has his own team: boyish assistant Preston (Colin Hanks), and crusty old cameraman Herb (John Sumner), and sound recordist Mike (Craig Hall), and preening matinee star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), Carl's "name" for this picture.
That's a lot of fucking people and we spend time with pretty much all of them (poor soundman Mike least of all, for which oversight he is the first to die). Absolutely none of it proves to be time well-spent: this is still the story of how a giant ape falls into something a lot like love with the pretty blonde woman, and tumbles to his death off of a New York skyscraper in pursuit of that love. It still only actually needs Ann, Jack, and Carl to have any sort of definition as characters. As for the rest? God knows. Especially, God knows why Jimmy gets so much attention given how little he ends up doing for the movie - he disappears entirely after the action shifts from Skull Island back to Manhattan, and is mostly just background noise on Skull Island itself (incidentally, this film is the first time that the name "Skull Island" has been explicitly attached to Kong's home).
The whole cast is nothing but deadwood, and they are deadwood for a very long time - it's not till around 50 minutes that the film even arrives at Skull Island, and another 20 minutes later that Kong finally shows up. And that opening third is absolute poison, dull in every way and entirely disproportionate to anything that any King Kong movie has ever or could ever be about. Even in 2005, it was already clear from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King that Jackson and his team were more than capable of developing an unhealthy attachment to their own footage, but King Kong resembles that film less than than Jackson's future stab at The Hobbit as an epic trilogy that takes longer to watch than the book does to read. That is, it's not so much that you feel like the filmmakers had so much content that they couldn't make the hard choices about slimming it down, as that they decided in advance that they wanted to make a big-scale epic and added shit until it was long enough.
It's a pity that King Kong is such a miserable slog to start off, because the second that it arrives on Skull Island, it suddenly explodes into life. It's plain what part of the film had captured Jackson's attention for all those years and drove him to remake the thing in the first place. It's also plain that, as has been clear in pretty much every movie Jackson has ever directed, he's a horror filmmaker at heart, and everything else he does is an extension of that. The ancient ruins of the Skull Island civilization (which are a dead ringer for Osgiliath in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) are pure Lovecraft, and the Skull Islanders themselves are staged and conceived as something out of Italian zombie and cannibal cinema (which makes this, in some ways, the most objectionable depiction of the natives in any version of the story, and in some ways the least, since they're so clearly not supposed to be taken as analogues to the real world). Once inside the Skull Island jungle, the design team gets to go to town on creating a wild menagerie of disgusting creepy-crawlies and big savage dinosaurs that nastier, more evil mutations of the designs from Jurassic Park.
There is still, mind you, no real sense of discipline or urgency to any of this: not one single scene fails to go overlong, with the "brontosaurus stampede" and the "T-rexes hanging on vines" sequences the most obvious offenders (later, back in New York, this tendency will not reverse: the plane battle against Kong feels like it's fully three times the appropriate length). But at least, unlike the the deadly scenes on the Venture, the Skull Island material has some vim and vigor and liveliness; at least it is imaginative; at least it plays to Jackson's strengths, slowly ramping up tension and then springing something evocative, horrifying, atmospheric, or just plain gross on us at an unexpected but also perfectly timed moment. I could happily do without all of the slow motion, and the manipulated shutter angles that give so much of the action a smeary look; it's still a bit more legible than the camerawork in the latter two Lord of the Rings films, but there's sloppiness to some of the action direction that mars things above and beyond the general sense of bloat.
And then, of course, there's Kong, played in motion capture by Serkis, as one of the great triumphs of that medium.
In faith, I do not know that I love Kong now as much as I did when the movie was new. I don't know that the CGI has held up quite as well as it did in bringing Gollum to life in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, and his spiritual successors in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes have improved in just about every technical respect I can name. But that's as close to a criticism as I'll ever bring against the character, who might well be the richest incarnation of the great ape we've ever seen. Of course, Willis H. O'Brien's exquisite stop-motion animation in 1933 remains unimpeachable, gifting the character with a level of feeling and thought that are profound beyond anything in a giant monster movie for generations to follow. But he's still, ultimately, a giant monster.
The 2005 Kong is more like a tragic hero, surrounded by the decaying remains of his world, with sad deep eyes, scars across his body, and greatly expressive, contemplative facial gestures. At the same time, he's entirely an animal, slightly more human than a gorilla, but considerably more gorilla-like than a human. Serkis, who remains now as he was then our finest mo-cap actor, is as much an artist in his narrowly-defined medium as O'Brien was in his, and his Kong is honestly no less impressive an achievement than the original, bringing great meditative stillness to the role of a giant, violent ape. Like every other King Kong on the books, this film's Kong is a damn sight more interesting than the humans he's interacting with (only Watts gives a better-than-passable performance out of all those humans, and even she's not doing much more than the minimum requirements of the part), but unlike all the other Kongs, even the 1933 one, Serkis's take on the character is strong enough to make him work as a compelling, interesting protagonist in his own right. There's little doubt what the attraction of the project was for its makers, given how fully they turn things over to Kong and let him thrive as an awkward child/overgrown dog to Watts's increasingly entranced Ann; which makes it all the stranger that they'd see fit to hide him for so long behind such a dismally dull opening hour.