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By Eric Hood
As he was finishing up work on his Lord of the Ringstrilogy, Peter Jackson often told journalists that he was committed to following up that epic undertaking with one or two "smaller" films. Instead, he's gone and unleashed an 8,000-pound gorilla. King Kongis massive all right: At 190 minutes and carrying a $200 million price tag—about what the three Ringspictures cost put together—it roars and pounds its chest and says, "Lucas, Spielberg, Cameron—I'm the king of the jungle now!" And if, in the original Kong(1933), it was the mighty ape himself who earned billing as "the eighth wonder of the world," this time around it's the movie that lays claim to that title. After enduring three hours of it, I found myself wondering if such wonders would ever cease.
King Kongisn't terrible, but it's something that none of Jackson's previous movies ever was—it's enervating. Right from the start, the film feels mired in excess: An opening montage set to Al Jolson singing "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" cuts from the image of Hoovervilles dotting the Central Park landscape to performers auditioning for a vaudeville show to bread lines snaking through the streets of New York City then back to the vaudeville show then . . . well, you get the idea. Eventually, Jackson moves on to a second scene and then a third, but the crippling pace of the film has been set, and it's rarely deviated from. It takes King Kongnearly the full first hour just to orchestrate the chance meeting of embattled movie director Carl Denham (Jack Black) and starving starlet Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and have them sail from the isle of Manhattan for the isle of Skull—events neatly consigned to the first reel of the 1933 version. Yet the only thing gained by Jackson's prolonging of his (and an army of effects wizards') meticulous re-creations of Depression-era New York is a sense of just how much, in the space between Ringsand Kong, the director has become punch-drunk on his own moviemaking wizardry. The Ringsmovies, despite their Wagnerian bombast, still managed to maintain an elemental modesty—which is another way of saying that the elaborate CGI always seemed to serve the story and the characters instead of coming at their expense. Kong,on the other hand, never misses an opportunity for ostentation. It's like the nouveau richeon the block who drives his Lamborghini to the corner store when walking would suffice.
Jackson seems stuck in spectacle mode, having all but lost sight of original Kong directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's industrious, B-movie crudity—and initially, the Skull Island scenes are scarcely an improvement. Working together with his usual screenplay collaborators, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Jackson seizes every opportunity to distend the action, delaying the entrance of his star attraction and deploying an army of poorly realized secondary characters—Denham's put-upon assistant (Colin Hanks), his resident screenwriter (Adrien Brody), a mysterious stowaway (Jamie Bell) and a naysaying captain (Thomas Krestchmann, who was Brody's Aryan savior in The Pianist)—who serve little discernible purpose other than to provide bait for the dinosaurs, steroidal spiders and other fearsome beasties that inhabit the fog-shrouded expanse. Of course, in all previous versions of Kong, Skull Island has been a haven for prehistoric fauna, but who knew that Jackson would take that as his cue to make a movie that, for most of its second hour, feels like a cross between Jurassic Parkand that ersatz insect-world docudrama, The Hellstrom Chronicle? Which is to say nothing of the scene in which Darrow is abducted under cover of night by Skull Island's indigenous inhabitants and then suspended over a fiery pit of doom as a sacrificial offering to the great god Kong. While Cooper and Schoedsack certainly weren't going to win any accolades from the ACLU for their view of "native people," Jackson's cavalcade of ooga-booga savages makes Memoirs of a Geishaseem like a monument to ethnic sensitivity. You can't believe Jackson actually expects you to take that scene seriously, but he does, and like so much else about his Kong, it lacks the comic-book insouciance of the 1976 John Guillermin-directedremake, a timely parable in which the lesson learned by Kong was that, in the world of men, the oil companies are king.
What Jackson's Konggets right—and it's a big (no pun intended) thing—is its depiction of the relationship between the beautiful ingénue and her primate paramour. The 1933 filmwas advertised as "The strangest story ever conceived by man," and of course, the enduring appeal ofKonglies rooted in that whiff of bestiality, the promise of a primeval fairy tale where the proverbial beast isn't turned into a handsome prince by the redeeming kiss of beauty. It was only with the 1976 Kongthat the idea grew to include the possibility that said beauty wasn't merely sympathetic to the attractions of said beast, but perhaps turned on a bit herself, crystallized in that disarming moment when Jessica Lange's Dwan falls (or does she jump?) into the cargo hold of the ship transporting Kong back to New York and lands smack between the ape's powerful thighs. Jackson, though, takes the idea further than anyone else has before. He's turned the Kong-Darrow coupling into a full-fledged seriocomic romance.
When Jackson finally arrives at the scene where Kong, having absconded with Ann, begins to play coochie-coo with her like a child with a doll and she responds by performing a vaudeville-style routine for him—some juggling, a few pratfalls, a touch of soft-shoe—it's the first time you understand why he really wanted to remake Kong; you see that he's turning it into a touching commentary on the eternal communication battle between the sexes. Then Ann grows tired of entertaining her captor, says she's calling it quits, and Kong sets about wrecking his own lair. Suddenly, the massive creature looks pathetic through Ann's eyes; she sees how much he's just like all the other men she's ever known. But after he saves her life a few times—wrestling pointy-toothed T-Rexes to the ground with his bare hands and biting the heads off vampire bats—she feels contrite for spurning him. Maybe, she starts to think, this ostensible brute is really a chivalrous hero deep down inside, and her desire becomes almost tragically palpable. Tragic, because we've been down this road before, and we know that at the end of the day, the strictures of "civilized" society will demand that Ann take up with a nice, clean-cut white guy (e.g. Brody) instead of a big, black hairy ape.
The delicacy of the interplay between Watts—who was clearly born to play bubbleheaded struggling actresses—and the giant computer-generated Kong (acted on the set by the invaluable Andy Serkis, a.k.a. Gollum) is extraordinary. It may even be the screen's most emotionally satisfying animal attraction since Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête. In particular, the final scenes in New York, atop the Empire State Building, are devastating in a way that the original Kongdidn't even attempt, and they encourage a forgiving attitude toward all that is wrong with the rest of the picture. But it's a more forgiving attitude than I'm afraid I can muster, for there were too many moments during King Kongwhen I felt I was witnessing the end of cinema, the final obfuscation between movies made by men and those made by machines. Perhaps I'm hopelessly out of touch, but I remain steadfast in my belief that size does matter, and that the best things in life come in small packages.
KING KONG WAS DIRECTED BY PETER JACKSON; WRITTEN BY FRAN WALSH, PHILIPPA BOYENS AND JACKSON, BASED ON A STORY BY MERIAN C. COOPER AND EDGAR WALLACE; PRODUCED BY JAN BLENKIN, CAROLYNNE CUNNINGHAM, FRAN WALSH AND JACKSON. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.
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