Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: King Kong (2005)

Real Peter Jackson fans have known for years that the director was a huge fan of “King Kong.” He referenced it at the beginning of his immortal classic, “Dead/Alive,” as the Sumatran Rat Monkey central to that film's plot originates on Skull Island. Jackson had long desired to remake the 1932 original, discussing a new version of the film even before “The Frighteners.” It was only after the international global super-success of the “Lord of the Rings” films that Jackson had the freedom and financial reach to make his “Kong.” The result was a sweeping, epic “King Kong” that made a few fans but alienated many casual movie goers with its extra long run time and utmost fidelity to the original.

Unlike the 1976 “King Kong,” Jackson's version is a period piece. The story is set in the 1930s, during the time period when the original movie was made. Jackson clarifies this depression setting with an opening montage, showing the struggles of New Yorkers during the age of prohibition. Jackson's presentation is a rather meta take on the original. Karl Denham, Jack Driscol, and Ann Darrow exist in the same world as RKO Studios and Merian C. Cooper, as an early line indicates. The film Denham shoots on the boat directly recreates scenes from Cooper's original. Later, dancers dressed just like the Skull Island natives in the original appear. The implication is clear. This is the real story of King Kong. The 1932 original is a fiction within the fiction, an adaptation of events as depicted here.

Jackson and his team moves the story closer to life in other ways. Bruce Cabot's Jack Driscoll was a two-fisted hero, a classical adventurer. Adrien Brody's Jack Driscoll is a New York intellectual, a playwright who is clearly out of his element on Skull Island. He survives through a combination of luck and determination. Fay Wray's Ann was too often a screaming damsel. Naomi Watts plays Darrow as more complicated, a failed actress all but ready to give up on her dreams. As shown in a stunning dinner set confession, she doesn't believe in true love or happy endings. She's also a vaudeville dancer, with a very physical scene of humor. These are more complex, more defined characters than the pulp fiction sketches shown in the original.

The character that, perhaps, changes the most between 1933 and 2005 is Karl Denham. Merian C. Cooper clearly saw Denham as a kindred spirit, if not a direct author surrogate. He was an adventure ready maverick filmmaker. Yet modern perspective tend to see Denham as a con man, responsible for the death and destruction that follows. Jackson runs with this interpretation. Jack Black's Denham repeatedly promises to donate the proceeds from his finished film to the families of those who died on Skull Island. He goes back on nearly every promise, all in the need of maximizing profits. Black plays Denham as almost unaware of his treachery, a bullshiter who has bought his own act for too long.

The biggest complaint people had about 2005's “King Kong” is that it was way too long. And it is. After spending years in MiddleEarth, it seems Jackson lost the ability to make a movie under two hours long. His “Kong” has an epic run time of three hours and eight minutes. (An extended version exist on DVD that adds twelve additional minutes to this already bloated run time.) The film achieves this length mostly thanks to a lengthy first act. There's a lot stuff on that boat. We learn way more about the crew then we probably wanted to know. Jackson justifies every flight of fancy in the original, with an extended subplot about the shippers handling live animals. It's rather extraneous, leading to a top heavy first half.

Once we get to Skull Island, things pick up considerably. It's these sequences that Jackson's roots as a horror filmmaker become obvious. The Skull Island natives are more monster than human, zombie-like wildmen that emerge from rocks and murder with clubs. (The remake attempts to navigate around the unfortunate implications of the story by making the natives ambiguously brown. It still doesn't quite work.) The elder female looks like a witch, weathered skin with bone-like piercings. Jackson emphasizes the intensity of this scene with a bizarre use of slow motion and shaky zooms.

It's not the only scene in the film that makes audience's squirm. Jackson recreates the notorious lost spider pit. Enormous wetas with razor sharp spurs crawl over the heroes. Disgusting giant worms emerge from pits and swallow victims whole. Massive, spider -like creatures crawl down the cave walls. Really huge, really gross bugs get way too close to the human protagonists. An especially unnerving moment is an encounter with giant centipedes inside a log. If you have a phobia of creepy crawlers, these scenes will probably make you puke.

And then there's King Kong himself, the most brilliant creation in the film. The CGI effects are utterly convincing, Kong seeming as alive as the human cast members. Andy Serkis performed the motion capture for Kong, creating a nuanced physical performance. Kong has an incredibly expressive face and body language. His movement is realistic, as Serkis obviously studied how gorillas truly move. This Kong is covered with scars, hinting at the many opponents he's fought on Skull Island. As detailed as the effects are, it's Serkis' performance that makes Kong such a vivid, life long creation. It's a version of the great ape that honors Willis O'Brien's original masterpiece.

Unlike the 1976 version, Peter Jackson realizes that the dinosaurs are a vital part of Skull Island's appeal. The dinosaurs are major stars of this “Kong.” A brontosaurus stampede is an intense sequence, shoved into the narrow passageway of a canyon. Adding to the tension are velociraptor like creatures, stalking through the stampede, picking people off. The original's pterodactyls are replaced with huge, bat-like creatures. The stand-out dinosaur are the V-Rexes, evolved T-Rexes. Jackson builds on the original fight scene between Kong and the T-Rex. This time, Kong fights three theropods. They clamor down a cliff, caught in vines, the fight continuing. Kong juggles Ann in his hands and feet, putting her in the middle of the danger. Despite the changes he adds, Jackson is also a huge student of the original. The final fight between Kong and the V-Rex recreates the 1933 fight almost shot for shot.

“Kong” has always been a “Beauty and the Beast” tale. Depending on which version you're watching, the love story has been more implied than explicit. Jackson's “Kong” exposes the weeping, romantic heart at the center of this story's tale. Soon after meeting, Ann and Kong develop a mutual respect for each other. She lets the big monkey know that he can't push her around, rather literally. After he saves her life, Ann realizes how much the ape cares for her. In their quiet moments together, she's not frightened of him. It's not love, not for Ann anyway. Instead, she recognizes Kong as a unique creature, the last of his kind. She becomes a friend to someone that has no friends. Jackson's film emphasizes deeply with Kong. Darrow's affection for the gorilla reflects that.

Of course, “Kong” is a creature feature of sorts. The giant ape's eventual rampage through New York City doesn't miss a chance for visceral action. The ape tears through the theater, throwing seats into the air and smashing through the building's walls. We get a first person perspective from car drivers, as Kong causes crashes in the streets. He yanks a street car into the air, tearing it open like a tin can. Cars and military vehicles are tossed around with ease. Jackson employs a frenzied intensity in these scenes, creating exciting, unique action sequences.

2005's “King Kong” contains many thrills. Ultimately though, it is as much tragedy as monster movie. As Kong scales the Empire States Building, an acute sense of melancholy overcomes the viewers. This is where Kong is going to die. When the biplanes cut Kong down, the cruelty of their actions is focused on. His battle against the planes are a final stand against the world that rejects him, one doomed to failure. Before falling to his death, Kong and Ann share one final, pensive glance. Then he slips away, gracefully, blinking out of existence in the span of a minute. James Netwon Howard's mournful score blares out over the final minutes, announcing the death of a most unique creature.

Peter Jackson's “King Kong” is a deeply flawed film. It's so long, so detailed, that it borders on self-indulgent. It's utter commitment to recreating the original's magic almost makes it feel like the most elaborate and expensive fan film in existence. I don't think the final fate of Lumpy the Cook was of interest to anyone but the most obsessive Kong fanatic. Yet “King Kong” is a movie of incredible beauty and grace, a beautifully created and powerful experience. Jackson maybe overdid it but his amazing love for these characters, for this world, shines through. The result is a movie that is nevertheless a masterpiece, a worthy heir to the original “King Kong.” [9/10]

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