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Kong king out
A film review of Peter Jackson's KING KONG by Camus
"What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason!
how infinite in faculties! in form and moving,
how express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension, how like a god!
the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!"
Hamlet Act II Scene II


"T'was beauty killed the beast..." says Carl Denham, fictional movie-within-a-movie director. In 1933, you almost believed him. In 2005? Uh no, actually. Oh, it fair makes the comedy steam shoot from one's ears. That self serving, arrogant bastard makes such a pronouncement staring at the dead, broken Kong at the foot of the Empire State building when it was Denham's greed and ambition that brought the wondrous animal down. Driven director Denham got so many people killed due to his bottomless ego, as well as ending the life of the titular noble savage, it makes me want to La Motta a brick wall. Take a breath. Of course. That's the point. In both 1933 and 2005 versions, we come off very badly as mankind in general. But whereas the pro-nature message in 1933 was preceded by one hundred minutes of what was seen then as almost 'realistic' special effects, it didn't seem heavy handed despite the size of Kong's fist. Jackson's Kong is over three hours long. And director Denham in the 30s was played a little more lightly by Robert Armstrong than Jack Black's seedy and wholly (to me, I stress) dislikeable (and perhaps 21st century ironic) interpretation. Unfair to compare movies made and performances given 72 years apart but there we are. I'm an unfair bastard but they are both called King Kong...

Jackson's film so sturdily and unabashedly makes almost all the human beings in his vast, unrelenting remake of a classic B movie completely disreputable that this massive enterprise groans at the strain of its 'nature is good, mankind is palpably crap' subtext. Its B movie foundations are not strong enough to support a 'state of the art' enhanced A movie. In making Kong so noble, all interest in anyone else (with the exception of two very well judged performances, one human, one simian, those of Naomi Watts' Ann and Andy Serkis' Kong) is predicated by the response to a simple question "Does this character want to profit from Kong's imprisonment?" If the answer is yes (and it is in so many cases) then we (mea culpa, I, not 'we') dislike them and disliking a lot of principal characters is not likely to adhere you to the whole shebang. The entire first half of set up dealt mostly with characters I nary gave an ape pooh about. How does that set up a condition of empathy? Even the human hero, Adrien Brody as the caged writer Jack Driscoll, is hampered by his inevitable competition. Its clear he's not going to win any arm wrestling competitions against his rival. This said, the first half of the film is gorgeous. 30s New York is digitally recreated with as much care and love as you could wish for. It's eye candy sure enough but more about that particular confection later.

There was an intermission in the screening I attended and half of my Kong party said they were looking forward to what happened next. The other half was stupefied by 'not caring' so far. I have to admit I was with the latter camp. Jackson said he needed that hour of exposition at the start so that we would feel something when characters are picked off one by one in dino stampedes, bug attacks and Kong caber tossing. I think the movie should have started on the boat as soon as it could. I didn't give two hoots for Carl Denham (whose ego the whole film is a victim to) and although Jackson got Ann and Kong so, so right, it was like watching a diamond trailed through mud. It still shone brightly, sometimes too brightly but there was so much mud.

Way back when he was 18 inches tall, made of metal, rubber and rabbit fur with a supporting limb of a very large animatronic arm - and also when no one knew anything about gorillas - King Kong was a modest 100 minute "Isn't the human race just about as corrupt, selfish and destructive and odious as we feared." OK, I can go with that. It's rightly a classic for its timeless story as well as its special effects that stand up to today's fur-rendered-realistically-CG as well as wooden tennis racquetted Fred Perry would against graphite wielding Pete Sampras. Times change. Fred Perry gets his ass kicked (however endearing his style of play was).

What Jackson was setting out to do with King Kong (I suspect) was to give back that 'Wow!' factor to today's cinema-going youth, to offer the same spell under which he fell watching the original. But it's 2005 and Jackson himself has already produced nine (if we include the extended DVD versions, twelve) hours of a movie trilogy that made almost everyone on the planet go 'Wow!' How much of that was Tolkein and how much was Jackson is a moot point open for some debate but without Jackson's good judgement, vast directorial scope and vision (let's be honest here, his direction of Lord Of The Rings is quite superb) Tolkein's classic could still have never taken off. Just think what the movies would be with all the poems and songs intact. Fans complained about the excision of the jolly Tom Bombadill from Fellowship of the Ring. Do you think it would have made 650 million dollars worldwide if we had to endure tripe like this?

"Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!"

Someone get me a pillow.

Tolkein was a masterful storyteller but his poems were higher than the ripest cheese. Jackson is no fool and very much plugged in to 21st century audience expectation and desire despite his own desires to bring a book, written in the early 50s, to vivid life (true, Rings is hardly dateable). Tom Bombadill was out. His next project, a remake of a 30s movie that knocked everyone's socks off then, knocks one's socks off today too but to me, only a wide eyed 'Wow!' at extraordinary eye candy, not a profound sense of being moved as the original allowed me (and presumably Peter Jackson). The eye candy on display here is jaw dropping (more of that in a minute) and literally jaw breaking but then candy was never nourishing (not jaw working). Despite the wonders on the screen, I was starving for real nourishment.

All movies have their internal logic - they have to adhere to some element of boundary or the audience disengages. Sometimes those rules can come as a compete surprise and delight you at their revelation - The Dark Crystal: our diminutive boy and girl heroes, the last of their kind, the Gelflings, are herded over a cliff and they are going to die because gravity has been established in this world. The female suddenly sprouts wings and the male, holding on to her says "Wings? I don't have wings." "Of course not," the female says. "You're a boy!" I can still feel my initial delight at that line. Sometimes the rules change halfway through a movie - From Dusk Til Dawn changed genres halfway through and that was quite a coup. Sometimes the rules are just stretched and stretched and sometime throughout the mid nineties those stretched rules broke. This is what Jackson is having to take into hefty consideration with Kong. As the action ante is upped, so is human resilience and semi-invulnerability to match it. We have leapt from employing the suspension of disbelief to the barricading out from a fortress with big two by fours, keeping the disbelief monster out. Sorry. Mine keeps tearing up the drawbridge.

It's been suggested by a good friend that how can there be any rules once the fog arrives and the compass starts spinning? Well my answer is that people are still people, flesh and blood (unless we are informed otherwise) and if a person drops from a small height, they will sprain ligaments. Dropping from a higher height, they will break bones. Above that, it's "Adiós, muchachos." Action movies have stretched the limits of action hero pain and death threshold culminating with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson both dropping forty feet off a bridge on their backs onto a metal container in Die Hard With A Vengeance and just groaning as they roll off unhurt. No. They are flesh and blood, they are dead, they are very, very dead. Their spines are historical Hollywood relics.

Ann is sacrificed by the scary tribes of Skull Island (a marvelously designed enormous decay ravaged upside down tooth thrust from the ocean) and taken deep into the jungle by Kong, curious at his new toy. Jackson goes to great trouble showing us Ann's POV whilst in Kong's clutches. This is OK except that 'realistically' (if such a word exists on Skull Island) Ann would be, at best, puking up for three hours after this massive primal assault on her equilibrium or at worst (and most likely) she'd be dead. OK, we forgive lapses (we'd forgive them more if the implausibility wasn't so cinematically pronounced) and start to delight in the relationship. Kong is as real is a twenty-five foot tall silverback could be. I sincerely think (a big nod to WETA and Jackson's obvious drive for photorealism) that if a twenty-five foot silverback existed, it would look no different to Kong. Perhaps it would need a few more takes to complete a performance... Kong in King Kong is a true wonder to behold.

Computer Generated Imagery has climbed to a new plateau. Despite its critics (for I am one), the technology displayed here takes the breath away. Serkis did the research and so Kong is an utterly believable Rwandan Silverback Gorilla. And that's great if it weren't for the fact that the movie has to deal with the humans too. So what do you do if you are a world famous and award winning director to give your latest B Movie remake some weight? Well, you could abandon all pretensions and just let rip with Kong et al on Skull Island (side note, the insects were wonderfully realised and in answer to the same repeated question, yes there were dinos in the original) or you can do this and also inject some meaning via other veins of thought. Slipped in almost surreptitiously are references to Conrad's Heart Of Darkness.

A noble ship's mate has read Conrad's book and so encourages a young man who became part of the crew to devour the literature. Whether we are supposed to think that the whole movie is director Denham's (Marlow in the novella) tale about Kurtz's ivory trading in the Congo (who would that be, Kong, Denham's own black soul?) is moot to the point of being not moot at all. It's the embedding of profundity where none belongs. It's King Kong not Apocalypse Now. Coppola's 1979 masterpiece could encourage ten thousand articles on its meaning (based loosely, of course, on Conrad's Hearts Of Darkness). King Kong elicits, perhaps four.

Regardless of these (some may say) petty criticisms, the movie is firing whenever Kong and Ann are on screen. I adored the ice skating scene and Kong's death (hardly a spoiler) was protracted a little too much. So if you want not to believe your eyes, then go and wonder at the eighth wonder of the world. But be aware you have about an hour of ineffective character building before you get to see him.

King Kong

New Zealand/USA 2005
187 mins
Peter Jackson
Jan Blenkin
Carolynne Cunningham
Peter Jackson
Fran Walsh
Fran Walsh
Philippa Boyens
Peter Jackson
Merian C. Cooper
Edgar Wallace
Andrew Lesnie
Derek Whipple
Jamie Selkirk
James Newton Howard
Blake Neely
production design
Grant Major
Naomi Watts
Jack Black
Adrien Brody
Thomas Kretschmann
Colin Hanks
Andy Serkis
Evan Parke
Jamie Bell
Lobo Chan