King Kong

It’s just not fair. You know the type of guy. He’s big and he’s strong, he’s blustery—he’s actually kind of a jerk. He’s the prototypical alpha male and is always engaging in chest-pounding types of behavior. Going through life, he leaves a destructive swath all around him. He takes a downright possessive attitude towards the woman he’s interested in, and treats her pretty badly for the most part. But what does he have to do to keep her hooked? Once in a while, just show a sense of humor, or a touch of sadness, some hint of Hidden Depths. Never mind that most of them time he’s totally shallow. He always seems to get the girl.

Damn ape.

King Kong is a big, big movie. It’s long. It has really big monsters, and big action, big shots, big emotion. We’re accustomed these days to action/adventure movies with a certain measure of ironic detachment. Not here. Peter Jackson wants to have you at the edge of your seat, or sitting back with your mouth gaping. Sometimes he wants you to laugh, or to cry. But he never ever wants you to snigger.

I saw the original King Kong for the first time only a couple of years ago, actually, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the lion’s share of the movie tells the story of the rescuers’ danger-defying venture into the heart of dinosaur-ridden Skull Island. So too with this version—dinosaurs, more dinosaurs, giant crocs, and an insect pit that had me writhing in my seat the whole time. Here we can see Jackson’s roots as a low-budget director of quirky horror films. It’s one long thrill ride, with sequences that just keep going and going and going—most of the time this is a very good thing. Kong versus not one, not two, but three Tyrannosaurs is the highlight of the film, though the Brontosaur stampede did go on a little long.

Kong himself is Gollum II—a digital construction overlaying an actual actor’s face, with a result that is way more convincing than you’d think. Only after the movie was over did it occur to me that at no point during the movie did the CGI-ed-ness of Kong bother me. Like Gollum, he blended into the scenes almost perfectly. Plus, here, he’s the best actor in the film, closely followed by Naomi Watts, neither of whom have a whole lot of actual dialogue with each other. It would have been such an easy, obvious mistake to have Ann Hathaway speaking to Kong, if only to let the audience know what she was thinking. But, as with the big ape, Watts has to do everything, absolutely everything, with facial expressions. And she pulls it off.

One great failing: there’s a moment when Kong is up at the top of the Empire State, dying, and Ann is there staring into his eyes, and the soaring music of the score falls off and we’re left with a single female voice, high and keening. It’s a moment of high emotion, but it falls flat because we have heard that voice before. It was used to tremendous effect a number of times throughout the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Those moments had a lot going for them: the beautiful voice, occuring in the context of the choral work throughout the score, was meant as a reflection of the sad, ethereal voices of the Elves. There’s no such obvious connection here, and besides, it’s a rehash.

There’s lots else that’s reminiscent of LOTR, in terms of score and sound but especially the visual stuff—the swooping cameras and timely slo-mos and long close-ups. Is all of this Jackson’s unique voice, variations of which we’ll continue to see in future films? Or is he recycling all his idioms from his Tolkien work here when he should have been trying for something new—especially seeing as this is pulp and not high fantasy? Hard to say—the LOTR movies cast a long shadow and make it tricky to evaluate other stuff independently.

If the un-crowdedness of the theater I was in on a Friday night is any indication, King Kong isn’t going to do particularly well at the box office, especially considering its budget. This is too bad insofar as it might reduce Jackson’s cachet in Hollywood and thus the likelihood that he’ll get to do The Hobbit someday. On the other hand, it may be time for him to take a step back and do another indy feature, something more along the lines of the superb Heavenly Creatures. And—having just googled around a bit—he appears to be poised to do just that (scroll down to the ‘film version’ section).