Thursday, December 15, 2005

REVIEW: King Kong (2005)

Minor spoilers, caution, etc.

The first thing that one MUST do in order to fully appreciate this new (and perhaps definative for the forseeable future) reworking of "King Kong" is to put all preconceptions and "baggage" of it's predecessor(s) out of one's mind to the best of one's ability. That would seem obvious in regards to any remake, but this... director Peter Jackson's megabudget followup to the "Lord of The Rings" trilogy... is not just any remake; and "King Kong"... a film-transcending classic that gave the world it's first icon of mythology born wholly of the cinema, so universally known and often referenced that most who've never seen it can offer a blow-by-blow recitation of it's story... is not just any movie. Approaching ANY "official" retelling of the story, it's nearly impossible to regard it without being reminded of "the first one."

Part of this seperation difficulty is just natural: Merian C. Cooper's 1933 landmark is still the Giant Monster movie by which all others must be judged, so entrenched as such that even a formidable upstart franchise like "Godzilla" could barely wait two sequels before challenging the titular giant ape to a shoving match. The other part is more complicated: A combination of desire on behalf of the studio to avoid the vitriol that greeted a previous attempt to remake "Kong" in 1979 and what could be termed tremendous humilty on the part of director Jackson has led to the following theme hovering over the entire marketing of the film: This isn't a "bigger, better" or "modern" remake, it's an "homage" to the director's favorite movie, poised in perpetual-genuflect in awe of it's 1933 ancestor. It opens and closes with old-fashioned title cards, sets itself in the same Depression-era milieu and makes constant reference to the original dialogue and designs.

In other words, it's at first slightly difficult to veiw Jackson's "Kong" as it's own unique film (and it is most definately it's own unique film) when we've been (and continue to be) told that this is a kind of 3 hour party celebrating it's predecessor's existance. That Peter Jackson is exceedingly humble is well known, but this time he MAY have done himself a minor disservice by being so willing to play down exactly how much originality, quirk and style uniquely-his-own he's been able to marinate the meat of the "Kong" mythos in.

But once one successfully banishes the ghosts of Kongs past and is able to approach this new film as it's own animal, the eventual truth cannot be denied: The filmmakers who took the epic-fantasy genre to it's next evolution have now done the same for giant monster movies, and this "King Kong" is easily among the best films of 2005.

True to his word, the film replicates the outline and essential themes of the original: Depression-era director of quasi-documentary motion pictures Carl Denham (Jack Black) escapes his angry investors on a steam ship of dubious legality bound for his next big production, shanghaing playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and wayward Vaudville starlet Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) in the process. Denahm, we learn, is actually following a strange map to the mythical Skull Island, said to be home of an advanced native civilization and a literal Lost World of strange and exotic creatures.

Once there, they find that the island is nearly sunken and the "advanced native civilization" has de-evolved into a cult of savage primitives scraping by on the last exposed sliver of livable land who promptly kidnap Ann as a sacrifice to Kong, a 25 foot gorilla they worship as a god. Following a series of adventures in the dinosaur-populated island jungle, Kong grows attached to Ann and subsequently captured by Denham, who takes him back to New York in what turns out to be a spectacularly poor decision for all involved: Kong tears the town apart in search of his lady friend, draws the ire of the military and goes down swinging atop the Empire State Building.

The original film took a hair over 90 minutes to tell this story, Jackson takes 3 hours and change. Many predicted this as a sign of directorial indulgence, a case of "LOTR's" spectacular success having turned the unassuming New Zealand horror/comedy auteur into a 400 pound gorilla aiming to sit (or direct) wherever he wanted. The finished result puts to lie such notions: The film NEEDS it's extra time, especially in it's early scenes where the ample breathing room affords Darrow, Driscoll the motley crew of the steamship Venture and Denahm to establish themselves as a (large) cast of fully-formed characters. This becomes essential to the nearly-endless action of the 2nd act, allowing Skull Island's dinosaurs, giant-insects, man-eating slugs and even Kong himself to engage in conflicts not with random canon-fodder but characters with names the audience will remember and lives the audience will care about seeing end or continue.

The most significant departure the film makes from any prior vision of "Kong" is in the characterization of the Skull Island natives. The original film provided archetypal African headhunters right out of H. Rider Haggard, while the 76 remake made do with a bland PC-ification of the same basic idea. Here, we have a culture that most prominently resembles a freakish deviation of Australian Aborigines (and perhaps the Maori of Jackson's NZ homeland,) nightmare creatures with flesh the color of their gray-stone "land" and hideous piercings. Their worship of Kong looks more like a voodoo ritual than a tribal celebration, complete with eyeballs rolled back into the head and spasmic shuddering. Wisely, the film avoids providing a character to give the "history" of Skull Island or it's people, so that we encounter the natives and their home on the same level as the characters: confused, unsure and genuinely terrified.

Other new twists are more subtle but have greater overall impact: Denham, as played with real dramatic panache and period-appropriate swagger by Jack Black, now channels Orson Welles instead of Cecil B. DeMille (and Cooper himself, of course.) Redrawing Driscoll as a staunchly city-slicker writer adds real tension to his action scenes and makes him much more sympathetic, an important element considering how much the audience (and Kong) is eventually inclined to see him as Kong's "rival" for Ann's affections.

But the most important switch, and the one that turns out to be the key to the whole production, is adding the backstory of a vaudeville pratfall artist to Watts' Ann Darrow. Let's be honest for a moment: The original film and it's original King Kong are through-and-through "about" the inherent coolness of a giant gorilla. It's a spectacle in the pure films-in-the-30s sense of the word, and all of the sociological re-reading came after the fact. You had to read pretty deeply between the lines to see any semblance of Ann reciprocating Kong's affections; but monster movie fans, ourselves often familiar being reclusive, misunderstood and obsessed with women way out of our leagues, were only too happy to do so. The Kong/Ann/Jack "love triangle" is "there" because we want it to be there.

Dino DeLaurentis tried, unsuccessfully, to make literalizing the presumed romantic subtext the main theme of his doomed 1976 "Kong," presenting a sexually-charged reworking of the relationship that turned the whole affair into a campy, vaugely-creepy mess: The notion of sexual attraction between a giant monkey and a human being roughly the size of his finger was, and is, basically silly no matter how strong the desire to see mighty Kong "get the girl" might be in the abstract. However, establishing a "deeper" current to Kong's pursuit of Ann is vital to ramping up the emotional ressonance of any modern "Kong" retelling... so what to do?

And so, here is the writers' stroke of genius: It's now Ann's Chaplin-esque clowning that melts the big ape's warrior heart, not merely her decidedly non-apelike beauty, and the affection Kong develops is neither vauge nor specifically sexual, but instead protective and in fact paternal. This is set up masterfully in a series of early scenes subtly establishing Ann's easy comfort with father figures vis-a-vi an elderly fellow performer; and the payoff makes the movie. It gives it a core relationship dynamic that is neither as broad as the original but more innocent and believable than the 76 version, as we come to realize that Kong and Ann eventually regard eachother in the same basic terms... each is to the other an exotic creature turned beloved "pet."

On the other end of Watts' performance is Andy Serkis, performing the motion-capture movements and physical nuance of the digitally-rendered Kong. Hands-down the most realistic-looking CGI monster ever produced onscreen, Serkis-as-Kong turns in the kind of "synthespian" performance that can and does make "real" actors profoundly afraid for their continued usefulness. Looking like the battle-scarred victim of a hundred struggles, with a crooked jaw and jagged wounds, making a home among the bleached bones of his dead ancestors, with an emotional range from quiet majesty to childlike amusement to primal fury to heroic grandure, somehow always animal yet somehow always more... this is the one: the fulfillment of the promise made a decade ago by "Jurassic Park" and bungled for a decade hence by everyone until now (I'm looking at you, shitty 1998 remake of "Godzilla.")

Coupled with the aforementioned fleshing-out of Denham and his crew, all this serves to produce a third act boasting an emotional and moral complexity so seldom seen in this genre (or at this scale) that the result is truly startling: The audience is asked to identify all-at-once with Jack's need to rescue Ann, with Kong's fury at Jack's "theft" of Ann, with the Venture crew's instant fear of Kong, with Kong's brutal, punishing assault on his attackers... even with Denham's half-mad determination to recoup the loss of money and lives on the expedition by turning Kong into a chained sideshow. The result is a finale that plays not only as massive-scale action but as a profound and disquieting tragedy, as no character or location ends their time onscreen unscathed and no simple answer or higher purpose is assigned.

In between all of this, though, Jackson has not forgotten that this is first and foremost a monster movie, and he provides monsters with the expected gusto of a filmmaker who has, quite honestly, been waiting a lifetime to do so. Skull Island's denizens are imagined super-evolved descendants of prehistoric giants, a creative license which Jackson uses to stage the best scenes of monster action of the digital age.

Most would be content, as "Jurassic Park" was, to bask in the glow of merely having realized such creatures with such realism, but this film and it's director have no place for such laurel-resting: The Venture crew flees for it's life pursued by raptors amid the pounding legs of a cascading stampede and eventual pileup of Brontosaurs (stop writing the email, fellow paleo-buffs: That's what they were called and imagined as in the 30s, so that's apparently what they are here,) and are trapped in a horrible pit with endless giant spiders, crickets, slugs and scorpions. In the best fight scene of the year, Kong brawls with three "V-Rex's" in a stunning slugfest that turns into an aerial battle amid a chasm of giant vines, breathing life into the fantasy of every kid who ever clashed his toy dinosaurs together over the sandbox.

Jackson also re-embraces the morbid sense of humor he kept so appropriately in-check amid the British stoicism of the "Rings" films, taking obvious delight in the ability of a dinosaur's foot to crush a man into the mud, the absurd horror as dozens of elephant-sized creatures careen off a cliff, the "no way!"-ness of seeing a raptor knocked out by a lucky kick, the gleeful "gotcha!" of Kong pummeling his attackers into paste or naive callousness with which he scoops up and then (literally) throws away innocent bystanders unfortunate enough to look sort-of similar to Ann Darrow. His recreation of the famously-lost "spider pit" scene takes equal pleasure in the way giant bugs can tear apart humans and in the way WWI-era machine gun fire can tear giant bugs apart. I live for this stuff... and apparently so do the people who made this movie.

Bottom line: Peter Jackson knocks another "nobody can pull this off" cinematic accomplishment off the to-do list, and I can only hope that this endeavor will lead to an explosion of high-calibre giant monster movies the same way "Rings" did for fantasy epics. For now, this giant monster movie is a total stunner, an example of everything that movies can be and so rarely are. No one needs to be told that this is a must-see, but I'm telling you anyway: "Best" or not, who can say, but right now this is the movie of 2005, the one that all on it's own would be enough to dispell the notion of this as a "weak movie year."

Long live the King.

FINAL RATING: 10/10