Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a lavish and long (187 minutes) remake of King Kong is at once deeply flawed and a must-see. Unlike last summer’s pointless series of cynical remakes, culminating in Johnny Depp’s heartless and bizarre turn as Willy Wonka channeling Michael Jackson, the new Kong is both respectful of, almost reverent toward, the original, and yet impressively goes beyond it. Jackson’s visually arresting film contains some of the most memorable scenes in recent film, yet his attempt to turn every subplot and every character into epic material too fails.
Just as in the original, so too in Jackson’s version the opening introduces us to Depression-era New York where a struggling vaudeville actress, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts)–eager to be the sort of actress who might be featured in the Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) plays she admires–chances upon the opportunistic producer Carl Denham (Jack Black), just as Carl is about to set off to film a location picture with a script from none other than Jack Driscoll. Well over half the film is consumed in New York and then on the boat as the crew heads toward the uncharted Skull Island. By drawing out these introductory sections, Jackson wants to deepen our appreciation of the characters and to establish certain themes.
The most prominent theme is supplied by the repeated references to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a copy of which one character reads and discusses on the boat. On Skull Island, vicious and filthy natives welcome Denham’s crew by killing and wounding many; they also kidnap Darrow, hook her up to some sort of catapulting contraption, and offer her to Kong. After focusing in great detail on the natives in the opening island section of the film, Jackson simply drops them. It is as if they have vanished from the island and taken Conrad’s heart-of-darkness theme with them. Another problem with the allusions to Conrad’s tale is the book’s blistering critique of the naively romanticized view of the wild, uncivilized world. While Skull Island is a violent, terrifying place, the ultimate lesson of the film is that the island’s most terrifying monster has a heart of gold and a deep love of beauty. Indeed, the final scenes in New York indict civilization for its blindness to see true goodness and beauty. Of course, the film is not entirely coherent on this score (romanticism never is), since Kong’s island dwelling, littered with bones of natives, indicates that he is no gentle herbivore. But what’s a few native carcasses in the face of a giant ape romance with a lithe blonde?
Through much of the middle section, the film looks and feels like a cross between LOTR and Jurassic Park, with the crew being chased and attacked by one sort of dinosaur or giant insect after another. Of course, the plot structure here and the major scenes are all derived directly from the original 1933 version, but it has the feel of what was perhaps the only defect in Jackson’s LOTR, the occasional sense that the fellowship was just running from one battle to the next.
Kong has neither the dramatic complexity nor depth of character of LOTR. The dramatic core of Kong is all about the big ape with a heart and the petite blonde who wins it. This is not to say that Jackson diminishes the significance of that relationship or misunderstands it. On the contrary, the scenes featuring Kong and Darrow, especially those in the final segments in New York, are stunning and heart wrenching. Watts is flawless and captivating in her part; and, since the original Kong was a puppet, constructed and filmed with the limited technology of the 1930s, this is a remake that profits from updated technology. We believe in the humanity of Kong by the end of this film. That of course is a crucial element in the tragedy of the ending of King Kong. In the final sequences, Jackson expertly and convincingly moves the audience, by turns, to joy, fear, anger, hope, and sorrow. The conclusion here makes the finale of E.T. seem emotionally tepid by contrast.
But Jackson is not content to elaborate on the central plot line. He expands each section and each part, hoping to create a film of epic scale that might rival LOTR. His failures here are consistent and multiple.
We have already mentioned the heavy-handed and improbable use of Conrad’s heart of darkness theme. Another palpable weakness in the film is the character of Denham, played with whimsical, amoral glee by Jack Black. That approach to the part works for much of the film, as Denham amusingly stays one step ahead of production companies and the law. Each time one of the crew is killed and others urge that they must return home, Denham responds, “No. We stay and make the film. He didn’t die in vain. We’ll give the proceeds to his wife and children.”
But beyond his insouciant humor, the film wants, indeed needs, Denham to have something of the grandeur of a tragic figure. When Driscoll observes sadly and gravely toward the end of the film that Denham always destroys what he loves, the line falls flat because Denham’s loves are all frivolous, petty, and narcissistic. There’s not even any evidence that he has any talent as a filmmaker. So Black’s Denham is hardly up to the task of effectively delivering the film’s famous concluding line, “It was beauty killed the beast.”
Jackson of course has all the gifts and sense of grandeur that Denham lacks. In this case, his inordinate epic-making ambition doesn’t quite kill the beast, but it does mar King Kong. The result is not exactly tragic but it is a missed opportunity for what might have been a truly great film.
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.