“… manages to pay homage to Hollywood’s past, while at the same time engaging audiences of the present.”
Last night I had some time to kill (read: the entire night to kill) so I decided to watch Peter Jackson’s King Kong. King Kong is the classic tale that has been told for a very long time, but Peter Jackson took it and updated it (in appearance, not in story). King Kong follows film producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) who has mislead the studio for one last time. Fearing that the studio will cut funding for his film, and even have him arrested, Denham takes his film crew along with newly discovered actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) on a boat trip. While most of the cast and crew think that they are headed for Asia, their real destination is much more sinister both in name and because of what awaits them. When the crew arrive on Skull Island, they are greeted with some not-so-friendly locals who promptly offer Ann Darrow as a sacrifice to a 30 foot-tall gorilla whom the locals call Kong. The rest of the movie follows Kong’s adventures with Ann while also chronicling the rescue efforts spearheaded by writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). Now just as a heads up I did watch the extended cut of King Kong because I hate myself and I want to make the movie even longer. That being said, if any of my criticisms don’t make sense first ask yourself if I’m just an idiot (which is probably the case), but also remember that the extended cut is a little different from the theatrical cut of the movie.
Right off the bat I have to say that King Kong is long as shit. There, I said it. Clocking in at just shy of three hours and thirty minutes, King Kong is the kind of movie that you have to plan on watching because if you just throw it on your whole day is shot. Could King Kong have been shorter? Absolutely. Did I hate that it was almost four hours long? Not as much as I thought I would. King Kong isn’t just a movie, it is also a love-letter written by Peter Jackson to the “Golden Years” (if you ignore the thousands of people starving to death) of Hollywood. You can tell that Jackson not only loves the original story of King Kong, but he also loves the period of the film itself. This is not only apparent in the runtime of King Kong (making it more of an ‘epic’), but even the little things such as the opening/closing credits and how they are presented. Peter Jackson obviously wanted to emulate a time when going to the movies was an event to get dressed up for, and I think he nailed it. The amount of care that went into King Kong to not only pay homage to classic Hollywood, but also keep the attention of modern audiences is amazing. So even though the movie is long as shit, it doesn’t feel that way. Past all of my praises, do I think King Kong is perfect? By no means. I respect what Peter Jackson was trying to do with this film, but that doesn’t meant that everything he tried worked. First of all, the CGI in King Kong isn’t the greatest. It’s not bad by any means, and I will get into that, but the problem is that it doesn’t hold up when placed next to real actors and sets. There were so many moments in King Kong where I had to stop and wonder if audiences ever watched this film and thought “these effects are great”. Sure, I’m spoiled nowadays but even looking back on movies that came out around the time of King Kong (or Peter Jackson’s magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) It’s hard to believe that audiences ever bought these often terrible effects. Now when I say they are terrible, remember that I’m speaking only about when these effects are placed next to human actors (which unfortunately is most of the time); when a scene is composed of only CGI, it is absolutely beautiful. The way that these creatures are effortlessly brought to life and the way that they interact with one another is amazing to watch. This goes double for King Kong himself, who is able to convey so much emotion despite being completely computer generated. This obviously is a testament to what Peter Jackson (and Weta Workshops) is capable of, but it’s truly a shame that these wonderful effects were pitted against real actors, which is obviously a fight that they would never win. And it wasn’t even just the creatures that cracked under the pressure of a watchful eye, it was even the entire city of New York. I appreciated that Peter Jackson decided to re-create New York city to make it period-accurate, but much like many scenes on Skull Island it doesn’t look good when compared to real people. It almost looks like all of the scenes in New York were filmed in front of an oil painting backdrop or something. There is this constant disconnect between the real and the fake, and all of this (I like to think) could have been solved by just shooting these scenes differently. But alas, I’m no Peter Jackson.
Going past the effects and the intentions of King Kong, we get into the real meat of the movie. Well, it’s not really meat because as I will explain King Kong’s story is pretty barebones. King Kong can be separated very cleanly into three parts: Part One, the introduction. It is during this first hour of the movie that we meet all of the characters, and have them set out on their journey. Part Two, Skull Island. This portion of the movie offers almost no story, instead opting for ninety minutes of action scenes and questionable CGI. Part Three is New York, which offers a little morsel of story, but then quickly changes to just another action scene. What I’m trying to say here is King Kong is really nothing more than a bunch of action scenes pressed together into one movie. This isn’t a bad thing, but looking back it is why this movie is so forgettable to so many people. My plot synopsis at the top of this review is pretty much all of the story that King Kong gives you. Despite this being a problem from a narrative standpoint, I think this story structure is why an almost four hour movie didn’t completely bomb. Instead of having to keep track of a bunch of characters and intertwining story lines, King Kong offers you a three hour break from life. It is in this way that it departs from the movies of Hollywood’s past. King Kong shows what a good mix between modern and classic looks like. One thing that King Kong does better than almost any other movie is the fact that it is perfectly fine for you to go to the bathroom or get a snack while watching it. Honestly, if you pop out of a King Kong screening for even twenty minutes you’re not missing much besides a dead dinosaur or two. Again, this isn’t a bad thing it just means that the story of King Kong just isn’t there. Despite that rather pointless criticism, I did really enjoy King Kong. Probably one of the best things that King Kong did was build a world that is so mysterious and well thought out. This is not only shown in the often grotesque creature designs, but even the constant ambient noise of strange sounds in the background make you feel like this world is truly alive. On top of that, the acting in King Kong was wonderful. I’ve always been a fan of Jack Black and as Carl Denham he is able to not only keep his patented style, but also be a more commanding character than we are used to him playing. Adrien Brody does a great job playing the tortured artist who is essentially the complete opposite of Jack Black’s character. You then have Naomi Watts who does an amazing job as Ann Darrow, really bringing her emotions to the forefront of her performance. And even all of the other actors did a great job. Despite many of these “expendable” characters not having many lines, they were so much more than just cannon fodder. They all had personalities, and that gave weight to the danger of Skull Island when some of them inevitably kicked the bucket. One thing that did really bother me in King Kong was Peter Jackson’s apparent hard-on for amateur filming techniques. If you have seen any low-budget horror film from the early two-thousands, you will be familiar with a few “scary” filming techniques; one of which involves you slowly moving the camera towards an object, usually with a dutch angle thrown in, while the frame rate drops to an almost slideshow level. Why people think this is scary I don’t know, but for some reason Peter Jackson decided to use this type of shot countless times during the beginning of King Kong. The first time it happened I brushed it off as just a product of it’s time, but then it kept happening and I kept getting angrier. I have no fucking clue why someone as highly regarded as Peter Jackson would use such an amateur technique, and I certainly don’t know why he would use it upwards of ten times. This not only took me out of the film every time it happened, but it also made me question whether or not Jackson was of sound mind when shooting King Kong.
Overall King Kong is a wonderful blend of classic and modern. It manages to pay homage to Hollywood’s past, while at the same time engaging audiences of the present. With effects that are wonderful (when they aren’t in the same shot as any real-life object), a world that is carefully though out, and performances that are great, King Kong is a really good time.
I give King Kong a B