King Kong is every 12-year-old boy's dream -- an epic, larger-than-life adventure tinged with horror and managing to make the silver screen look too small to contain it. Plus, it's got a 25-ft tall gorilla fighting dinosaurs.
The story of King Kong is well known, and the surprises in this film come from execution rather than plot. The question is not what will happen uat what new wonders Peter Jackson will show us, and oh, what wonders there are!
The film opens in Depression-era NewYork City, complete with all the horrors of that time. Middle-class America thrown onto the soup lines, everyone just trying to find a way to survive, and those who still have something clinging desperately too it at all costs. One of those who has it is Carl Denham (Jack Black), a film director who could have sold snake oil (or perhaps his own religion) in an earlier century, whose about to see his in-production movie stopped and its footage sold off as filler to other movie studios. He's not about to give up though, and he does everything in his power to cajole, trick and otherwise deceive his cast and crew in to helping him. He sells them -- including the beautiful actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), the brilliant playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and the skeptical Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) -- a vision of an exotic movie shot at the edge of civilization, in the faraway land of Singapore. In reality though, his destination is the dangerous, mysterious Skull Island, a land forgotten by time and man in the South Pacific.
And it's there that Kong waits.
I never had the chance to see the original King Kong, at least not the entire movie. I did get to see the 1970s version, featuring a man in a monkey suit, and while it enthralled me as I watched it (as most bad B monster movies do) it didn't stay with me.
Peter Jackson's homage to the original, well, it'll never leave. The film is faithful to what I've seen and known of the original, and Jackson wisely set back in the 1930s, rather than trying to update it to a highly skeptical 21st century. Back then, it was all too possible that a lost island populated by dinosaurs, monstrous insects, and immense gorillas could exist.
And if it did exist, well, it would look like this. Jackson's benefited from a few decades worth of research into gorillas and dinosaurs, as well as the success of the various Jurassic Park movies. Combined with modern computer-generated images, he's able to make the perfect King Kong, one's rooted in the animal kingdom, but who's intelligent enough to realize he's the last of his kind. The CGI allows Kong to be presented as an emotive, feeling creature -- not human, not animal, but something tragically in between.
The visuals are as stunning as they are immersive -- this is the sort of world we'd all like to visit, that our 12-year-old selves dreamed of while sending dinosaurs rampaging through backyards and sandboxes. There are a few moments of disconnect -- namely parts of a brontosaurus stampede that's shoot too close, and which I couldn't help but remember that what I was watching was fake. But those moments passed quickly, and almost without notice -- the film may not be perfect, but the pace quickly moves you past any flaws.
And then there are the fight scenes. As a kid, Godzilla vs. King Kong was probably my favorite monster movie, at least until I was old enough to see James Cameron's Aliens. This movie features probably the best monster fight scene of all time -- it's so good that I don't want to ruin it for anyone who hasn't seen it. It's sufficient to say that the trailers offered only the slimmest of peaks into Kong's battles with the monstrous inhabitants of his island. At the same time though, it's not all monster-smackdowns -- the humans also have their enemies to face, and some of their fight scenes are intensely gory and horrific; so much so that they may ruin the film's date potential, as well as its pull among the pre-teen set.
The scenes in New York are stunning and touching, and I particularly enjoyed a Kong and Ann's moment in the park, as short and ultimately disastrous as it was. That said, the military falls into a caricaturized role in this film -- their job is simply to kill Kong, and has no depth or aim beyond that. Then again, humanizing the military response isn't what this movie was about.
When I first heard that Jack Black was going to be in this film, I was skeptical, but the comedian's able to pull it off. His Denham is a flawed dreamer, one who you can't help liking even knowing how manipulative and occasionally despicable he is. It's a struggle for the rest of the actors to keep up, but they do an admirable job of it, even if Black dominates every scene he's in.
Damned If You Do...
My only complaint about this film is the same one I have about the Jurrasic Park movies: they damn us for wanting to see them. Jurrasic Park acknowledges our passion for dinosaurs and our desire to see them live again, then darkly proclaims that man has no right to play God ... and then promptly serves up another prehistoric spectacle. In King Kong we're lectured about how wrong Denham is for seeking out the planet's last mysteries, and then turning around and selling them for 25 cents a pop at a corner theatre. By extension, they're damning us for wanting to see Kong battling dinosaurs, ruling his savage land, and ultimately dying atop the Empire State Building ... but they don't damn us so harshly or else we might not pay up our own $9 for a movie ticket.
Truth be told, a big part of what allows humanity to advance are those who seek out mysteries, solve them, and then present them to the rest of the world, showing the grandeur and the wonder of places most of us will never see. It's the people in this world that don't do this, that embrace the mysteries and punish those who might confront them, who are the ones who should be truly damned.
Philosophical quibbles aside, the movie looks great, sounds great, and makes for a hell of a three-hour ride. So when do we get to see The Hobbit?