Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Three Faces of Kong, Pt. 3: 2005

Poster and Amazon link

And we come to the movie that got me started on this. I wanted to talk about Peter Jackson's King Kong but it's hard to do so without reviewing what's gone before, even if you're a formalist like me who believes in taking a work of art in and of itself before going on about external connections. Sometimes those connections are key to understanding, though. The first time I saw the 2005 take on Kong, I thought it was very well made but somehow dissatisfying. The length of the action sequences, or indeed the film overall, didn't bother me much, but the intensity of it is a bit draining and the sadness of it is more pronounced than in the original. Like the seventies remake it can't quite dodge our modern sensibilities, which inevitably turn the story from a fun adventure to a plain tragedy. But on re-watching, what makes this movie great is that it goes beyond just moping about our mistreatment of nature. Instead it expands on the world and themes of the story, creating something that's suitably lush and fantastic for our time, and being almost as powerful. If the original Kong was about Beauty and the Beast, Jackson's film is about how the pursuit of beauty can make beasts of us.

Carl Denham (now played by Jack Black) is a desperate man. A movie project of his is falling through, he has backers literally trying to chase him down, and he needs an actress to drag to a tropical island to shoot a movie. Fortunately, this is Depression-era New York, with no shortage of hungry and desperate people, and Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is a vaudeville player whose theater has just closed down. So he drags her, and writer Jack Prescott (Adrien Brody), and lead Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), off on the Venture to set sail for mysterious Skull Island in the East Indies. Ann, a lover of Jack's work, starts falling for the man, but when the island's unfriendly inhabitants catch sight of her, they kidnap her to sacrifice to Kong, a giant silverback gorilla with a mean temper. Carl and Jack and the film crew pursue Kong and Ann into the dinosaur-infested jungle, and as you can imagine, things don't go any better than they did before.

Peter Jackson's style is one of excess, which suits King Kong just fine. Sure, it's over three hours long, meaning you have to find a good clear spot on your schedule to watch it. The action sequences, notably the various fights between dinosaurs, men, and a giant ape, are long in themselves, and over the top, and absurd, but there's something glorious about them too. Jackson never passes up an opportunity to goose the spectacle- where previously the sailors were just skeptical of Denham's story, now they threaten to turn the ship around, but it turns out it's too late because they're already running into the giant rocky pillars which surround Skull Island. Where once they got trampled by an unaccountably angry apatosaurus, now they face an entire stampede of the beasts. But, really, this is that kind of fantasy- this is a world new yet primeval, strange and baffling to men's eyes. (It seems to have driven the natives absolutely insane.)

 And yet none of this glorious insanity drowns out the film's rather subtle take on the original's themes. By making Denham an obsessed Orson Welles type- the kind of untrustworthy guy who always absolutely believes whatever he's saying at that very moment- as well as Jack a writer and Ann a stage performer, the film enters into a pretty complex examination of the nature of art. On the one hand the desire to capture and have something beautiful brings with it much destruction. Denham's relentless pursuit of his film results in the death of nearly the entire crew; his desire to show off Kong results in a massive wave of terror across New York; finally, Kong's desire for Ann, who has shown him beauty and a world beyond constant violence, leads to his eventual doom. But Ann survives by making Kong laugh and by teaching him a sign for "beautiful", and there is a sense that his tragic life is the better for knowing that lightness.

Kong, here, is realized as much closer to an actual gorilla than any prior incarnation, but there's a lot of personality to him as well. Part of this is due to the design, giving him a scarred face suggesting years of brutal fights, but Andy Serkis' motion capture performance also does wonders. Kong comes off as a grizzled veteran, used to struggle but capable of experiencing wonder and affection. Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow is also utterly superb, and Jack Black is better than you'd think- he demonstrates a range here he's rarely asked to show.

To be sure, this King Kong is not the perfectly formed adventure movie experience that the original is. What it is, however, is Peter Jackson getting all the time and money he needs to make the ultimate statement about what that movie means to him, and in so doing he's made a film that's not only entertaining and moving in itself, but a wonderful complement to its predecessor. In the end, it's a film about the mad passion of art, the pursuit of beauty, and the way that the vagaries of "show business" can corrupt that pursuit. If it's a little self-indulgent, I can't argue with results.

Based on a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson
Directed by Peter Jackson

Grade: A

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