Director Peter Jackson planned to make his King Kong before tackling The Lord of the Rings, but a bad box-office performance for The Frighteners (his uneven ‘96 ghost flick) and Universal Studio’s fear of Godzilla (1998) got the project shelved.
This turns out to be a very good thing because a few more years of technological advances have served Jackson well. His King Kong remake is a triumph in every aspect of filmmaking—a tremendous adventure with more heart than most films trying to pass themselves off as love stories. By the time Kong has his date with that world-famous skyscraper, Jackson’s masterpiece has left its audience emotionally and physically spent.
The film unfolds in what are essentially three acts. Act 1 provides backdrop for the characters and mounting suspense as filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) and his crew board a ship and head for a mysterious destination. Along for the ride is Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a vaudevillian actress picked up by Denham in a last-minute casting decision.
When Act 2 commences on Skull Island, the film never stops with the thrills. After Ann is offered to Kong by a band of creepy natives, they head into a virtual battle zone. There are multiple encounters with prehistoric beasts, including a smackdown between Kong and three T-Rexes that yields many surprises. Act 3 is, of course, in Manhattan, where Kong breaks loose after being exploited in a theatrical extravaganza.
Dialogue and in-jokes referencing the ‘33 original abound. Jackson even takes the opportunity to do his version of the “Lost Spider Sequence,” something that was to have taken place in the original film but was jettisoned for being too gruesome. All systems are go in 2005, and the survivors of a plunge into a deep canyon must fend off a variety of giant insects and sucking worms with teeth.
As it turns out, Kong isn’t only a love letter to Jackson’s favorite movie, but to Naomi Watts as well. The actress is so beautifully photographed, she sometimes upstages the giant monkey. Watts does an amazing and plausible job of progressing from sheer terror to love toward her protector. By the time the two stare into one another’s eyes atop the Empire State Building, it’s the movie year’s most heartbreaking moment.
Being a massive Jack Black fan (Long live Tenacious D!), I still had my doubts about him in the role of Carl Denham. But Jackson made the right call. Black brings a nice edge to the film, making Denham a wild-eyed, self-serving megalomaniac. Another odd piece of casting would be Adrien Brody in an action hero role, but his Jack Driscoll makes a convincing transformation from writer-geek to brave rescuer.
The film’s biggest star would have to be Andy Serkis, who not only plays the colorful Lumpy the Cook but also provides motion capture (a computer animation tool) for Kong himself, as he also did for Gollum in Rings. The combination of Serkis’ movements and animation results in something truly remarkable: a computer creation that lives and breathes. Kong has amazing soul and depth. There are palpable emotions and intelligence brewing behind his big eyes. Serkis and company provide Kong with a true sense of loneliness and misery, making him a tired warrior who has survived many years alone on a crazy island.
An incredible moment occurs when Kong takes a boulder to the head during a temper tantrum. His face goes from pain to bleary eyed confusion to a sad expression when he comes back to his senses. It garners the beast instant sympathy, and he’s viewed differently from then on.
King Kong is a miracle movie, one that never ceases to astound and excite. The film is more than three hours long, but for real movie lovers, it will feel like a blink. It’s official: Peter Jackson has made the best film in four out of the last five years.