Peter Jackson has a satisfyingly sure-handed update in 'King Kong.'
There's a moment about 45 minutes into Peter Jackson's "King Kong," as the "motion-picture ship" the Venture approaches the fog-shrouded shores of Skull Island, when Jimmy (Jamie Bell), the youngest member of the crew, looks up from his copy of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" with a troubled look and says, "It's not an adventure story, is it, Mr. Hayes?" To which the grave first-mate Hayes (Evan Parke) replies categorically, "No, Jimmy, it's not."
Of course, "King Kong" is too an adventure story, and a big, nerve-jangling, spectacular one at that, featuring an expressive 50-foot ape, packs of bloodthirsty dinosaurs and hordes of monster insects with super-viscous insides. Hayes is referring to Conrad's nightmarish novel about the brutality of white imperialism, but he's also signaling that Jackson has gently updated the movie's attitudes without crossing the line into revisionism or parody.
At more than three hours and $200 million, "King Kong" is an homage not just to the original but to the history of movies themselves. Like the 1933 version directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, a studio-saving box-office sensation that set out to out-movie every movie ever made, "King Kong" is designed to hit mostly below the brain. But the excellent script by Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens retains the plot, settings and spirit of the original while also engaging it in a lively debate.
A travelogue through popular movie genres, it passes from socially conscious drama to comedy, romance, horror, adventure, science-fiction fantasy and doomed love story, cleverly quoting the styles and tropes to which we've become accustomed along the way. A movie about the movies, and specifically an exploitation picture about exploitation pictures, Jackson's "Kong" is also a witty comment on the darkness at the heart of adventure stories, a bazillion-dollar spectacle that reserves the right to question the morality of spectacles, and, mostly, a tender love story about a melancholy girl and her tragically misunderstood monkey.
The movie may promise, as adventure filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) says to Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), the starving actress he lures aboard the ship as monster bait, "money, fame, adventure, a long sea voyage," but it delivers a tragedy. By returning to the 1933 version, a special-effects marvel that showcased everything movies could do that other media could not, Jackson translates Cooper and Schoedsack's awing crowd-pleaser into contemporary visual idiom, creating the experience anew for a much tougher, sensation-inured and bloodthirsty crowd.
The original starred Robert Armstrong as the blustery showman Denham, Fay Wray as the helpless blond Ann Darrow, Bruce Cabot as the unintentionally hilarious woman-hating (but Ann-loving) first mate Jack Driscoll, and Willis H. O'Brien's 18-inch, rabbit-fur-covered mechanical model with stuffed-animal eyes as Kong. Four decades later, John Guillermin transplanted the story to the Me Decade, casting Jeff Bridges as a hippie paleontologist named Jack, Charles Grodin as the evil head of an oil company, and Jessica Lange as a loopy actress who was not so much malnourished as she was just hungry for attention.
In different hands, the new version might have been subjected to another topical makeover. (Carl Denham as secretary of State? Jack Driscoll as HuffPo blogger? Ann Darrow as "Top Model" hopeful?) Instead, Jackson dramatizes the shift in attitudes of the intervening years by digging deeper into his characters. Some become so complex as to require spinoffs. Driscoll, for instance, becomes three characters: Hayes, the first mate and voice of dissent; Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), the preening actor who plays the first mate and Ann's love interest in Denham's movie and supplies the silly, B-movie dialogue for the film within the film; and Driscoll (Adrien Brody), the talented, ruminative and ineffectual playwright who sees through Denham but lacks the wile to curb him.
The most problematic aspects of the original (perpetually on tour throughout film-theory classes as the classic example of Hollywood racism) are also brilliantly incorporated as Denham's B-movie in progress and, later, as part of his Broadway show — a spectacularly tasteless representation of "native" cultures, with ooga-booga music and coconut bras lifted directly from Cooper and Schoedsack. Ann, an archetypal screaming blond, has been fleshed out and reboned as a sensitive artist whose integrity and soulfulness have a way of keeping her hungry. And Watts plays her with such soul, intelligence and spirit that she effectively neutralizes the role of the helpless girl-victim forever.
As for the character of Denham, whose cocky, blinkered noxiousness goes unchallenged in the original (it ends with Denham blaming "beauty" for all the havoc, as a city cop all but pats him on the back), Jackson has managed to represent the spirit of the era without condoning or condemning it. Jack Black — with his flat, brassy voice, and flat coal-lump eyes — is an inspired choice for Denham. Loosely modeled on Orson Welles, he's a showman-hustler with a nose for sensation, a palpable desperation and an uncanny ability to surmise what people want to hear and then lie to their faces. Denham sees the world as one vast, virgin thrill mine just waiting to be tapped. He wants his millions and his artistic respect too. What kind of a person is he? As he tells Ann, "I'm someone you can trust. I'm a movie producer!"
The movie opens on shots of zoo animals near a homeless encampment in Depression-era New York and travels through soup kitchens and welfare lines to alight in a half-empty vaudeville theater, where Ann is performing for a handful of spectators. When the theater closes, she makes a last attempt to get an audition for a part in a new play by Driscoll. The producer rebuffs her, suggesting she try her luck at a burlesque show, which is where Denham finds her.
Denham is desperate, having just stolen his footage from angry producers (such philistines as to make him look like an artist) and lost his lead actress. Using nothing but his considerable powers of manipulation, he soon has her onboard the ship, along with the shanghaied Driscoll.
It's a full hour before we meet Kong (for whom Andy Serkis provided the motion-captured modeling for the CGI animation, as well as Kong's facial expressions and melancholy, tea-colored eyes) and at least two before we really start to get to know him. In the meantime, the Venture's passengers experience shipboard adventure, romance and a nightmarish encounter with the otherworldly Skull Island natives. Witches, zombies and voodoo children rolled into one, they represent the sum of all Western fears. ("For God's sake, Denham," hollers Baxter, in a hilarious moment when the director tries to offer a feral-looking child a half-eaten Hershey bar. "Leave the native alone!" Naturally, Denham intends to do no such thing.)
No surprise, they go for the blond. Ann is abducted and offered to Kong as sacrifice, and the crew is compelled to travel deep into the jungle, where it experiences a series of lethal run-ins with stampeding brontosauruses, giant prehistoric crab lice, the first ever, as far as I know, recorded attack of giant Phallus Dentata.
But the movie really comes to life in the scenes of developing idyll between Ann and the giant ape. After a rocky start, they discover themselves to be kindred spirits, sensitive types (with high theatrical standards) adrift in a brutal world where people just can't get past their looks. For all the movie's technical wizardry, it's the relationship that gets you.
And from the moment Ann (who shares a last name with the famous Clarence, who in 1925 defended the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools in one of the most publicized trials of the century) willingly steps into the palm of Kong's hand, you kind of step in with her. It's not just that he's cute, or that he saves her from the prehistoric lizard brains; it's that she sees something in him that the others don't: He's a link to her humanity. He's family.
Naturally, their problems don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, and eventually Kong is captured and crucified in front of thousands of thrilled-to-death, well-heeled New Yorkers (though his simian leanings will no doubt prevent him from being hailed as a furry martyr any time soon).
As in the original, he meets his end atop the world's tallest skyscraper — where there's no escaping the bi-planes or the symbolism.
Sure, the girl gets the blame in the end, her being so sexy and all, but the movie knows better. It's the doomed romance of a lifetime, and it makes perfect sense. Kong is the last gasp of the great, natural world, reduced to consumerist spectacle. And she's Ann Darrow, famous monkey defender.
The movie opens in theaters nationwide Wednesday, with some showings beginning at 12:01 a.m.
MPAA rating: Rated PG-13 for frightening adventure violence and some disturbing images.
Times guidelines: Contains violent fight scenes that could be scary for small children.
Universal Pictures presents a WingNut Films/Big Primate production. Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson. Based on a story by Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace. Produced by Jan Blenkin, Carolynne Cunningham, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson. Director of photography Andrew Lesnie, ACS, ASC. Production designer Grant Major. Film editors Jamie Selkirk with Jabez Olssen. Costume designer Terry Ryan. Special makeup, creatures and miniatures Richard Taylor. Special-effects supervisor Joe Letteri. Music by James Newton Howard. Runtime: 3 hours, 7 minutesCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times