Sunday, August 29, 2021

King Kong (2005).

I'm being honest when I say I have no clue.  Don't get me wrong, this is not a question of vitriol or resentment.  In fact, if I'm being even more honest, I sort of can't tell just what other people think of Peter Jackson at the moment.  The fault seems to be entirely my own, by the way.  After a certain point, I appear to have just stopped paying attention.  He's an artist I've sort of let slip from my mind.  Nor does this seem to have been a conscious decision on my part.  From what I can recall, a whole lot of other stuff just kept coming along, and it was easy to get caught up in it all.  Somewhere along the way, I'm afraid it was all too easy for Jackson and his work to get lost in the shuffle.  I've caught snippets of what he's been up to since then.  However, I'm afraid I don't know any real details.  It probably doesn't help that I have no real interest in trying to play catch-up, either.  All this might count as a strike against me.  For his die-hard fans, or those who just like keeping tabs on artists like him, my lackadaisical approach to Jackson's work might come off as unprofessional.  As I've said, I have neither a clue, nor much of a concern about that.  Besides, I've always been convinced that professional criticism always amounted to more than just the hottest media gossip of the week.

The real reason for being here today is because of one of those passing flukes of the mind.  I was there when hype was first building for Jackson's remake of King Kong, you see.  For quite a while, it seemed like the big project that everyone was talking about.  There was a great deal of hype surrounding the film, and what it might turn out to be.  This was helped in no small part by the relentless marketing machine that the picture had supporting it.  A lot of that also seems to have been down to the skills of the director himself.  I'm not sure how many out there have stopped to think about this, yet in addition to whatever other accolades he might accumulate, there is one other talent to the director of Middle Earth that probably never gets as much consideration as it deserves.  Jackson seems to have a natural talent for generating hype in whatever project he's got going at the moment.  It's a skill he was able to play like a harp all the way back to the first rumblings of The Fellowship of the Ring.  When the prospects of that earlier film became serious, Jackson was there right out of the starting gate, helping to spread the word, and generate interest with a number of successful on and offline media blitz strategies.  It all seems to have paid off, at least if we're talking about long-term success.

When it came to working on Kong, Jackson took very much of a similar approach.  If I had to point to any real difference in the marketing deployment for the Great Ape picture, as opposed to the Rings film, then perhaps the major distinction came from the sense that this time Jackson was a lot more in the driver's seat on this one, whereas earlier you could tell he was working in cooperation with others.  I also think it's possible to tell the reason why that should be the case.  Lord of the Rings was Jackson's big breakout directorial effort, at least as far as the worldwide audience was concerned.  He'd made a name for himself in the industry already, yet before then it was mainly as a director a cheap, low-budget, exploitative Horror genre affairs (the one that stands out the most in my memory right now is the somehow wonderfully titled Bad Taste, which went on to have the distinction of being mocked by none other than Ray Bradbury, of all things, a feat which probably deserves a medal all its own).  This, however, was what help the director gain a name for himself.  It established him as a potential major figure on the world of big budget fantasy filmmaking.  It was a reputation he seemed eager to capitalize on the follow-up on his first success by tackling a different type of fantasy in a similar way.

It is just possible to point to another reason why the Kong hype was so much of everywhere at the time.  In addition to being a skilled marketer, Jackson had his own reasons for tackling a remake as his next movie.  While there's no mistake that he's at least some kind of Tolkien fan, the Skull Island film seems to have been the one that Jackson lept into with what I can only describe as a greater amount of enthusiasm.  Middle Earth was the work of a fan, yet it was Kong that seems to have been his passion project, the one he was willing to bank all on, even if it meant having to fund everything out of his own pocket.  Perhaps that's the final explanation for the marketing strategy of this film.  The main way Jackson promoted the flick was by keeping up a meticulous filmmaker's diary of just about every major day he spent on the set of the movie.  They would be released on either a daily or weekly basis from what I can recall, and it seems to have been what kept the media, critics, and film buffs talking.  If this was indeed the strategy all along, then I suppose Jackson deserves applause just for knowing how to keep the crowds riveted, and hanging on his every word and gesture.  It's a skill some would envy.

At the end of the day, though, I think that matters very little.  The only thing that counts in a business like his can be boiled down to just one, singular question.  Is the story any good?  It may sound simplistic to some reading this.  If so, then I have no apologies on offer.  I've never been one to mind if a special effect comes off well.  That said, I've noticed when the special effect takes precedence over good writing.  When that happens, its usually a clue to me that I'm watching a probably bad film.  In that sense, everything in any given flick lives or dies on the strength of its underlying narrative.  When Jackson's remake was first released, I can recall that I liked it very much, to be honest.  I have vivid memories of the constant sense of excitement that I felt as I watched the drama unfold.  I was even hyped about the movie enough to start trying to compare it to the works of other, actual literary book writers.  Then, as I said, time passed, and other things wound up occupying my mind and imagination.  I only thought of going back to take a look at it just recently.  So what do I think about it after all these years?  Well, I guess you could label my response as revealing.  Maybe I should just try and explain.

An Old Story Retold.

Like the original it is based off of, Jackson's King Kong is a story that centers around three main leads, Ann Darrow, Carl Denham, Jack Driscoll, and the main event they all find themselves caught up in.  Ann (Naomi Watts) is a theater girl, and eaks out a meager living for herself as part of a line of on-and-off-again chorus rolls in and around New York's Broadway and Vaudeville circuit.  It's 1933, and the Great Depression is still on.  Times are tough all around.  That hasn't stopped guys like Carl Denham, though.  Carl (Jack Black) is a young maverick director in the vein of Orson Welles.  Eager to prove himself to the world, and willing to do anything to achieve that goal.  Right now, the best idea he's got is that of making what he refers to as a "big jungle epic".  The only problem is, he can neither afford, nor obtain the kind of funding needed for the sort of extravaganza he has in mind.  Still, no problem, he'll just go it alone, like any true indie filmmaker.  Granted, back in those days, this pretty much meant swiping camera equipment and unused film stock from a local movie company and then dashing off with it before the big wigs notice anything is up.  Still, you know, baby steps.

Everything seems set.  Carl has a big movie star (Kyle Chandler) signed aboard, he's got all the film and lenses he need.  And there's a script that's being worked on by Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody), the top playwright in New York's theater scene.  All that's missing is the leading lady.  Carl wondered if he might get Fay, a friend of his, to play the part.  However, she's busy in Los Angeles, working at RKO.  It seems Cooper got to her first.  That means Carl will have to scramble if he wants a pretty face to go with whatever is supposed to be his current film.  That leaves him beating the streets of Manhattan in search of likely candidates.  Through whatever twist of fate, he spots Anne looking for both food and employment.  It's his intervention that kind of saves her from both the breadline, and either life on the street or as a slaver for the local peep-shows.  Ann's not at all sure whether to trust this strange young maverick.  The deal seems to good to be true.  The funny thing is he seems legit enough, and she's desperate.  She also knows where she stands on the line separating beggars from choosers.

So, with not much else left to lose, Ann Darrow finds herself signing aboard the S.S. Venture as part of Denham's new film crew.  To her own surprise, things at least appear as if they're starting to look up.  The cruise itself is bumpy, yet calm and uneventful enough.  What's even better is the shoot itself, at least so far.  She's hitting her lines alright, and she seems to have great chemistry with her co-star.  He's also good at helping to spice up the dialogue where need be, thus helping to keep the necessary drama for the script flowing.  Above all that, however, Ann has gotten a chance to meet Jack.  For some strange reason, Ann finds herself beginning to discover a whole different sort of chemistry from the one she's used to while on-stage or before the camera.  That sort of thing can be tricky, even at the best of times.  Even if you don't flub your lines, there's still no real guarantees are there?  Still, it is a different sort of role, one she can't seem to help find intriguing.  And then, just like that, everything went to hell.

It all began with the bad fog.  The Venture found itself surrounded by an ocean mist.  It all just appeared out of nowhere.  For the longest time it was as if the ship found itself drifting its way through the netherworld.  You couldn't see a damned thing beyond the bow.  Then one of the lookouts caught a clear view when the veil began to slacken just a bit.  What he saw made his jaw drop, and put the fear in the whole crew.  There was an entire sea wall ahead, and the Venture was plowing right towards it.  They tried putting her in reverse, the impact came anyway, and knocked the wind out of a few.  Then the ship found herself caught up in tide of the surf itself, which then proceeded to have a little fun of its own.  The ship got herself bashed good and proper on the nearby shoreline rocks, and received a good bit of hull damage for her troubles into the bargain.  So there they all were, stranded on a piece of reef, having to wait for the tide to come in an lift them out of their predicament.  It was just the Venture, her crew, and that damned stretch of wall.  That was the funny part, though, about the wall, I mean.  There was just something about it.  Something was off.

It looked normal enough in certain places, just another part of the natural landscape itself.  However if allowed your eyes to crawl over it, you soon came to spots that it looked a bit too perfect in certain places, if that makes any sense.  They were too neat for any natural sort of formation.  If there are any right angles in nature, then its doubtful that they look anywhere near as polished as what could see of that wall.  Evolution and plate tectonics couldn't have come up with all that.  No, something about this whole thing was man-made.  Carl, being himself, of course, took one look at all that and thought, "Hey, what better place to shoot the movie"!  So he once again "commandeered" one of the life boats and made for the nearest available piece of shore.  It was a dream come true for him in many ways.  In fact, it was sort of the main reason for his being there in the first place.  Not long ago, Carl had come into the possession of a map.  It laid out an as yet undiscovered strip of land in the pacific ocean, and the whole idea of the place just caught his interest a bit too much.  It sounded like the perfect spot to make a name for himself.

There was, one minor detail, however.  When one of the Venture's crewman (Andy Serkis) finds out about Carl's destination, he decided it would be a good idea to share a piece of local lore that he'd picked up off a ship-wrecked seaman.  This man told the sea cook that he'd been to Denham's island.  What he saw there might have done a pretty bad number on his mind.  He told of a civilization that must have dated back centuries.  Of a landscape populated by monsters, like the dragons in a nursery book.  More than all this, however, there was the real menace.  It was something like the legend or local deity of the island.  It was forbidden to refer to this creature, for fear of getting its attention, or rousing its wrath.  The only way any of the natives would even dare to speak of it, was to just refer to it by one word.  It was both totem and taboo, and they say it is the legend that haunts the island on which Carl, Ann, and the crew have disembarked.  The name of this strange beast, is known simply as: Kong.

A Familiar Form with No Life in It?

Maybe this is the part where some further backstory info can help explain a few things.  As noted right at the start, I was there when Jackson first began to generate hype for his remake of Kong.  I'll admit I was pretty much somewhere on the fence, or edging toward a general skepticism about the whole project.  It was coming across Roger Ebert's review that sort of made me stop and wonder.  His enthusiasm in that piece can sometimes come off as infectious.  At least I know that in my case, it was enough to make me change my tune, and get me anxious to see it.  As a result, I paid my fee and took a look.  Actually, I took several looks, not one.  If you want to get technical about it, I first saw the theatrical cut of the film, and later on got a chance to watch the director's preferred version on DVD.  The latter is the version with a few expanded encounters with the dinosaurs.  The addition that sticks out to me the most from that alternate cut is the river raft attack sequence.  There may be one or two other moments I'm forgetting about right now.  If anyone else remembers, feel free to chime in on this one.

Anyway, I can still remember that I liked what I saw from both versions.  I'm not sure quite how to explain all of that, looking back on it.  It was just this palpable sense of growing excitement as the film continued to unfold.  Each scene appeared to draw me in with its character sketches and drama.  All the major actions sequences seemed to be well timed and paced, and kept me riveted to the screen.  My initial reaction, in other words, was that somehow everything about it just managed to work on some level.  At the time, if you'd asked me, I'd have probably recommended the expanded DVD cut of the film.  I would probably have defended that one as containing more of a better story, in other words.

With all this in mind, what do I think of the film now?  To answer that question, I think it helps if I've got the input of other critical voices out there.  It gives me something like a wall of commentary on which I can bounce my own opinions off of.  Roger Ebert, for instance, claims that what makes the film work for him is its sense of empathy.  He writes: "The movie more or less faithfully follows the outlines of the original film, but this fundamental adjustment in the relationship between the beauty and the beast gives it heart, a quality the earlier film was lacking (web)".  In other words it is the idea that Jackson is able to inject and portray the character with an almost delicate sense of sympathy that allows the remake to work in Ebert's mind.  Now, compare this insight with the take of author, blogger, and professional critic John Kenneth Muir.

In his own review of the film, Muir writes: "The original King Kong was a taut and lean 90 minutes from start-to-finish. The 2005 King Kong runs over three hours (three hours and seven minutes, I believe.) The extra time is not wasted, but, looking back, the film does seem a little overloaded with unnecessary scenes and characters.  

"For instance, a deck hand on the Venture, Jimmy (Jamie Bell), and his friendship with Hayes (Evan Parke) get a lot of attention, but ultimately don't impact Kong’s life and death, at the hand of man.  It humanizes these characters, sure, but do we really need these characters humanized in a King Kong story?  I think the answer is negative. They are superfluous.  

"Similarly, all the back-story about Jack’s play, and Ann’s hard luck, and Carl Denham’s monetary woes put meat on the skeleton of the story, but as we can see from the 1933 film, that meat is not necessary, either.  The characters don’t really need so much fleshing out, and, in fact, the fleshing out may be counter-productive in some cases.

"Take Jack Black’s Carl Denham, for example.  Let's be charitable and just say that Black is not the most nuanced of performers, and he brings a very black-and-white interpretation to the character.  Robert Armstrong’s Denham was a filmmaker, a rogue, and also, in his own way, quite heroic. He was capable physically, and cunning mentally.  Jack Black’s Denham is part comic-relief, part cartoon.  He is so avaricious and money-hungry that his final line, about Beauty killing the beast, no longer makes sense.  In this case, it was greed that killed the beast; Denham’s greed, in particular.  It’s silly (and ill-fitting) that he should put the blame on Ann, who clearly loves Kong, while he seems to view Kong only as the goose that laid the golden egg.  Nice way to shift the blame, Carl!  Denham is thus less an anti-hero, and more an actual villain in this version of the film, taking on some of the qualities we see in Charles Grodin’s Wilson in the 1976 film (ibid)".

Let me just interject here to note that Muir's observation in this case seems to be a genuine one.  It is a legitimate slip up in characterization that is able to accomplish two things at once.  The first is that it creates a hole in Ebert's argument that empathy is the main driver for both the characters and plot.  The second and perhaps egregious problem with this creative choice is that it sort of shoots the director's own intentions right in the foot, long before the film had a chance to get off the ground.  In his DVD commentary, as well as in the film notes provided for the film's original promotional website, Jackson explained how he explicitly didn't want his Denham to be a villain.  Instead, he just wanted him to come off as a sort of misguided boy wonder.  

Now, there are two things to note about that stated, artistic intention.  The first is that it sounds good enough on paper.  Indeed, if we're going just by what the artist was hoping to achieve, then it could potentially have tied into Ebert's claim that empathy was the guiding factor in the story.  The real problem, however, begins when intention runs up against the actual execution of the idea as laid out in the final script.  I don't think its possible  to blame Black for this one, either.  All actors are at the mercy of the writing, and even a mediocre actor can give a good performance if the story itself remains solid.

Jackson's problem in this department seems to be that he has trouble realizing his directorial goals on the screen, because of an unspoken, initial problem realizing the necessary plot beats and notes that would, or have should gone together to make his more empathetic take on Denham a reality.  Instead, what's happened is the director seems to have believed he's cracked the character, when the truth is there still remained a greater deal of work and script doctoring to be done, and somehow that just never wound up happening.  The characterization suffers as a result.  Nor does it seem as if it's just Black's role that got short-shrifted, if I'm being honest.  Looking at the whole film now, it seems as if all the characters fall far short of whatever their intended goals where.  The sad part is that this also applies to the two central leads in the story.  The entire goal of Jackson's script was to make the title lead a more nobler, tragic character.  He seems to have wanted to see if it was possible to make a platonic riff on the old Romeo and Juliet trope.  This makes the story's main dynamic similar to that of films like Old Yeller, or any other knock-off in the same vein of heart-tugging family animal films.

If that's the case, then here's a very good question I have for the film as a whole.  Are you sure that wasn't a fatal mistake?  Is it right to treat Kong that way?  I suppose it is just possible to see how some in the audience might develop an attachment to the character which makes them see the Ape in just this light, or else in one similar to it.  The trouble is I'm not at all sure that such a viewpoint regards the character with anything like the actual justice he probably deserves.  If I'm being even further honest, I'm also not sure that this doesn't hurt the character arc of Ann Darrow herself.  The film seems to be trying to make her and Kong out as a pair of lost souls who somehow manage to find each other.  If that's the trope we're dealing with here, then it is possible to give it a fair chance.  In that case, the question hinges less on originality, and more on how good the individual artist is at taking an old format and filling it in with enough of the right matieral necessary to help bring it all to life.  In this instance, I'm not real sure that it was a challenge that Jackson was capable of rising to.  To be fair, the problem may not be in making Ann sympathetic to Kong, or his essential plight.  However, something about the way its written in this version just comes off as the wrong way to do it, somehow.

Instead of the actual process of a girl learning about this creature in a way that allows her to develop a natural form of sympathy, it's almost as if I'm faced with the one time in which the sense of Romanticism wasn't so much misplaced as poorly executed.  Ann's arc should have been one of a growing sense of understanding of where the beast is coming from, without also losing a grounded sense of wariness.  She might be allowed to have a sense goodwill without having to lose her head and come off as dangerously flighty herself in the process.  Instead, she should come to realize that while she might not be dealing with a straight-up villain, she is, in the end, at the mercy of an animal.  This sense of wary, essentially benign caution is what probably ought to have guided how her character was written from the island onward.  She realizes he's at least trying to protect her.  At the same time, she knows that's kind of a lost cause, and she should do all she can to find some way out of that place.  If possible, however, she maybe find a way of doing it without hurting the King in the process.

This is the character note for Ann that would also extend to the film's final, big showdown scene atop the Empire State Building.  In this alternate scenario, it would be both Ann and Jack who go looking for Kong through the urban jungle of New York together.  In this scenario, Kong is looking for Ann, and yet he is unable to locate her before the various assaults launched on him by the military drive him up the State Building in a desperate bid for seeking some kind of shelter.  It should be the gathering commotion centered around the skyscraper that finally catches Ann and Jack' attention, causing them to make a mad dash up to the top in an attempt to draw the giant down out of harm's way.  The logic here being to lure him down far enough to a point where planes can't go, thus placing him out of their reach.

Before all this takes place, however, it just makes sense for there to be this one final bit of character establishing dialogue between Ann and Jack over what should a pivitol question.  Just who or what is Kong, anyway?  What does his even being here mean?  What does Skull Island and all its inhabitants say about its or their own place in the grand scheme of things?  Ideally, this moment should be what brings the conflict of the film to a head.  It is this strange sense of ambiguity, and uncertain footing, that I think, or at least hope would have made more sense as a viable narrative through-line.  In addition to not having the main character come off as hidden lunatic with needless personal issues that require professional help addressing, it also presents the picture with a greater deal of thematic weight.  

It would (or should) have been a graspable snapshot of man's own relation to nature in general, and of the animal world in particular; a final consideration of our own place within any possible chain of being.  Whatever the case, the ending would still honor Kong's tragic nature, with the King encountering Ann one last time.  It is here that it would be possible incorporate elements from their parting as it exists in the film.  The difference being that Ann has been allowed a better sense of perspective through it all, and is therefore able to handle the denouement with a greater amount of both pity and maturity.  She is thus able to provide what comfort she can, before the giant slips off for good.  Thus allowing Denham to deliver the final Beauty and the Beast observation in a way that feels both "in place" and more than well earned.

Conclusion: An Unfortunate Mixed Bag.

Granted, this is all just critical speculation, or trouble-shooting, on my part.  I'm not at all sure how that must sound, or even if it would come off as palatable to audiences.  All I can tell for certain is that it's not the movie we got.  Instead, we're left with Jackson's efforts as they stand.  If you couldn't tell by now, I'm afraid sort of tend to side with the mixed and overall negative verdict provided by Muir.  I think part of the reason for this is because he's a lot better at examining the final product than Ebert was in this case.  Roger liked to get caught up in his emotional reactions to a film, rather than tackling the actual subject on-screen.  It might be the closest thing he had to a fault.  If so, it's not the worst, nor however, did help all that much when it became a hindrance.  It's what prevented him from seeing that while Jackson might have been doing his damnedest to do right by the story, his efforts never quite seem to reach their goals, even if it wasn't for a lack of trying.

This makes it all the more of a shame, really, as you can tell that it's the work of a genuine fan.  One of the things the director was keen to stress was just how much of an impact that original 1933 film meant to him growing up as just a very young kid in New Zealand.  He seems to have found that old film at just the right impressionable age, when the imaginative senses, along with the sights and sounds of the ordinary world seem to take on an impact that seems larger than life itself.  It's a sentiment that not many out there are likely to be able to grasp.  However it's a sentiment I can understand.  I sort of got lucky in that regard.  My first encounters with Kong might almost be a described as a kind of perfect mirror image of Jackson's.  I caught the flick as part of an old, double-bill video cassette recording that was originally made by my parents, bless 'em!  The King was sharing the marquee alongside a trio of comedians who called themselves The Marx Brothers.  Once the clown act was over, the real terror began.  My introduction to Cooper and Schoedsack's Kong was one of the seminal experiences of both horror and wonder rolled into one, crazy, brilliant, amalgamated package.

I don't think it counts as the very first time I had such an experience with a movie.  My chronological memory insists that Spielberg and Don Bluth beat Kong to the punch with An American Tail.  Granted, Cooper's film might not have left quite the same impact as Spielberg's movie.  However, I'm not sure it was ever supposed to.  The former is an almost Twainian, gritty, urban, street curb fantasy.  What the Cooper film does, I think, is to to take that same element of lingering fantasy, and ultimately steer it into the realms of flat-out Horror.  At least I know that's what my initial reactions told me I was watching.  I think a lot of that is down to the way the story itself is handled.  Cooper's whole fantasy is this strange, almost surrealistic exercise in a kind of manic, raw, animal ferocity.  I've heard or read from people trying to poke holes in the story on accounts of its almost literal antiquity.  However, what these viewers don't seem to realize is that its this same, old-fashioned, handmade quality that allows the story to not just have its power, but also to display it in a way that makes it seem as if the unseen engine behind the film is almost ready to burst clear out of the confines of the screen.  For a five or seven year old kid experiencing all this for the first time, the whole thing comes off as a pure, unadulterated, visceral experience.

It was and remains one of the most terrifying and thrilling experiences I've had with the movies.  I can still recall (with a certain knowing fondness, looking back now) how every close-up of the gorilla's face would freak the daylights out of me.  Sending me automatically scurrying to hide behind my parents old (long discarded) living room couch.  For some strange reason I think that's got to be one of the best things that can ever happen to a kid just starting to grow up.  I suppose that's because in my mind, the whole thing just comes off as a sort of unconscious rite of passage.  If it's at all possible that Jackson was able to experience any of this when he first saw it at a young age, then I guess I can give him this much.  It's easy enough to understand the kind of outsized impact a film like that will leave on the just the right form of impressionable young mind (many others, alas, are not so lucky).  At it's best, the film is generated by its own curious, archetypal energy, one so furious and fundamental that in the end, most of its fans are likely to know on some level that they've watched nothing less than the performance of some kind of primitive myth right up there on the screen, in glorious black and white. 

It's easy to see how Jackson could note all that and come away wishing he'd directed it all.  It's also possible to speculate how this might have impacted the young filmmaker's own imagination.  Like, for instance, isn't it now sort of easy to imagine what a Lord of the Rings made by the same team behind Kong would look like?  I find it more than possible to image a 1930s style, stop-motion animation version of the Black Riders, swooping in a charmingly jerky motion through the air on their flying steeds, before landing to give battle with the Fellowship.  I get the impression that an image such as this is able to suggest the real sort of dynamic power and energy that Jackson was hoping to put on-screen for his audience.  I have to admit that does sound like a pretty laudable artistic goal.  I'm just not sure at this late date if Jackson was able to prove he had the capabilities to pull off such a feat.  To start with, his imaginative horizons are different from those of the filmmakers of the 30s.  It won't surprise me if anyone argues that the films that era are held to be "nothing to look at".  If were going by a technical level, that's true enough.  It also doesn't change my mind that guys like Cooper Schoedsack were able to enter into the material of this story in a way that Jackson somehow can't quite manage.

It's this inability to get at the heart of the story that I think accounts for its failure.  Without it, all the big set pieces aren't really able to salvage anything on their own.  They're not the engine that's meant to power the story.  They are merely its punctuation.  With no real core of interest to sustain the narrative as a whole, all those special effects are left to just carry on through whatever devices they have left.  The result is a bland, unsurprising, and uninspiring collage of imagery that doesn't seem to have much choice except to just stand there on the screen, as lifeless as a waxwork display.  The trouble is the final product just comes off with this sense of flatness all around.  The story refuses to come to life on some fundamental level, and instead just remains there on the screen when it should be striking a light in our minds.  It's failure to do so acts as a pointer to its main flaws.  

This is something of a real shame, though.  It's pretty clear that it all comes from the heart, and that Jackson was doing his damnedest to put try a put his whole soul into the effort.  The final result is sort of awkward, as it leaves some in the audience wondering just what it says when the author fails even when his commitment is more or less total?  The fatal flaw here is that Jackson somehow never manages to find whatever it is in his source material that would help bring the remake to life.  If that's the case, then the irony is that it is just possible to claim that his failure at the helm of this particular project is all down to a simple matter of misreading a text.  That in itself is fascinating, as it opens a previously undiscovered door or pathway that I don't think has been previously taken up till now.  If Jackson's failure is down to a misreading, then what was it about the 33 film that he missed out on?  What is this unknown X factor of Cooper's original film that has been overlooked?  Would it have made Jackson's own into a better film?  The sad part is I'm nowhere near the heart of things myself, and it's too little, too late for the former Middle Earth director.

I think the kindest thing I can say about Jackson's remake is that it's sentiment is more or less in the right place.  However, without the addition of a viable heart, or central narrative core, the story itself has no choice except to flounder and sink like a stone.  It might have made a big enough splash upon its initial release, yet I'm afraid time is starting to tell on this film, and not in a good way.  Despite all the director's ambitions, the film just somehow never manages to get off the ground in any meaningful way.  I suppose if there's anything positive to take away from all this, then it might be in how the remake can act as an example of both what to avoid, and also as a potential guide into further explorations of what it takes to make a film like this succeed.  I think it's a problem that the makers of Kong: Skull Island were able to bypass by simply starting from scratch and finding their own story to tell about the character.  I don't know if that's what Jackson needed to do, or not.  All I can say is that the 2005 version of King Kong is best seen as a cautionary tale of enthusiasm over ability, rather than it being anything like an actual, legitimate movie.  


  1. (1) Hear, hear. I have little to add or respond to actually beyond I agree completely. But I'll try anyway!

    (2) I'll never forget my first viewing of "Dead Alive." Hoo boy that was a fun afternoon. Nor my surprise/ lack of surprise at how perfectly the LOTR trilogy turned out. I never saw "King Kong" - Jack Black had just begun to repel me around that time, I think - but I watched it with the missus in the early days of our dating and enjoyed it. It's definitely an emotional movie, but all the problems sketched out handicap it for me.

    (3) Your description of how the original "Kong" made you feel is very similar to how Dino de Laurentiis said it made him feel, hence his obsession with remaking it. Say whatever one will about those old classics, they had a power to communicate to young minds that the new ones just don't have. I think it's a combination of the black and white and early cinema aesthetics, in each circumstances, which lend it that mythological aspect. But who knows. Whatever the case, it works.

    (4) I recently rewatched "Close Encounters" and I wouldn't say it's a one-for-one comparison to "King Kong," but some of JKM's observations might apply to that one as well. Both flesh out things that ultimately might not have the impact to justify their conspicuous screen/script time, but both films have an enthusiasm for world-building within the frame that for the most part outpaces any disconnect it might create in the viewer. C3K more successfully, perhaps, if only because the times seemed to demand that movie, and only PJ demanded "King Kong."

    (5) " The film seems to be trying to make her and Kong out as a pair of lost souls who somehow manage to find each other. If that's the trope we're dealing with here, then it is possible to give it a fair chance. In that case, the question hinges less on originality, and more on how good the individual artist is at taking an old format and filling it in with enough of the right matieral necessary to help bring it all to life. In this instance, I'm not real sure that it was a challenge that Jackson was capable of rising to. " Quite agreed on this.

    (6) One of my favorite tie-ins with the movie got a nice treatment over here at this blog:

    (7) "isn't it now sort of easy to imagine what a Lord of the Rings made by the same team behind Kong would look like? I find it more than possible to image a 1930s style, stop-motion animation version of the Black Riders, swooping in a charmingly jerky motion through the air on their flying steeds, before landing to give battle with the Fellowship. I get the impression that an image such as this is able to suggest the real sort of dynamic power and energy that Jackson was hoping to put on-screen for his audience. I have to admit that does sound like a pretty laudable artistic goal. I'm just not sure at this late date if Jackson was able to prove he had the capabilities to pull off such a feat. To start with, his imaginative horizons are different from those of the filmmakers of the 30s. " Quite an interesting obsrvation / what-if. I'd love to see such a thing, and I think you're right, the ambitions of either era are tough to square. Or rather, like Spielberg (I can't seem to stop commenting on Spielberg, here, instead of PJ) or Kubrick, or anyone, really (Bob Kane/Bill Finger, Siegel and Schuster, anyone) by trying to realize "better" the ambitions of his influences they could not escape the ambitions of their own era. Very few filmmakers do (David Lynch, maybe, and you see the lengths one must go to, there...)

    (8) All in all, a mixed bag indeed, but a sumptuous one! Nice write-up.

  2. I mistakenly linked to the wrong post in my earlier review. For any interested in this sideroad, I heartily recommend:

  3. (3) I think part of it has to do with the correct genre classification. For a long time, now, I've been of the conviction that it makes more sense to view "Kong 33" as a straight-up Horror film. It's view that was more or less solidified by none other than Jackson, if you can believe it.

    He took the earlier film's lost Spider Pit scene, and gave us what has to be the closest we will ever see to an actual conception of that scene. The funny thing is, it's also the one time I can say Jackson managed to capture the soul of the original. It also happens to be Fay Wray's last performance (as a dinosaur no less!). The point is that it takes the original's aesthetic, and brings it very close to a quasi-Lovecraftian realm, lending the proceedings and interesting amount of thematic weight. It just occurs to me that I never stopped to mention any of this in the article. Oops. The full clip of what I'm talking about can be seen here:

    The irony is sort o perfect in a way. The one time Jackson was able to find the necessary component his own film was missing was at the precise moment when he decided to live in the shadow of the original. That's got to be the most perfect commentary out there. For the record, though, I have seen fan edits where this sequence was spliced in perfectly.

    (4) I tend to be a bit more positive on CE3K, myself. Is it better than "E.T"? Doubtful. Does it do good enough for its own self? Yeah, I think so. I will say this,, though. In hindsight, it really should have been the late, great Francois Truffaut who went up into that space ship at the end. It would have been like the perfect tribute.

    (6) I'd heard of that one, though in the end, it can't add much for me. Instead, it creates another example of a situation I've been encountering a lot, lately. It's what happens when the concepts behind a story seem more intriguing than the final product. The ultimate sense of disappointment leaves the reader wishing to go back and find a better use for all the untapped potential that the setting and set decoration seem to promise. Or at least that's how it's been with me.

    (7) It would be something worth watching on a technical level, at least, even if just for a sense of old world charm. As for Spielberg, and think the comparisons are apt, as he seems to be hitting similar notes to Jackson, and making them stick a whole lot better. Also, they both collaborated on the "Tintin" movie, so there's that.

    As for David Lynch....

    ...I don't see how you can copy any of that. His whole work is its own thing, more or less.


  4. (1) I don't dislike this movie, but I don't love it, either. It's fascinating as a perfect midpoint in style between the mostly-triumphant "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the not-terribly-successful "Hobbit" trilogy. I adore the former; I can't say the same of the latter, which has elements that I love, elements I hate, and elements that baffle me. "King Kong" is a less severe version of that; what works works at a high level, but it does not all work by any means.

    (2) I am a little ashamed to confess this, but I don't have any special love for the original "King Kong." I do, however, have a decent amount of nostalgic love for the 1976 remake, which was on television enough during my formative years that that was how I became acquainted with the big ape. It's an imperfect film, to say the least, but I like that movie to this day. Just bought a new Blu-ray special edition of it, in fact, though I've not watched it yet. Worth existing if only for the score by John Barry! And for Jessica Lange, who, good lord.

    (3) I think treating Kong like Old Yeller is a valid direction for a remake to go. It also opens the possibility up for a later remake (and you know there will eventually be one) to go in the opposite direction and treat him more like a terrifying monster.

    (4) I would like Jackson's film a lot more without Jack Black in it. I don't dislike him, necessarily, he gives a decent performance; he's just very badly miscast. At some point, I had the idea that this his role ought to have been played by Bill Paxton, and I have never been able to get it out of my head.

    (5) I'm probably a little kinder toward the movie overall than you are, but I can't say you're on the wrong side of it, either. I'm glad Jackson got to make the movie, as it was something he had long wanted to do; but in the end, it's really just a bit on the irrelevant side.

    1. (1) This idea kind of makes sense from a certain perspective. I've said this before, and I maintain that LOTR is and remains an unadaptable text. The best you can hope for on that score is a guilty pleasure, like the Rankin-Bass/Bakshi trilogy, if at all.

      In terms of Jackson's own style, however, I can see what you mean. I think he let his work on "Rings" sort of go to his head in a way that started to prove detrimental to his own projects. It's like he keeps operating under the impression that everything now needs to be this BIG EPIC STATEMENT, while at the same time being popular, almost slapstick.

      To be fair, I think Shakespeare could have pulled it off. The problem is Jackson is definitely no Shakespeare (no matter how much he tries to invoke the latter's name in a film).

      (2) Now for the irony. I'm like the exact Trek mirror-verse opposite of that statement. In essence, I can see why SNL made fun of "Kong 76". It's just a film where nothing works, and that elicits a groan from me, mixed in with maybe one brief chuckle (and here I am thinking of the line "What's your sign"). I suppose it might have its own schlock charm, though as a connoisseur of that sort of thing, this just falls flat for me. Maybe its because I find the schlock of 33 to be more appealing, or something.

      (3) Now there's an idea. Too bad that's not what we wound up with.

      (4) Like I say, if the writing is there, then the actor has nothing to worry about. Turns out that's not the case here. I'm not even sure Bill Paxton could have helped.

      (5) Word.