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Thursday, Dec. 22, 2005

Super Simian

King Kong

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Peter Jackson
Running time: 198 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

When "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson announced -- at the peak of his career, when he could choose any project he wanted -- that his next film would be a remake of "King Kong," I'm sure that more than a few people let out a collective "huh?" "King Kong" had already been remade once, in 1976, by Dino De Laurentis, and that movie -- with the big ape fondling Jessica Lange's breasts -- has not aged well. More recently, the remake of another big beast classic, 1998's "Godzilla," similarly failed to impress. It was impossible not to think: "Why this film? Why now?"

News photo
The King himself, part computer, part Andy Serkis (c) UNIVERSAL STUDIOS 2005, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Well, if you were going to search for the taproot of modern special-effects blockbusters, then it's definitely Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack's 1933 "King Kong." And for Jackson, who's staking a claim as modern cinema's great fantasist, and who had a line in monster movies long before he became rich and famous with his Tolkien adaptations, what better way to prove your chops than a cover version of "King Kong"?

And a cover version this definitely is -- not a "Star Spangled Banner" as deconstructed and reinterpreted by Jimi Hendrix, but more like the early Beatles doing Chuck Berry, a respectful tribute to a formative influence. Jackson shows his love for the original "King Kong" by keeping its story line nearly intact, while at the same time mainlining it with computer graphics for the full digital illusion rush. At times, this falls into the trap of all too many sequels and remakes: the idea that more is better, in and of itself. But Jackson is also capable of surprises, of awe-inducing wonders, and of finding the emotional heart of the story, something he arguably does better here than in "LOTR."

The first thing Jackson does right in the movie is to keep it in its original 1930s milieu. The idea of terra incognita, a mysterious undiscovered corner of the world, still had currency in the 1930s, but would seem ludicrous if set in today's GPS, satellite-imaged world.

Jackson's film -- at three hours and 18 minutes, or nearly twice the length of the original -- is roughly divided into three chapters: the first, set in New York, sees rogue filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) running one step ahead of his financiers, who want to pull the plug on his new film-in-progress. (And Jackson depicts Denham's mad insistence on continuing his film by any means necessary with a certain sympathetic glee.)

News photo
Naomi Watts and Adrian Brody in "King Kong"

He makes hurried plans to sail with cast and crew to the mysterious Skull Island, where they will film "a primitive world, never before seen by man." The only problem is his leading lady has quit, and he has to locate another actress who can wear size-4 costumes within 24 hours. He finds what he needs in Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a down-on-her-luck vaudeville trouper who only agrees to be in Denham's movie because it's scripted by Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody), a playwright she reveres. All set sail on a freighter whose captain (Thomas Kretschmann) and crew are more than a little suspicious of where Denham is taking them.

Chapter Two begins with the ship arriving at the island, which arises out of the mist in a shot that's a direct reference to "Apocalypse Now." (The comparisons don't stop there, as Jackson weaves a bit of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" into his film as well.) Denham and company go ashore, and here is where the fun starts: The color palette becomes nothing but gray Mordor stone and bone, and a band of truly fearsome, Orc-like natives attack. The crew fight them off, only to discover that Ann has been kidnapped in the melee. Here comes Jackson's take on one of cinema's all-time iconic -- and psycho-sexually loaded -- scenes, as the blond, white Western woman in bondage is offered in ritual sacrifice to the savage, primitive black ape, Kong.

Jackson dodges the racial subtext, so obvious in the original, and covers his back as well, by placing a heroic black character among the ship's crew. (However, like most heroic black characters in Hollywood films, he doesn't survive Act Two.) Jackson instead launches straight into "Indiana Jones" meets "Jurassic Park" territory, with a series of thrilling set-pieces, each more over-the-top than the last: battles with the natives lead into a stampeding herd of brontosauri pursued by raptor-like lizards which in turn segues into a battle between Kong and some Tyrannosaurus Rexes.

At this point, you'll think Jackson has emptied his bag of tricks, but you'll be wrong: Still to come is a confrontation between Kong and Ann's rescuers on the edge of a bottomless gorge, and an assault by a swarm of truly disturbing massive insects, including some fleshy, fanged worms that will linger in your memory far longer than you'd like.

The third, and final chapter, comes when the big ape is captured, and put on Broadway as a public spectacle by the tireless Denham. "There's still some mystery left in the world," he opines, "and we can all have a piece of it for the price of admission," a sentiment that Jackson seemingly both agrees with and doesn't, as evidenced by the final reel, where Kong has his vertiginous date with destiny atop the Empire State Building.

Jackson, like Denham, believes in the allure of mystery and the unknown, and the power of cinema to deliver it. But his "King Kong" exists in a very different time than the 1933 original. These days New York is destroyed on-screen on a seasonal basis, and giant monsters are so common they're almost quaint. Hollywood spectacle cinema has entered a baroque period akin to where rock music was in the late 1970s, technically proficient but bloated and excessive, where a 20-minute drum solo could follow a 20-minute bass solo and a 20-minute guitar solo.

"King Kong" is nothing if not a 20-minute guitar solo, the "Free Bird" of monster flicks. Virtually all of its action scenes seek to one-up themselves; thus, it's not enough for Kong to fight one T-Rex, but three, and then, when the fight seems near a conclusion, to send them all off a cliff for another duel, hanging precariously in some vines. Virtually every individual action scene here could be the orgiastic climax of a normal film; brevity is not a word in Jackson's lexicon.

Fortunately, he has the sense to come up for air every now and then. There are some great quieter moments, especially the ones in which Ann bonds with her simian captor atop a rocky crag, as the pair watch a glorious sunrise.

Credit, then, to Naomi Watts and Andy Serkis (as Kong) for making these potentially embarrassing scenes work. Even with material as fantasy-based as this, Watts brings range -- wonder, fright, doubt and compassion -- and authenticity. Serkis, meanwhile, repeats the innovative performance he gave as Gollum in "LOTR," using a full-body suit wired to the computers to give a stop-motion template for the animators to create their Kong. Serkis never strays from typical monkey expressions, but the way he shapes them into some sort of connection with Watts is compelling. Together, the two create the beauty-and-beast magic necessary to make the ending feel suitably tragic.

On a deeper level, the tragedy is this: Kong is, in the end, killed because he won't fit into American consumer culture on its own terms. Mystery is fine, provided it can be mass-marketed, at which point, of course, it's no longer mysterious. It's an irony which Jackson is surely aware of. In the end, it's not the white American who's sacrificed to the exotic, but the exotic sacrificed to white America. This primal id refuses to be a narcotized participant in his own commodification, and reacts by grabbing his girl and scaling the greatest phallic symbol in the world. There he is defeated by the relentless efficiency of the modern. Order is restored, the eruption of the id just another dent in the sidewalk.

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