dir: Peter Jackson
Some of you who’ve been reading my reviews over the centuries know that I have a bit of a problem. First time readers will know what the problem is by the end of this gargantuan review of a gargantuan film.
I’m bad at editing my own stuff. It’s hard for me to cut out the constant and endless stream of mirthful pithiness that doth roll forth from my fingers. In writing classes, one of the key phrases they first teach you is “murder your babies”. This is not a recommendation to go out and kill your children because a) they’re annoying, or b) they stop you from writing.
The phrase refers to a good writer’s need to be able cut out whole sections of their own stuff even if they think it’s the brilliantest and wittiest crap written since Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw traded catty insults in a rent boy-filled opium den. Even if it’s a great idea, even if it’s the single greatest idea you’ve ever had, if it doesn’t enhance what you were working on, or fit into the overall scheme of things, you need to be able to drown it without mercy.
Clearly, as you can well see, if the requirement is to ‘murder one’s babies’ in order to write something cohesive and coherent (and entertaining), I am the equivalent of a bloated single mother with an endless brood of hellspawn stinking up the trailer park.
But (from my point of view), that’s okay for the purposes of these reviews. It’s not like they take up prime real estate, or people are charged a dollar for every pretentious word or phrase of mine that they read. I am, after all, a hack who posts reviews on the internet. You know, the internet. They have it on computers now.
As such, there are no economic pressures upon me to reduce wordage, or review length, width or girth. Good taste perhaps cries out for a different tack, but, hey, it’s not like I really have anything more than a passing acquaintance with it anyway.
If you’re wondering what the purpose of this preamble is, and its connection to the film, let me just be a bit more blunt and alleviate the confusion of the less perceptive of you: clearly, no-one is in a position to tell Peter Jackson that any of his babies need murdering, least of all Jackson. The man now cannot be edited properly. Like maybe George Lucas, or James Cameron, Jackson is in the upper echelons of film-making that dictates no studio or personal influence changes his vision, for good or for ill.
As such, the world is now privy to his murderously long and overdone (yet half-baked) remake of the 1930s classic.
Also, considering the 25 minutes of ads and trailers I had to sit through before starting what I knew was going to be a 3 hour film, I wanted you to experience an equivalent level of frustration.
Putting in a spoiler warning seems pointless, since the story is 72 years old, so there is no spoiler warning, which is a warning in itself.
By Zeus’s beard, I tell you honestly that a blind monkey could have edited out an hour of this film to its benefit. Jackson and his writing team wedged in so many kitchen sinks and orgies of cascading dinosaur flesh that the film utterly suffers from its lack of intent and focus, despite the fact that it has so many intentions and foci.
Is the film ultimately about man’s hubris in the face of nature, the human compulsion to confront the unknown, to pursue mysteries beyond all rationality, to work towards worthy goals to the detriment of anything else? Is it about the futility of struggling against destiny, or against The Man? Is it a love story between an inarticulate big lug and a slender blonde beauty, where the big lug can fight multiple Tyrannosaurus Rexs in order to save her, but can never tell her how much he loves her?
Is it about lurid, overdone action set pieces, and more monsters than rationality or reason should have dictated in frame if only to prove that Jackson, with enough money, could out-Spielberg Spielberg and out-Lucas Lucas?
It’s about all that and more. And, in case it wasn’t pretentious enough, not only do they allude to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in case anyone missed the weighty significance of Jackson’s King Kong, they even have a goddamn character reading and discussing Heart of Darkness with another character.
It’s sheer hubris that propels both Jackson’s Kong and the initial mission of the film’s prime instigator, Carl Denham (Jack Black). Considered a hack director by all and sundry, Denham has a plan to shoot a film on a mysterious island, in order to finally get the respect he feels is his due. To achieve this he has to lie and manipulate everyone around him in order to get things moving.
He is quite driven, and fortune drives him into the path of Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a starving actress desperate for work during the Depression. Also embarking on the trip to Skull Island (illustrated in the cheesiest manner imaginable when first introduced), is Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), a successful playwright, matinee idol Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) and a bunch of other people whose purpose is only to die.
This initial setup phase of the movie takes a long time. Not that it’s the problem. It’s just that if you were expecting Kong onscreen early on, you’d probably be disappointed. No, if I was going to cut anything it’d probably be the second hour of the flick, once they’re on the stinking island itself.
In the same way that Australia, a somewhat isolated continent since its separation from Gondwana oh so long ago developed unique flora and fauna, like echidnas, platypi and Alan Jones, Skull Island has had evolution act in monstrous and frightening ways. The humans indigenous to the island look remarkably like orcs from Middle Earth, and they have very bad teeth. The island has giant insects, giant bats, giant dinosaurs, giant everythings, really, all with bad teeth, all hell-bent on killing our humans. You’d think the film was crypto-marketing by a cabal of dentists and orthodontists. And mothers, wanting to scare their kids into brushing regularly.
The island’s a pretty crappy place to be on a Saturday night, in the same way that the streets of Melbourne town were on New Year’s Eve, except with a less-pervasive urine stench. The locals try to sacrifice Ann to some unseen but often heard beast, and the crew have started dropping like flies.
And then, it’s Kong’s time to shine.
Kong looks great. Entirely CGI, they manage to make him look like a real creature. The movements of his face indicating the broad sweep of emotions from anger to less anger, to sadness and wuv (the gooier version of ‘luv’), and his general movements are all captured remarkably well. Thus far it is one of the most convincing CGI creations to be seen on a cinema screen. Remarkable work.
The rest (dinosaurs et al) suffer in comparison. Along with Kong falling in love with Ann whilst fending off all of the island’s toothy denizens, the crew, determined to save a white woman from the clutches of some dark giant, get involved in escapades of attrition battling giant stuff and dying by the handful. Eventually, it is Kong’s jealousy that lead to his capture. He just can’t stand the idea that she’s going to run off with that rat-nosed Adrien Brody.
After spending so much bloody time on the island, by the time they get to New York, I just wanted Kong to kill everybody. And he should have, really. This mostly CGI New York has that glowing light bloom effect of recent all CGI extravaganzas (like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Sin City), but they had more money, so it looks substantially better. Kong rips shit up like punks on a pub crawl for a few hours before he and his bitch get their comeuppance.
There were some modest, more subtle touches that I liked in the film. Such as Denham in the beginning running through the actresses they could use, like Myrna Loy (from the Thin Man series of films) or Fay Wray, and being told by his assistant that Wray is busy doing a movie for RKO and Merian C. Cooper, which she was, kinda, acting in the original King Kong. I also liked the scene where leading man Bruce Baxter sets up his cabin with posters from his films, admiring his own appearance in those illustrations. As a follow-up, an act of vandalism makes him vainly wonder how he’d look with an Errol Flynn moustache.
There was one scene in particular which had me wondering as to the quality of drugs Jackson has access to. To advance the ‘I wuv you’ aspect of the story, when first seized by the mighty fist of Kong, Ann Darrow dances for her dinner, performing a desperate version of her vaudeville act as if she were a cross between The Office’s David Brent and Charlie Chaplin. I really don’t understand why he didn’t smoosh her for this, because I really wanted to. Still, he begins to appreciate the attraction of schadenfreude, when he decides that flicking her about and watching her hurt herself amuses him even more, until some dinosaurs want to get in on the act.
It’s my blonde plaything, he seems to be saying, no-one gets to play with her but me.
Primarily, whilst trying to be everything else at the same time, it is supposed to be a love story, more so than the original film. In the original, it was an unrequited and unreciprocated love, but here there is a sharing of some emotion, with Ann seeming to genuinely love the big galoot. And he doesn’t seem to want to do anything else than hang out with her.
The script literally makes references to the manner in which a man might be able to perform extraordinary acts to impress or protect his woman, but be unable to ever tell her he loves her. What fools we men are, eh? We’d rather be shot and drugged and be chewed on by Tyrannosauruses than tell our women that we love them, whether we’re giant monkeys or Broadway playwrights.
The rest of the world deeply resents and fears their union, therefore Kong must die. In direct contradiction to the first one, with its iconic image of Kong atop the Empire State building, here Kong is himself dwarfed by the building, symbolising the inevitability of his fate. His death is indeed handled well, and it’s a credit to Watts that she sells most of her scenes where she was acting to a blank screen. Since she worked on Home and Away back in the early 90s, and went out with Heath Ledger, she must be used to working with blank screens by now.
This film can never replace or exceed the original King Kong, in the same way that no shark film can ever replace the original Jaws, or any mafia film will ever exceed the first two Godfather films. It doesn’t mean they are films so perfect that they can never be exceeded, it just means that they’re iconic. In the same way that no-one pretending to be Elvis is ever going to replace the icon of Elvis, nothing Peter Jackson can do will ever supplant the iconic status of the original. As he well knows, which is why he goes so over the top, I suspect. If I had the self-restraint to reduce my review to one word, and I’m sure many of you wish that I could have, the word would be ‘gratuitous’.
I also suspect this is less his tribute to the original, to Merian Cooper, Willis H. O’Brien or even Ray Harryhausen, and more a tribute to himself. The single-minded rapacity, the lack of consideration for the lives and feelings of others, the absolute determination to make the film he wants to make seem like he’s criticising Carl Denham for possessing the same traits and embracing him at the same time.
It is when Denham returns to New York with his massive captive that his true motives are revealed: he no longer gives a fat rat’s about being a good director, it’s his own self-aggrandisement that interests him at the expense of countless others, including Kong. It is there as camera flashes glint off of his cold eyes that you know it was for nothing more than his own ego that all those people (and eventually, Kong) died.
I hope there was more going on in Jackson’s heart when he decided to take this on. At the very least it’s a given that this is better that the Kong film Hollywood shat out onto the world in the 70s. And it does achieve some moments of genuine suspense and beauty. But it isn’t anywhere near close to being one of the better films of 2005. With an hour gone, it might have been a bit closer.
6 times the editors should have drugged Jackson’s coffee during the process and told him when he woke up that they’d cut it the way he wanted (but didn’t, cutting out all the extraneous crap) out of 10
‘Twas beauty that killed the beast.” – Carl Denham, King Kong