Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong begs the question: Did this movie need to be remade? More to the point, what is the value of remaking something that’s already perfect and a product whose full appeal can only be appreciated in the context of the time in which it was made? Ernest Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper’s original came out of an era of ethnographic narratives–like Cooper’s own Grass and Chang, which grafted adventure stories and a decidedly white-colonialist world view on exotic lands and their peoples. These movies are all fun and fascinating for their tenacious fervor and all-around technical polish, stirred up in the pot of Victorian condescension. King Kong is a fantasy spin on the ethnographic narrative, a naturalist genre founded on a sensationalist wonder of the exotic–those non-white frontiers of civilization. Updating Kong for the globalized 21st century, for this post-colonial age of political correctness and digital razzmatazz makes it more technically exhilarating, but also strips it of all of the original’s Gothic mystique.
Screenwriters Jackson, Philipa Boyens, and Fran Walsh’s script stays true to the original time period but everything else about the narrative is buffed and waxed for maximum expository value: out-of-work Depression-era actress, Ann Darrow (a luminous Naomi Watts) scrapes by in a New York vaudeville revue until filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) comes calling. Denham is no longer an ambitious adventurer/documentarian, limned along the persona of Merian Cooper himself, but a weasley hack, trying to outrun his financiers and get a jump on his secretive jungle movie with Darrow in the lead. Guided by a hand-scrawled map (how and why it got into Denham’s hands remains a mystery and one of the screenplay’s glaring flaws), he and Darrow push off for a mysterious island, along with playwright Jack Driscoll and a ragtag crew. In the original, Driscoll was the ship’s first mate; here, he’s Denham’s screenwriter and, hence, the Denham-Darrow-Driscoll triangulation is made more taut. While I applaud that move, I’m dumbfounded over just about every other creative liberty Jackson and his co-writers took with the Kong story. The movie spends the first two-thirds of its three-hour running time developing ancillary characters: the ship’s token black man and his apprentice, for instance, along with the ship’s incredulous captain and an actor also cast in Denham’s project. The script develops them to excess and then, once the movie shifts to the streets of New York, their narrative threads are left to dangle, completely forgotten. This is indulgent and irresponsible screenwriting, and I can’t believe that the writers of the masterful Lord of the Rings films could commit such obvious mistakes.
Their excessiveness with the material oozes all over the film’s action sequences as well–each stampede, chase, fight and escape on the island feel protracted, as if Jackson had blown his “off” switch, and that the adolescent Kong fanatic part of him suddenly commandeered the controls and sent the whole $207 million contraption careening into the overgrown jungles of narrative overindulgence. While the Spider Pit sequence is extraneous to the plot (Cooper and Schoedsack actually cut this out of their film for that very reason), Jackson’s handling of it is hauntingly beautiful–the horrific events unfold with pitiless deliberation and in near-silence. The Spider Pit sequence, I thought, was sensational but it’s offset by the entirety of Watts’ odyssey through the jungle, from one peril to the next, culminating in that woefully tedious battle between Kong and the T-Rex, sorry, THREE T-Rexes. All this while Jackson and company completely shove aside the matter of the jungle’s natives–Darrow’s very captors, who gave her up for sacrifice, are reduced to a tribe of shrieking zombies. Who are these people? Do they have a culture? And, more importantly, why do they choose to abduct Darrow and sacrifice her to Kong? Who is Kong to them? In the original, these matters are clear. In the remake, Jackson exploits them for the purpose of creeping us out at the expense of narrative logic and fairness to character.
Jackson is so enamored of Kong that he too eagerly and too often reaches for the sympathy buttons, intent on building a lovable and tragic character. True, King Kong is a tragic story but, to my mind, it’s not about the impossible love between an ape and a human girl but about an outcast/schoolyard bully who falls in love with the local beauty–a woman who will never accept him. This is what gave the original Kong its tragic dimension–a story about a guy who couldn’t take a hint and whose affection for the only woman he ever loved ends in his own death. Unfortunately, the new Kong’s dynamic suffers from pseudo-romanticized overkill, filled to bursting with shots of Darrow and Kong mooning over each other wistfully. This completely throws off the emotional balance of the film as Brody’s Driscoll is left the dirty and thankless task of rescuing a girl who’s unsure she even wants to be rescued. Likewise, Kong’s climactic rampage through New York and up the Empire State Building just is just a drawn-out pursuit of two lovers by a merciless world (Badlands-style), instead of the desperate acts of a lovesick and homesick thug who meets a tragic fate, doled out by cruel humanity. Yes, Kong’s death is inevitable but Jackson’s treatment lacks the blaze-of-glory aspect so vital to our endearment of this displaced and exploited outcast.
Aside from its rapturous visuals, Watts is probably the one reason really to see this remake. Watts plays Darrow as a wilted flower, jaded by life’s sorrows–betrayal in love, among all manner of personal tragedies, seem to be roiling below Darrow’s doll-like patina. Her spry Darrow is plucky, resourceful, and destined heretofore to be the object of every nerd’s crush. Andy Serkis as Kong is, to his credit, pretty fantastic. Though I thought this overly-sympathetic Kong is a true misfire, Kong will always be a compelling and beautiful screen presence, and Serkis’ ability to communicate Kong’s emotions through wordless utterances, gestures and expressions says volumes about his yet-unsung mastery over physical performance. (The man was robbed of an Oscar nomination as Gollum!)
What I find unforgivable, though, is Jack Black’s performance. If ever there was a performance that single-handedly sunk a movie’s credibility, it’s Black’s clueless take on Carl Denham. Black’s presence in this film simply feels wrong, an aberration, like a bad dream. Black turns Denham from a voluble and worldly adventurer–he’s the one in the original, after all, who first makes mention of Kong–into a selfish, fame-driven profiteer. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, given that such a portrayal were nuanced, balanced with shades of black and white. But Black is not an actor, he’s a stand-up schtick-meister, and his reflex is simply to camp up Denham. His Denham is a palette of primary colors, none of which blends into more complex hues on the canvas, just a collection of half-assed, droll line readings by a performer who can’t get past his disbelief that he’s actually in this movie.
The various homages to the original are imaginative: the mock dialogue we hear recited from Denham’s movie is actually lifted from the original’s actual dialogue, there are strains of Max Steiner’s score sprinkled throughout, and that fleeting early reference to Fay Wray is hilarious. Given all its unfortunate pitfalls, King Kong–like all of Jackson’s films–is worth a look. The movie is a good cautionary example of what happens when its maker is too close to the material, who can’t see the forest for the trees, the story for the ape.
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philipa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Cast: Naomi Watts, Andy Serkis, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Colin Hanks, Jamie Bell