Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Monkey Magic

Yes, I know gorillas aren't monkeys. But since Peter Jackson's remake of the 1933 classic wins through on special effects, it seemed a witty title for this review. As we're being asked to suspend disbelief in a twenty-five foot ape that kills tyrannosaurs, does the zoology really matter?

Spoiler warning (read on anyway, you know what happens)

A King Kong remake was always going to trade on spectacle, and Jackson doesn't disappoint. Everything in this movie is big - the ocean, the island, the creatures, New York - splashed across the screen with lavish camera angles and equally lavish effects. You can really believe that you're racing down a canyon with colleagues being stomped left and right by stampeding brontosauruses, or exploring the surf-lashed hovels of the wretched natives who cling to life on Skull Island's jagged shoreline. In homage to the original film, the Weta FX gurus have rendered the critters lifelike while retaining the faux look of those in the 1933 movie.

Tying it all together is the meticulous choreography (shown to best advantage in Kong's three-way fight with the tyrannosaurs) and attention to detail that marked Jackson's Rings trilogy, whether the backdrop is prehistoric jungle or Depression-era New York. It's more than enough motivation to sit out the film's 187 minutes.

That said, King Kong is too long by at least a half-hour, or the cumulative length of those scenes that should have been cut and relegated to the extended DVD version. It suffers from Jackson's misguided urge to elaborate on the original film's spartanness. Scenes-too-far include the bug battle at the ravine bottom and a ridiculous ice-skating sequence in Central Park, giving this film a contrived feel that contrasts with the original's simplicity. Unsurprisingly, the best moments are the iconic ones lifted more-or-less unscathed from the original: Kong's fight with the tyrannosaur (now tyrannosaurs) and the biplane-filled finale on top of the Empire State building.

Perhaps unavoidably given the subject matter, Jackson's film is studded with unconvincing plot devices, such as having hitherto-docile denizens of Kong's cave attack him at the point that Driscoll needs a diversion, or asking the audience to accept that Denham and co. get Kong to the Venture on a lifeboat and then to the US east coast on chloroform. Using a stand-in for Anne at Kong's Broadway premier breaks the plot's linearity and requires Jackson to engineer a reunion, an error he compounds by filling the interlude with more gratuitous scenes, in which Kong chases Driscoll around New York and tosses aside Anne-lookalikes. (In fairness, the 1933 film has Kong discard a hapless lady from thirty stories up in his search for his one true love).

It's the human element, Naomi Watts aside, that lets this movie down. The grass-skirted natives in the 1933 original had more personality than Jackson's Orcish-looking creatures (living on a Mordor-looking seafront). I'm not the only one to notice this - check out AnonLefty's take - and the film would have benefited if Jackson had given Skull Island's denizens some depth. Instead we get gibbering, voodoo-stoked wretches whose lives revolve around human sacrifice, and who welcome strangers by bashing their brains out with maces.

As if for balance, the white people receive uneven and truncated character development. A raft of characters - Anne's Broadway colleagues, the Venture's crew, Denham's filming team - are either killed off before we get to know them or denied the necessary screen time, often both. I liked Jack Black's Denham initially, but soon found him a pretentious prat and myself wishing for Robert Armstrong's hard-jawed original. Bruce Baxter is set up as a spoilt actor stereotype, then redeemed by having him lead the rescue expedition; then we're made to dislike him again when he steals Driscoll's thunder at Kong's Broadway premier. Worst is the contrived romance between Anne and Driscoll - one minute you don't see it, the next you do. Naomi Watts has more chemistry with the giant ape, apparently a delibrate departure by Jackson from the 1933 template.

In the original Kong, Anne failed to requite the monster's infatuation; the final sequence is kicked off by her confiding to Driscoll how Kong's escape is like reliving all the horrors of the island. Thus Kong remained a beast to the end, giving Denham's closing line its punch. In this version it falls like a wet towel, because Kong's bonding with Anne has humanised him, a feasible transformation thanks to computer modelling that captures a human actor's facial expressions.

Unfortunately, even this central relationship is sketchily developed. Between rampaging through jungle, fighting dinosaurs and shaking off rescuers, Kong just doesn't get much private time with Anne on the island. As if suddenly aware of the credibility gap, Jackson devotes most of the film's last half-hour to fleshing out the pair's reciprocal affection, even during the biplane attack scene. Ultimately I had to take it on faith that Anne just has a generous spirit, and warms to the creature that ate her predecessors as a misunderstood softy.

In short, the show's real star is indeed the twenty-five foot gorilla. Wonderful as that is - and many reviews are billing Kong as a film of 'heart', even a tear-jerker - it means that Jackson's epic fails to transcend being a giant monkey movie (there I go again!). There's charm in its sheer scale and the novelty of empathising with a monster, but in the long run it'll join the pile of big-budget remakes. I enjoyed it, but I hope that Jackson and the New Zealand film industry don't get stuck in a rut of mammoth CG projects, visually stunning but otherwise superficial.

Remember, it was beauty killed the beast...


David Fettling said...

Yeah, I've been reluctant to go see King Kong because of the 'superficiality', as you put it, of blockbuster Hollywood films in general and Peter Jackson in particular, who I view as a glorified computer effects specialist. Fantasy can be wonderful, but modern movie-makers seem to think that a bunch of weird costumes and some CGI animation or whatever it's called is all it takes to create a different world and to tell a story. I read and enjoyed Lord of the Rings, but hated Jackson's first film and didn't see the next two. Sounds like my suspicions of Kong are probably correct. Character and setting and even plot seem to be boiled down in these films to a collection of garish special-effects battle scenes interspersed with doctored scenery.

(If you want a change of cinematic pace, I heartily recommend 'Good Night and Good Luck'.)

John Lee said...

I managed to mentally divorce the Ring movies from the book enough to enjoy them; I'm a bit of a sucker for the eye-candy. But I agree, the character development in LOTR was generally poor, and in some cases (Denethor, Faramir, Theoden) outright assassination.

I'd expected more from Jackson for this movie, given that a Kong remake has been his pet project since he was 14. LOTR by contrast was (by his own admission) something that Wingnut hit on when they were out of ideas.