King Kong (2005)
Director: Peter Jackson. Cast: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Colin Hanks, Jamie Bell, Thomas Kretschmann, Evan Parke, Kyle Chandler, Andy Serkis, Lobo Chan, John Sumner. Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson (based on the 1933 screen story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace).
This review is for Fred Pfeil—my first piece of film writing since you've been gone, friend.

Photo © 2005 Universal Pictures
The conspicuously missing chapter in both the 1933 and the 2005 versions of King Kong is the return voyage of the battered ship Venture back to New York City, to include the noteworthy riddle of how its surviving passengers and crew, shaken and bedraggled all of them, managed to haul a 25-foot-ape's worth of dead weight onto their steamer and into their cargo holds. You can see why the filmmakers keep leaving it out—and not just because, in the new version at least, the gangways and corridors of the ship are so narrow that even a stick figure like Adrien Brody can't even scoot around a man with some suitcases. Those kinds of nitpicks are reserved for the same audiences who will wonder just how much giant ape a frozen lake can withstand, or how an embattled and heartsick beast, much less a badly wounded one, maintains his grip on the flat, glassy diagonals of Art Deco. This kind of viewing is not the kind that is invited or likely to be rewarded by Peter Jackson's King Kong, a stout, muscly heart of a movie whose rhythmic, colossal beats are echoed by murmurs of plangent nostalgia, both for the original movie and, in an odd way, for itself.

The deeper reason we don't see that homeward sail is that the journeys in this film are always psychological at least as much as they are physical. None of the human characters of King Kong are embellished all that much beyond our initial impressions of them, but the psychology of a culture, first, and of an artform, second, are deeply and unsympathetically plumbed through these excursions. How Kong is moved is a riddle but that he moves is a given: the ape and the idea of the ape, in fact the multiple and contradictory ideas of this ape, are contagious. They travel. They rouse both terror and elation in all of his farflung audiences; they also conjure in many minds, onscreen and off, the sugarplum vision of a millionaire's fortune: an impresario's golden egg, a river of constant currency pouring out of this shaggy mountain with the sad eyes. The story's chief dreamer-mercenary, tugging Kong from the South Seas to Times Square, is the filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black), whose narcotic, implacable, and reckless absorption in exotic fantasy is the engine behind all the spectacle and the source of all the trouble. It couldn't be clearer that first Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, directors of the original King Kong, and now Peter Jackson, loving disciple of their movie and affectionate heir to their thrones, see a good deal of themselves in Denham, and that their movies beg us to consider almost at every moment the terrible costs of their cinematic risk-addiction, and of our own complicity, too, in both the pleasures and the perils that inhere in these wild bonanzas. With clever but stern self-awareness, Cooper and Schoedsack cast themselves among the pilots and gunners who eventually shoot Kong down from his notorious perch on the Empire State Building, and the patient viewer of the new film's rolling credits will notice that Jackson has followed their lead even in this particular stunt. King Kong, among so many other things, is a parable of fantasy made flesh, and felled because of it. The story is a guilty orientalist daydream, where nightmare and mystery reveal themselves to be even more majestic and frightening than one had imagined, leading the same men—emphatically, men—who marvel at Kong to lend a decisive hand in his annihilation.

So there Kong sits, summoned, plucked, and transplanted, surrounded on all sides, a monument standing atop another monument, clinging for his life. It's not the worst metaphor for the position of Jackson's own film, both in the market and, more crucially, in the fancies of all those fans who feel loyal to or protective of Cooper and Schoedsack's bonafide classic. (Don't mind me if I keep skipping over the comparatively loose and seldom loved 1976 incarnation.) Few are the filmmakers who have been stuck, or who have stuck themselves, with reanimating a movie that is this well-known and adored, as much by popular audiences as by film scholars as by cultural historians. Gifted with a love of his medium that runs as deep and free as it does in his audiences, Jackson seeks to make all of these viewers happy, and to honor the original film, and to nourish and challenge the formidable abilities of himself and his crew, whose movies always hail equally from heart and head. It's a powerful testament to these artists that even with such a legion of people to please—though perhaps once you've assuaged the most jealous Tolkienites, the rest of us are small potatoes—King Kong is such a strapping, compelling entertainment, guaranteed to delight most audiences and to awe even more of them.

The film reaches for every part of you, and in its robust, aortic, but still dexterous way, it finds you, making your skin crawl, your breath catch, your brain whir, your eyes widen and then well and then weep. In his distinctive and un-Spielbergian way, Jackson focuses somewhat less on arresting images, like a red-hooded boy's Sistine finger-touch with a radiant alien, and more on the heaves and pitch and momentum of montage (though this will change, crucially, at the movie's end). After an hour of clenched anticipation, we hustle along with the characters through a spacious, tactile world that has danger and wonder at all 360 degrees. The camera lunges and plunges, the cuts multiply and subside, even the CGI excels at the illusion of motion—and yet this energy is never a mêlée of pure chaos, as it is in so many over-edited action pictures. Movement, for Jackson, means close to what it means for a composer: flights and drops, carefully managed passages of commotion and interludes of thought or rest, lines and notes that are sounded early and then wittily, sometimes unexpectedly reprised further on. His best movies—Heavenly Creatures, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and this one, in descending order—manage to take the wind out of you without just beating you up. They draw us up and down, but our emotions aren't manipulated so much as they are enlivened by the plastic, colorful worlds that Jackson creates for us and by the urgent sprints and meditative pauses that his characters navigate alongside us (or, sometimes, on our behalf). As in Creatures and Fellowship, Kong's journey ends with a goodbye, and our deep involvement in these farewells is informed less by what we observe than by the complex of relief and disappointment that we feel. A respite is needed; the world had grown too much, too fast. But the parting of intimates threatens to foreclose forever those heights of exhilaration we had earlier felt, the part that was wonderful instead of just terrible about all this running around, running away, and keeping alive, which is what all three films are at some level about. The standard metaphors for such thorough entertainment—a shot, a blast, an escape—don't feel quite right for films that so deeply ingrain such generous emotions into the sweep and pace of their spectacles.

But that isn't the final word on King Kong, which nearly alone among the year's major blockbusters is possibly guilty of thinking too much. And more than that, the thoughts into which it is forced involve delicate, troubling issues to which Jackson has not always found good answers, and which seem to stun-gun his creative instincts into a nervous paralysis, troubling the rhythm as well as the meaning of the film. King Kong '05 sometimes seems blind to the fact that by puzzling through its own themes so conspicuously, an uncomfortably bright light is shone on both the ideas and the movie itself, which neither, perhaps, was ever meant to bear. For example, Jackson is much more adamant than his forebears were on the deep corruption of Carl Denham, who continues to tote and train his camera even as his intentions are debunked as foolhardy and his comrades die for his mistakes. Twice Denham eulogizes a fallen friend, and while each scene lathers on the message of Denham's moral falsity, the repetition itself makes the gesture jut out even further from the picture, prodding for our attention when the movie should feel confident of already having it. That King Kong implicates itself in this critique of blinkered spectacle-hunting and of the compromises of popular art does not make the scenes any more palatable. In fact, Jackson's movie winds up looking rather less sophisticated than Cooper and Schoedsack's, billboarding the kinds of ironies that were once so subtly insinuated. One wonders, too, if Jack Black should have been shielded from any knowledge of King Kong's essential themes, since he plays the villain much too self-consciously, clamming up into rigid self-censure, even self-caricature, when the movie needs us at least to feel the giddiness of his voracious safari. As it is, when Denham is onscreen, you wish acutely that he weren't, and since his fellows can't be infected by a joy that he won't originate, there is nothing in the film to explain why his abused and reluctant accomplices keep riding to his rescue, prolonging their endangerment, furthering his quest for profit.

An even gnarlier knot in the film's internal construction involves its foregrounded critique of imperialism, which pays many strong dividends for the movie but at varying levels of elegance, least of all when its liberal-minded screed against colonization bumps up against a totally unemancipated view of the colony in question. Conquests of the camera, as the film knows, are never autonomous of conquests of the world, and every time Jackson pans, tracks, or cuts from the Venture crew shooting bullets at their various foes to Denham "shooting" them with his camera, a favorite pun of lefty visual theory gets another pat on the back. Hardly less subtle are the screenplay's interpolations of Conrad. Had Jamie Bell's Jimmy simply been caught reading Heart of Darkness, it might have been just another insider gag, as when Denham is earlier thwarted in his casting desires: "Fay is unavailable, she's off shooting something for RKO," to which Denham hisses out "Cooper! I might have known..." But Conrad gets a full, Cliff's Notes expostulation from Jimmy and Hayes (Evan Parke), a worldly, skeptical, and not coincidentally African-American assistant to the captain, whose casting seems as purposeful as his Conradian rhetoric in attempting to balance out the ghoulishness of King Kong's portrait of the Skull Island natives. The 1933 version, rather capriciously filling a South Seas island with black Africans, opted for fairly standard-issue racist carnivalesque, a gruff and inarticulate people in splendid finery, happy to substitute the blonde actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) for the intended sacrifice from their own tribe. Jackson and Co. go much further, though, admittedly derealizing the tribe by making them so grotesquely unidentifiable as any particular world community. They are vicious, bat-toothed, blank-eyed, hoodoo-horror zombies beyond the imaginations even of Angel Heart or The Serpent and the Rainbow, and in the many extended close-ups on their terrible faces, you can practically sense the human meat strung like floss between their teeth. Through an extended series of point-of-view shots, we are immersed in the lily-white terror of Ann (now played by Naomi Watts) and the rest of the American interlopers, and the rationale that these islanders are supernatural conceits of the movie squares uneasily with its concurrent wish to lay bare the totally unmystical logic of imperialism. These character designs feel frivolous and rancid, instead of deliberately commenting, as the movie elsewhere does, on a rancid world order. The whole sequence of Ann's capture and sacrifice thus becomes mightily uncomfortable, to say nothing of how the grandiose crane shots of the massive, fire-lit Skull Island wall seem to return us too directly to the fortified vistas of Middle Earth.

In my experience, it took a while for the odor of Kong's distasteful and reactionary depiction of the Skull Islanders to dissipate. I am tempted to say that the first few massive special-effects set pieces on Skull Island, like Kong's furious dash through the forest with Ann in one hand, or a stampede of brontosaurs that ends in a heavily green-screened pileup, were the least visually convincing in the movie, and in my heart I think that's true, though I wonder if my own mental contract with the film was wavering too much to accept the movie on its terms. Whatever the reason, I was much more shaken and taken by all the ensuing CGI sequences—a royal rumble amongst Kong and three tyrannosaurs, his outraged confrontation with Ann's rescue party from the Venture, several bone-chilling run-ins with insects the size of retrievers (it's always the creepy-crawlies that really get me in movies like this), and a swampy, bushwhacking battle with what can only be described as fanged priapa dentata, complete with oogy grey foreskins. Still, as energetic as these sequences are in their more-is-more execution, what truly sutured me back into the world of the movie was that imperial theme, now rendered through simple and powerful symbols much more typical of Jackson than the hamhanded apostrophes and "wretched of the earth" fever dreams from before.

For me, the iconic image from this Kong, enabled both by the startling verisimilitude of Kong himself and by the movie's hugely sympathetic embrace of him, is the sight of the speeding ape clutching Ann in any one of his four prehensile hands, sometimes with tenderness, sometimes with curiosity, often in protecting her from the onslaughts of other predators. In those moments, especially, Kong's animators have often opted for him to hold Ann in a tight fist at the end of an outstretched leg or arm, up and away from those who covet her: the classic posture of the playground tussler trying to save some prize possession from equally grabby hands. What I'm suggesting is that Kong, too, seems preoccupied with ownership, and that as soft as his feelings for Ann become, it is palpable that he feels Ann has been given to him, and he is insulted and baited to fury when anyone tries to take her away, including when she tries to abscond herself. The deep scars across Kong's body speak to how often and how fiercely he has had to repel his rivals on the island, and those proud roars and panoramic precipices from which Kong prefers to overlook "his" jungle insinuate that the film's crisis of ownership is not so straightforward as a Western takeover of "uncharted" Pacific territories but a universal scramble for survival that is already gravely underway in both the starved classes of the Depression-era United States and in the tenuous, omnivorous ecosystem of Skull Island, well before the film crew arrives. Jackson's trademark use of space makes a difference here, too. Where Cooper and Schoedsack, limited by available technology, made a fable of moviemaking that always looked much more like theater—Kong erupting from the background in head-on proscenium shots, particularly when he is first unveiled at the village wall—Jackson's propensity for whirling pans, diving crane shots, and circular perspectives puts threat and marvel on all sides of the camera and the characters. Everything happens in deep space, along all three axes: Ann has no sooner retreated from a ground-hugging predator than she backs into a pair of nasty centipedes, then tilts her gaze upward to see a tyrannosaur chomping on the first attacker, and then runs sideways to get away from it all, landing smack on the nose, literally, of another tyrannosaur, meeting her at eye level because he stands on a much lower plane. Land, and the fight for its dominion, seem to stretch in all directions in this Kong, as it didn't in the tangibly 2-D world of the original. As strenuously as Kong tries to safeguard Ann by holding her aloft, tucking her away, there's always another jaw or talon or devoted homo sapiens ready to snatch her away.

The climax in New York City follows all the same rules: a metropolis laid out along a grid, through which Kong wreaks a disobediently loopy, diagonal path of destruction, straying this way and that before finally retreating upward. Before all this happens, Jackson cleverly stages and films Denham's Kong revue on Broadway as a direct duplicate of the sacrifice sequence in the 1933 film, right down to the costumes, angles, and music. He also pulls a clever bait-and-switch with Ann Darrow's appearance in this tawdry entertainment, which rather makes up for the crosstown cross-cuts to Adrien Brody and his wheezy romantic epiphanies. The New York epilogue, however, is notable for how it allows the film's indisputably greatest performance—Kong's—to reach all new heights of bitter but sensitive expression. In real gorilla-like fashion, but also as a brilliant character note, the humanoid face of the ape rarely reflects a readable emotion, or at least rarely the same emotion that his actions concurrently imply. His actions, then, are the real conveyors of feeling. Kong and Ann share instants of danger, privacy, reverie, resentment, and sorrow in these final sequences, and they are all liquidly communicated to the audience. In one moment atop the Empire State, before the biplanes arrive, Kong has a moment of Method brilliance where he inarticulately taps his chest while looking off in the distance, and it took me a moment to recognize the gesture from an earlier scene—which much clarifies his meaning, but the brute communication of fascination, amusement, dislocation, volcanic jealousy, and foretold defeat are a mainstay of the ape's characterization throughout the film. That this is so adds immeasurably and ironically to the Broadway sequence, since we can feel, as we can't in the Cooper and Schoedsack film, just how little of Kong the paying audience has at their disposal, compared to the fully dimensional, prideful, solicitous, grieving entity we come to know so well.

Does this really mean that Kong falls in love with Ann, or she with him? That's been a mainstay of Kong criticism forever, a one-line way of understanding Kong as something more challenging than a jazzy entertainment. Certainly something delicate and evolving exists between these two, Kong and Ann, and Jackson is determined to make us feel it, even luxuriate in it, to Titanic-level extremes. But as I have argued, Kong's "love" is never really divorceable from his impulse to own, and Ann's "love" is infused at every molecule with her gratitude at being saved. Love, the film's version of love, follows an imperial model—the enraptured captor and the ravished, grateful prize are intimately tied together, and the fact that they feel for each other so deeply, so stirringly, never quite blinds us to the frank facts of their relationship, and from where it derives. At a wider level, Jackson's King Kong remains lovelorn and fixated on the film that inspired it, no matter how lucid Jackson aims to be about the dubious colonial practices and the arrogance in the name of art that the first film was about, that both films are about, and that both films enact, often against their better judgment. It's a powerful and complex emotional experience, this new Kong; for one thing, unlike this summer's sleazier and shallower War of the Worlds, the movie darkly navigates us into a headspace of wanting to see New York destroyed. There are no easier answers in the movie.

Still, I'm not sure what to make of the fact that Kong's laudable attempts to advertise its conscience, undercut at times by ungainly delivery and at others by cultural hypocrisy, are ultimately less impressive than the romantic, blissed-out scenes of a woman's mysterious and mutually protective bond with a giant ape. Just as the dazzling momentum of the action sequences sometimes overrides my incredulous gripes about what I'm seeing, the delicate, endangered quiet of the conclusion mostly overrides my belief that I'm being snookered out of an active mental relationship with what I'm seeing. When Kong finally topples, dead, from his perch on the skyscraper, we watch him in an overhead shot as he hurtles downward toward the street, but anomalously for this film, we neither see nor hear nor feel the terrible moment of impact. It's another journey that the film excises: he simply "fades away," like all those straggler penguins euphemistically laid to rest by Morgan Freeman, like a dream of a love that isn't to last. Kong is so imposing in his presence and his meanings that I wasn't sure how to react to this rather gossamer demise, nor to this sense of my head being totally submerged beneath my heart, but I can't say I resisted all that much. I can't say I even clocked it much when we finally cut to streetside, and watch the 12-gauge newspaper cameras shooting away at Kong's body, and hear Jack Black flail, once more, amid the famous final line. Kong was always doomed, ever since that quick low-angle moment when Denham's skiff alighted on the Skull Island beach. But Kong remains somehow unassailable, a great pop fable, a story that more than makes its case for passing on through the generations. If there's much in it to argue or puzzle about, even to regret, that is surely, for the most part, to the film's credit. Moving from Jurassic Park to Central Park without any hint of dissonance, King Kong works as what it mostly deeply is: a collective dream of a culture that is both beautiful and beastly, and which therefore sees itself on both sides of this strange, strange embrace. B+

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Art Direction: Grant Major; Dan Hennah & Simon Bright
Best Sound: Christopher Boyes, Michael Semanick, Michael Hedges, and Hammond Peek
Best Sound Effects: Mike Hopkins & Ethan Van der Ryn
Best Visual Effects: Joe Letteri, Brian Van't Hul, Christian Rivers, and Richard Taylor

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Director: Peter Jackson
Best Original Score: James Newton Howard

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Special Achievement in Visual Effects
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Visual Effects

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