And yet another belated contribution to the 12 Grand in Checking New York in Movies Blogathon:
Monkey see, monkey do
You could imagine Peter Jackson as a nine-year-old, boy seeing Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's 1933 King Kong for the first time, marveling at the images (the screaming blonde in a gargantuan grip, the monster battling a vicious Tyrannosaur, the climb to the top of the Empire State Building) and sparking the interest that would someday lead him into filmmaking. Cut to twenty-five years later and here it is, Jackson's Kong, at a hundred and eighty-seven minutes almost twice as long as the original and at $207 million around three hundred times more expensive, it's poised (according to all reports) to be a critical and commercial smash, possibly Jackson's dearest wish come true. He should remember, though, the dangers of wishes coming true: the film is a bloated, overlong, sticky-sweet bore.
It's not a total loss. Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow is a lovely Art Deco figure (somewhat bonier than the actresses considered for the original: Jean Harlow (the original choice), Fay Wray (the one chosen), women who filled out their tight dresses nicely, with flesh to spare). She's given more of a character to play--seems that every remake feels the need to write in more character to play--and it's a winning character, spunky yet of the period. Some of the action setpieces are impressive: a sea collision that exceeds the violence and visual drama of James Cameron's Titanic, a gaggle of dinosaurs more aggressive and agile than in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (though I do think the film to beat prehistoricwise is still Spielberg's dark slapstick sequel, The Lost World), Orclike creatures and giant insects more menacing than the equivalent in Jackson's own Lord of the Rings movies. Jackson has said time and again his film is a homage to Cooper and Schoedsack's fantasy classic, but don't you believe it: he's out to outdo them, outdo himself, outdo the much-lambasted 1976 remake (with Jessica Lange as the hapless blonde), and all his contemporaries in the bargain. To a large part he succeeds, at least with his contemporaries (Cameron who?); I do think his attempts at exceeding the original are far less successful. Put another way, Jackson's a giant among pygmies, but he's still a pygmy, and he's still standing on the shoulders of true giants.
The early images are impressive, a nice evocation of New York in the Great Depression; Watt's early scenes as Darrow in a struggling vaudeville show are an economic way of introducing her and her predicament. Maybe the point where the movie goes really wrong is with the entrance of Jack Black's Carl Denham; as Black plays him he's amusing, a hardscrabble filmmaker not averse to pressing a whiskey glass to the door to eavesdrop on a secret studio conference, but he's both an unnecessary elaboration and a diminishment of the original character. Robert Armstrong originally played Denham (modeled after Merian Cooper himself) with an understated (some might say flat) delivery, but that very flatness lent the character an intriguing ambivalence: is he a hustler or dreamer? A white cultural imperialist or artistic visionary? Black's casting and performance tips the scale in favor of the former over the latter; you can hardly believe people will give him enough credit for a cup of coffee, much less follow him to the ends of the earth to make a film.
Denham's waffling desperation creates a whole host of other problems: if the crew and ship was kept in the dark about the mission, why are they so well-prepared to capture Kong (Rifles, maybe; chloroform, maybe, it's an animal-trapping outfit. But automatic weapons?)? If he and the ship's captain continually bicker about their mission, where is the crucial scene (in an 187 minute film) where the captain learns to care enough for Denham to risk his life two, maybe three times? Worse, the original Denham took risks, but he wasn't this stupid; he wouldn't land his filmmaking party on a strange island that he knows has dangerous creatures (it's why he went there), without at least an armed escort.
Other problems include Adrien Brody's Jack Driscoll, a sensitive playwright literally put in a cage (nice joke) to hammer out the screenplay to Denham's picture. Brody gives perhaps the finest human performance in the picture, as he evolves from nerd bantamweight to understated hero, but he ruins the symmetry of Merian Cooper's original story: Cooper's Driscoll was a mini-Kong, a macho proto-simian that Darrow had to conquer before she went on to the real thing; here Brody seems to be channeling Jeff Bridges' character in the '76 Kong, who acted as the hippie moral compass and conscience of the expedition (Brody only lacks the beard that made Bridges yet another Kong surrogate). Cooper slandered his island folk outrageously, lending them costumes and characteristics cobbled together from any number of tribes and jungles, but in his blinkered racist way, he treated them better than Jackson does his--Cooper's natives were at least willing to talk and negotiate with Denham; Jackson's natives pop up and snap at outstretched hands like the living dead, all glassy-eyed and carnivorous (I think it's significant that the only sign of animals and vegetation on the island are behind the giant wall protecting the natives from the dinosaurs--suggesting that the only source of protein among these people are their own flesh and blood), then swiftly drop out of sight like so many unneeded props. At certain points the characters acquire a faraway look and act as if they're reading lines pages ahead from where they are in the script; Darrow does this in an early monologue (she says she's being given a once-in-a-lifetime chance), Denham does this later on (he prophesies that Driscoll will rescue Darrow, then come back running with Kong after them); if this is meant to be a joke on the story's familiarity it's unfunny and annoying. Then there's the precocious youth reading "Heart of Darkness" and his black mentor--what's up with that? "Kong" is potent enough and flexible enough a metaphor for any number of fascinating interpretations without having to drag in Joseph Conrad.
Insertions like these had me wondering--did Jackson really need his three-hour running time? Did he really need an endless stampede of apatosauruses, which the expedition survives by (miraculously, implausibly) running between the giant legs? The story of Kong is essentially absurd (Why would a giant gorilla--and why giant? --live with dinosaurs? Why don't the natives simply flee the island instead of maintaining a wall and sacrificing virgins? How can a rough-hewn wall, no matter how big, keep out a gorilla capable of climbing the Empire State Building?), and politically incorrect (at one point in the original the tribal chief offers six black virgins for the blonde Darrow), and any remake is going to have to deal with the issues. The solution of the 1933 version was remarkably simple: tell the story so fast that no one notices; Jackson with all his ambitions wants to fill in some of the cracks in the plot (no 'six for one' offers here), but the result is a lumpier mess with serious pacing problems, and with all that time to think, the bumps and cracks show up more clearly.
There's a lot I miss in this version too, for all its comprehensiveness. The multi-layered glass background paintings in the original gave that version's jungle an unmatched clarity and depth and fairy-tale feel ; Jackson's sets look designed more for thrills (a narrow canyon for stampeding; a crevasse for creepy crawlies to swarm in) than beauty, and while he bathes everything in an orange glow, that's only half the battle--you need something worth lighting in the first place. Max Steiner's score may be far less complex than James Newton Howard's, but its very simplicity is what makes it so memorable--the three downward notes that signal an awful, oncoming inevitability.
Then there's the ape itself. Andy Serkis was digitally recorded and modified to play Kong, and much was made of the fact that he was always present in scenes where the cast had to react to the giant ape (Laurence Olivier, faced with Dustin Hoffman's Method madness (he stayed up for two nights to simulate the effects of exhaustion) on the set of Marathon Man, said: "You should try acting, my boy, it's much easier"). His and Jackson's approach was to imitate the behavior of a real gorilla, and that's what we get: an anatomically and zoologically accurate giant gorilla. But Kong in the original wasn't just a gorilla (or, as in the 1976 version, a man in a monkey suit), he was a monster. The crudity of the stop motion process and the imperfect understanding of primates at the time (Merian Cooper grew up on lurid descriptions of hairy manlike creatures carrying off women) helped ensure that Kong would be an unholy hybrid of giant ape, demonic anthropoid, and the filmmakers' pulpy imaginations, far more ambiguous and, on some deeper level, more terrifying than some wild animal.
The decision to "go gorilla" affects the rest of the film, especially Kong's relationship with Darrow. In the 1933 Kong there was an unsettling sexual subtext, culminating in Kong's exploration of Darrow's tattered clothes; Jackson shies away from this, and opts to have Darrow juggle rocks and do pratfalls for Kong (Darrow here is less an object of desire than a source of entertainment) and gaze at the sunset (you know a movie's in trouble if instead of a near-rape scene you have two people admiring the view). In the classic encounter between Kong and the T-Rex, one of the greatest fight scenes in the history of cinema (Merian Cooper insisted it was an 'Allosaurus,' but--come on!), Kong took on a fighting stance, delivered vicious punches (Willis O'Brien, who animated Kong, was a former boxer), and constantly went for the dinosaur's leg, a move animator O'Brien put in after studying wrestling matches, where balance was everything. In effect, this Kong was no fool--he was a fighter, with a fighter's cunning and sense of strategy. Jackson ups the ante by putting in three T-Rexes, but as can be seen in his Lord of the Rings movies, he's got precious little experience in actual fighting (Cooper was a war veteran), or directing fight sequences: the camera moves about too much, the editing happens too rapidly to see the fight choreography--or any strategy involved--clearly, and all four combatants are merely a herd of animals snarling and snapping at each other for too long a time (ending, incidentally, in a move-by-move recreation of the original 'Kong vs. T-Rex' battle). The original Kong, for all its crudity, would have whipped this one in a twinkling.
The original Kong was a lot less sappy, too, a vicious killer who radiated a constant aura of danger. His moments of doubt and weakness are brief flashes, all the more moving because they are unexpected, fleeting; no one sees them, nor are they meant to be seen--they are privileged moments between Kong and us, the audience. This Kong takes its cue more from the 1976 version and wallows in pathos, exchanging long, meaningful glances with Darrow, clinging on past the point when the rest of us are wishing he'd let go already; more, what with our more enlightened age's understanding that gorillas are not aggressive unless provoked and, worse, that they're an endangered species, it's more difficult to be scared outright, too easy to shed a tear. Cooper and Schoedsack's Kong was brutal but courageous, and he never asked for sympathy; he was king by right of might and bloody battle. Jackson's Kong is digitally enhanced, smoother and ostensibly more expressive, but he's basically a sentimental wimp.
(First published in Businessworld, 12/16/05)