Let me get the gripes out of the way. The movie’s definitely overlong, with many scenes that could be cut by half. The structure of the film is a bit wonky in that, despite spending a rather lengthy amount of time developing characters on the journey to Skull Island, the romance between Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow is given so little time that it feels even thinner than the romance in the original version. There are some really awful choices scattered throughout the film; Adrien Brody typing out “SKULL ISLAND” in jittery, strobe-effect slow motion is one of the worst, most bullshit things I’ve ever seen in a movie of this caliber, and there are a few other similarly indulgent, boneheaded moves. And the score, while effective at times, is at turns too sentimental and obvious (they really, really should have trusted Howard Shore to do this, especially since the score often sounds like an imperfect emulation of Shore’s fantastic work for The Lord of the Rings [which makes one wonder why he was replaced at all]). And this only makes more apparent the times when the movie itself is, at turns, too sentimental and too obvious.
Okay? Can I gush now? The film really works on a level I hadn’t expected from it. They’ve taken a tale about men trying to tame savagery and bestial instincts in order to save women, and turned it into a film about how the women these men are trying to save need this savagery within themselves. The character of Ann Darrow goes from shrieking scream-box in the original to main character in this film, a vaudeville actress plucked out of New York during the depression by a savage, primal movie producer (a pretty great Jack Black). When they get to Skull Island, they encounter a scary, savage (and when I say savage, I’m speaking of the random killing and decapitating kind of savagery) and, what’s more, matriarchal group of natives who eventually abduct Ann and offer her to Kong. Ann is understandably terrified of Kong at first, but, after some harrowing encounters with the local wildlife, she comes to see him as a protector, a necessity for survival in the hostile land. When Kong is brought back to New York, Ann, in a turn of character that is shot similarly to the moments right before her abduction, seeks him out, apparently unable to resist the primal connection they have.
The secret behind Peter Jackson’s work as a director has always been the writing. As a director, he’s got a flashy style that’s hyperkinetic to the extreme and has always tended towards the mawkish and the sappy, even when the heroes of his films are doused with zombie blood. But the written structure of the movies he’s made in the past, and the exploration that happens within those structures, has always been interesting, the characters are sketched out nicely, and the plots of his films are often pleasant in the inventive way they harvest seeds of narrative planted at the beginning to find a satisfying ending (I, perhaps unfairly, usually give credit for this to Fran Walsh, who seems from what I’ve heard in interviews and commentaries, to be the more conscientious writer of the two. But I really don’t know.). Generally, the work put into the script results in the sappiness feeling earned.
While the film’s script is hampered a bit by the structure of the original Kong and with the notable exception of the Jack/Ann romance, this strength is on display here as well. The world, its characters, and their relationships are pleasingly etched in little gestures that build upon themselves, allowing us to fill in the gaps with our own baggage and, thus, creating an engaging, involving experience. This is no more apparent than in the early scenes between Kong and Ann, scenes in which very little dialogue is spoken and even the non-verbal communication has a distinct species barrier. Yet, Kong seems to have a personality that Ann (and we) can understand, though he’s still rather alien in his behavior.
Another thing this film hammers home, something I didn’t realize and am now smacking myself on the forehead for not having seen sooner, is the influence on Jackson’s style from silent comedy. So often in films, action set pieces are mindless exercises in kinetic movement coupled with kinetic editing. In King Kong, the set pieces are funny, cheeky, and, in their inventiveness and their use of the inevitability of physics, reminded me of The General and some of the cinematic stunts found in Harold Lloyd’s work. Thinking back this has been the case since, at least, Meet the Feebles (it’s been years since I’ve seen Bad Taste).
A few words about Kong, the effect: Convincing. Utterly. I forgot he was in a computer, and he’s the second fully-fledged, well-wrought CGI character from these people. Some of the effects in the movie are spotty, but Kong is so good, it bears no further discussion as far as I’m concerned.
I wish the makers of this film had reined themselves in more. There’s a great 2 hour movie in this, probably even a great 2 and a half hour movie. In between the unfortunate choices and the excess, King Kong is notable in the way it takes its silly premise quite seriously, and finds a reason for its own existence, despite the original’s place in the pantheon of cinema. When the natives in Carl Denham’s stage show are represented in exactly the same way they’re represented in the original film, it’s a strange comment, a criticism even, of the naïve and condenscending attitude toward beasts and men found in the original film. This film’s Ann Darrow character, meanwhile, is a sharp reproach to the original film’s notion that when encountering a scary behemoth of primal rage and instinct, her only correct response is to scream, scream for her life.