Wednesday, March 29, 2006

King Kong


It breaks my heart a little bit to say this, but Peter Jackson's King Kong is a terrible movie.

I wrote about the wonderful DVD set for the original movie, King Kong review, back in January. I described the original movie as "unbelievably imaginative and powerful", because it is. It is one of the great movies in the history of the medium. Period.

I've been a Peter Jackson fan since I discovered Bad Taste on a dollar rental shelf in the early '90s. Mind you, if I hadn't found Dead Alive, a nearly perfectly executed "splatstick" zombie romantic comedy, shortly after, I probably would never have been hooked. Bad Taste is a funny one-joke movie that stretches on too long and shows to have been filmed over too long a time by people who only partly knew what they were doing.

I have, however, since watched his development. From the terribly amusing and wonderfully cross-genre mainstream misfire The Frighteners and the marvelous and powerful Heavenly Creatures through the mainstream triumph of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He's a filmmaker I greatly admire.

In his famous interview on Charlie Rose, Quentin Tarantino said "Bonfire of the Vanities is a mess, but it's the kind of mess that only a great filmmaker makes. Hacks never go that far wrong."

Hacks don't go as far wrong as Peter Jackson's King Kong either. I stand by him as a tremendous filmmaker and this as, in that peculiar way, evidence of his greatness.

I won't go into too much spoiler details right here. The opening in New York is wonderful. As soon as they are about to hit Skull Island, however, things fall apart quite badly. It's very much like they had two scripts which "solved" various aspects of the stories in different ways and then instead of making decisions, crammed them all together. The captain captures rare animals, which would have been a perfect tool for Carl Denham to use to draw him to Skull Island, as he does in the original. However, instead they put them in adversarial roles in a move that goes nowhere...

It could have gone somewhere. The film crew goes off to the island alone. They meet up with the natives in what could have been a very frightening sequence, and in many ways is. Unfortunately, Jackson took the opportunity to use a very modern, choppy, half slow motion technique in there that doesn't feel at all like it belongs in this film, which had, up until then, had a very carefully laid out period feel.

From there it really only goes downhill.

Stranding the film crew on the island could have been a great opportunity to "solve" the problem of the natives needing to kidnap Ann Darrow from the ship, but instead the ship's crew shows up, for no compelling reason, saves the day and the natives pole vault out to the ship to kidnap her.

I wish I was kidding.

From there, it simply doesn't trust the material. Instead of one kickass fight between Kong and the Tyrannosaurus Rex, we get a giant ape version of Jet Li taking on three while passing Ann Darrow between hands.

I wish I was kidding.

The attempts at the kinds of romping action that Steven Spielberg succeeded so well at in the Indiana Jones series all falls completely flat here. I suspect the blame here falls on an overreliance on CGI that gives everything a kind of lack of gravity that keeps anything from presenting any real immediacy or danger.

They describe in the wonderful DVD supplements for the original movie, how Willis O'Brien mixed up the means of achieving the various effects of the movie, to keep the audiences eyes from getting used to any one. Peter Jackson seemed to have taken that to heart in the Lord of the Rings movie, which use CGI along with a great number of other techniques to keep your eyes from adjusting very often to how things were done. This, on the other hand, is only one step above a Stephen Sommers movie in its use of CGI.

All of this is punctuated, however, with magnificent performances from Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody and everyone involved. It also has moments of inspiration. The show at which Kong is shown off to a sold out crowd is stunning and indeed solves the concern raised by the creators of The Simpsons that the show in the original wasn't much of a show.

Yes, I neglected Jack Black above. Not because he doesn't do an excellent job. He does. The issue of his Carl Denham is not his fault. The Carl Denham of the original is brash, arrogant and successful. He is, by everyone's estimation, a proxy for co-director Merian C. Cooper. Why then does the co-director of Forgotten Silver, which showed such loving respect for the innocent arrogance of early filmmakers, show such utter contempt for the director of what is supposed to be his favorite movie?

This Carl Denham is arrogant, but he's also a hack and two-bit con man, who isn't even particularly good at that. He doesn't have the thoughtful philosophical side through the movie, as the original did. Those elements were given to Hayes, the Heart of Darkness quoting first mate, whose part goes nowhere. Unfortunately, they leave him to finish the movie, as before, with his philosophical take on the events that preceded, but this time it means nothing. It's coming from a shallow showman who has shown no depth at all in the previous three hours.

Which, in its way, does sum up the philosophical underpinnings of this attempted remake.

I wish I was kidding.

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