King Kong (2005) Review
The second, superior, remake of KING KONG returns the story to the 1930s and also reverts to the filmmaker looking for a hit rather than the predatory petrochemical conglomerate of the 1970s. In doing so, Peter Jackson lavishes the potential of the original with everything that modern filmmaking technology can allow to produce an immersive, expansive KING KONG experience which honours, enhances and elaborates on the original without ever quite eclipsing it.
In the depths of the Great Depression, 1933 New York is a troubled city. Struggling actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) has lost her job and is penniless and hungry when she runs into filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) who is facing troubles of his own. Under threat of being closed down and run out of the film business, Denham convinces Darrow, actor Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) and his friend and playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody) to board the SS Venture to complete his new film in Singapore. In truth, Denham intends to sail to and film on the mysterious Skull Island where he believes he will be able to get footage that will save his career.
Jackson had long wanted to make a version of King Kong, ever since he saw the 1933 original at the age of nine years old. He made an attempt to get a remake off the ground with Universal in the 1990s following the success of THE FRIGHTENERS but the project fell by the wayside when the director got distracted by a modest sword and sorcery project based in New Zealand. After THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING and THE TWO TOWERS were massive hits, Universal reached out to Jackson again to see if he was still interested in reviving KING KONG and, after production wrapped on THE RETURN OF THE KING, Jackson found himself on board and bound for Skull Island with his long time writing/ producing team of Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.
Their version of the tale uses the luxury of its extended run time to develop and deepen many of the characters who felt a little one-dimensional in the original and while that may rile the critics who decry Jackson’s fondness for indulgent world-building, the evocation of 1930s New York and its Dickensian gulf between the rich and destitute is a note perfect beginning for a story which, at its heart, deals with stark dichotomies. Rich and poor, man versus nature, fear or compassion and, ultimately, beauty and the beast.
Although decidedly loyal to the 1933 version, Jackson certainly takes some inspiration from Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 remake, especially in the casting of a renowned comedic actor in the pivotal Carl Denham role. Like Charles Grodin, Jack Black was predominantly known as a comic actor and musician but his role in KING KONG gives him the chance to bring his manic, amiable energy and hone it to a fine point of callous determination, bordering on obsession. A more significant change from the original is that here, the human romance is kindled between sensitive playwright Driscoll (Brody) and Anne (Watts) rather than superficially dashing leading man Baxter. This frees Kyle Chandler to play up Baxter’s vainglorious Hollywood vacuity, something he has tremendous fun with and the experience must have given him a taste for life among the kaiju given his more recent involvement in GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS and GODZILLA vs KONG. Jackson, clearly aware of his title star’s scene-stealing capabilities, arrays a star-studded line-up against the giant simian with the likes of Andy Serkis, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks and Jamie Bell along for the ride with Black, Brody, Watts and Chandler (Fay Wray was offered, but wisely – I think – declined, a cameo). Serkis, who plays the ill-fated ship’s cook, pulls double-duty as the eponymous ape too, through the wizardry of motion capture performance.
Of course, the special effects in this version of KING KONG are the finest the story has ever benefitted from and while Skull Island is brought to life with all manner of feriocious flaura and fauna, it’s Kong himself who emerges as the film’s greatest triumph. The character design is superb and the interpretation of Serkis’ performance, emotions and expressions is exquisitely detailed. So much so, that when Kong succumbs to the airbourne onslaught and falls from the Empire State Building in the emotionally devastating finale, the animation is so acutely observed that you are witness to the exact moment the spark of life leaves his eyes – if you can see through your own tears by that point, of course.
Where the original KING KONG was a masterpiece, this remake is a masterwork of filmmaking, directorial vision and performance. Like the other versions of the story, there were plans and discussions of making a sequel, a project for which Jackson favoured Adam Wingard to direct. The plans came to nought, and Jackson soon found himself distracted once again by the goings-on of Middle Earth but, for Wingard at least, Kong would still be waiting for him fifteen years later.