How do you go about trying to top the greatest film of your career? Never mind that said film only won 11 Oscars, made over $1 billion worldwide and is already considered one of the masterpieces of cinema. And yet after taking the world by storm, Peter Jackson turned to revive a failed project from his pre-“Lord of the Rings,” namely a remake of the film that he had seen at the age of nine and that inspired him to make movies in the first place. The 1933 version of “King Kong” starring Fay Wray was revolutionary in its own right, completely changed the face of cinema’s visual effects and offers one of the most iconic scenes ever committed to film. A rather faithful tribute to that classic escapist adventure, Jackson’s take bloats the tale to epic levels, constantly pushing the envelope of digital technology and recreating the world’s favourite 25-foot gorilla and the world he inhabits one pixel at a time.
At the height of the great depression, megalomaniac movie director Carl Denham (Jack Black) charts an expedition to an uncharted and deserted island to film an adventure romp. Chased out of New York by the studio executives and the police, Denham and his mismatched crew chart course for Skull Island, this last blank space on the map on a rusty old ship named the “Venture”. Last minute cast member is fledgling actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) who jumps at a chance to work with writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, looking dishevelled as usual). A love affair soon blossoms between the pair. Against all odds, Denham finds the island and the crew go ashore but soon find that it’s not so deserted after all. Prehistoric natives manage to capture Ann and in a Temple-of-Doomesque ritual offer her to the beast of the jungle – the giant gorilla of the title. Not content with leaving her at the mercy of this monster, Jack leads a company to bring her back, encountering all the creatures of the island that include dinosaurs and some very nasty creepy-crawlies. From an excellent opening montage of 30s New York to the drama on the ship, the film starts very promisingly. Indeed, by allowing over an hour of running time before Skull Island even shows on the horizon, Jackson gives himself a great opportunity for character building, humour and atmosphere. The Venture’s crew are a shady lot: Thomas Kretschmann’s Captain Engelhorn, Andy Serkis as Lumpy the cook, Evan Parke and Jamie Bell as a great mentor/student duo. There’s also an excellent turn by Kyle Chandler as lead actor Bruce Baxter. Indeed the opening act is full five star material.
However, as much as Jackson can showcase his talents at the beginning, most of Kong’s most interesting aspects are sidelined come the jungles of Skull Island. The director has decided on all-out action here but as the creatures and corpses pile up, the film’s flaws become more and more, and painfully obvious: The over-reliance on CGI yields some badly rendered shots (remember that this film won an Oscar for visual effects), the sheer number of VFX shots clearly just too much for the usually excellent Weta Digital. Far more problematic is the running time. Like one of Carl Denham’s safari pictures, the film simply goes on for a few reels too many. The middle section in particular sags under its own flab and even come the climatic Empire State sequence, the aeroplanes circle one time more than necessary. Drawn out like this, there will come a moment when every viewer realises the nonsense of what is essentially a love story between a woman and a gorilla. At that point, either nervous laughter or hysterical giggles will be inevitable. It’s a tricky situation because Jackson is clearly a geek in love with his material but unlike “Rings” he has let the fanboy within get carried away. It’s a huge shame because there’s so much to like about this version of “King Kong.”
Such as? Kong himself is well done, with motion-capture courtesy of Andy “Gollum” Serkis and great effects work, though it’s a fine line between human and animal emotion. The live-actors do well too. Naomi Watts, a worthy successor to Fay Wray and Jessica Lange. Jack Black too is clearly having a ball as the crazed Denham, a great tribute to directors like Werner Herzog. It is a pity that most of the great supporting cast aren’t given as much exposition later on. The scenes in New York also benefit from awesome production values and the “look” of the picture, dinosaur stampedes aside, is fantastic. In the end it’s just not enough.
At the eleventh hour, Howard Shore’s score was rejected and James Newton Howard was drafted in as a replacement with literally weeks to write a score to a three-hour film. The reasons will probably remain forever in the secrets vault of Hollywood and while Shore probably wrote great music, Howard’s replacement is amazing, especially considering the time constraints. Famously, the composer never met the director until the film’s premiere, the pair conversing through video chat, one in Los Angeles, the other in New Zealand. Though he cannot quite rival grand master Max Steiner’s epic score, Howard’s score overflows with character, providing a relatively straight action score. The music’s main themes are presented at the outset and crop up again repeatedly. Highlights include “Defeat is always momentary” which plays to Denham and “It’s in the subtext” which is a slowly building suspense cue that plays over Anne and Jack’s first kiss. The motif for Kong is a brass pattern, heard primarily in “King Kong” and again in “Something Monstrous…” The climatic cues “Beauty killed the beast” are simply numbered with haunting female vocals almost equalling Howard’s career high-point “Lady in the Water.” While it’s regrettable that Shore’s music was rejected, Howard’s score is among the best of 2005 though the Oscar remains elusive for the composer.
If only Jackson had been able to maintain the thrills and suspense of that first, sublime hour, this could have been a truly great film. As it stands, this “King Kong” is overlong and will remain a mixed bag for viewers.
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