Destroy All Monsters: Peter Jackson's KING KONG Was Kong, Perfected

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: Peter Jackson's KING KONG Was Kong, Perfected

It's always a pleasure to write a sentence about a film that the filmmaker himself would recoil from in disgust, but here it is anyway: Peter Jackson's 2005 King Kong remake is the best King Kong movie, surpassing the original.

I wrote this before seeing Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kong: Skull Island this week, so this isn't intended as a knock on that movie, though as with most of the King Kong spinoffs (Son of Kong, King Kong Lives, Kong Kong vs. Godzilla), there's nothing in Skull Island's plot structure that allows it to come close to the weird, earned pathos of the original, or Jackson's remake. Which is a long way of saying: I like my Kong tragic, and Jackson's Kong, building on and enhancing Merian C. Cooper's original, is giant monkey tragedy par excellence.

It's hard to discuss Jackson's Kong without connecting it, at least tangentially, to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for which the New Zealand filmmaker's Kong revision serves as both prologue and victory lap. Jackson, his partner Fran Walsh, and his production/design company Weta, were neck-deep in development for a King Kong remake for Universal before The Lord of the Rings was a gleam in their eye - though when that project was cancelled, they re-dedicated the same team and approach to what would become the industry-changing fantasy trilogy.

One sweep at the Oscars later, and it's hard to see King Kong as anything other than Jackson's victory lap: marshalling all that production capital, craftsperson expertise, and systemic goodwill to indulge the ultimate film fanboy dream scenario of remaking one's favourite movie of all time. It's like if I got tapped to make a Star Wars tomorrow. (Lucasfilm: call me.)

The resulting movie clones The Lord of the Rings' epic length precisely, running three hours for no particularly good reason other than that it can. Indeed, the first fifty minutes or so of King Kong are both interminable and unnecessary, setting up wafer-thin character conflicts (Carl Denham is recklessly ambitious! Ann Darrow has abandonment issues! Jack Driscoll's a writer this time!) in an attempt to create out of whole cloth a Fellowship for this movie whose deaths-by-Kong might be more emotionally resonant than, say, the lawyer getting chomped in Jurassic Park.

I suppose I ought to clarify this. I've called Jackson's Kong the best Kong (though realistically, that is only ever a two-film race) and yet I'll happily call the film's first hour aimless and, like pretty much the entirety of the project from inception to release, nerdishly self-indulgent.

Well yeah: that's why I like it.

We in the film blogosphere hold to a particular set of ideals that generally suggest that filmmakers are geniuses whose unalloyed potential is constantly being mucked with by the studios (the "suits") who give them their money to play with - that The Wolverine would be as good as Logan if Fox hadn't want it to feel more like the other X-Men movies, for example, or that the DCEU in general wouldn't suck so much if Warner Brothers could just get its head out of its ass and empower filmmakers like Rick Famuyiwa to make a really kickass Flash.

That entire idea is pretty much nonsense, but I recognize the appeal; directors make good figureheads for the wholesale collaborative machinery that is filmmaking, and studios make great bad guys. Once in a while, though, we get to see a version of the scenario where the balancing effect of the studio team is drained, as much as possible, out of the process, and the resulting movie gets to be as wild and wooly a portrait of the filmmakers' pure intent as one ever gets to see. Such a film is Peter Jackson's King Kong.

I know this because once the Venture arrives at Skull Island, King Kong becomes amaaaaaaazing.

Few movies throttle down quite as quickly and overwhelmingly as King Kong. From just about the moment Ann is kidnapped to serve as a sacrifice to the god-king Kong, King Kong leaps to a propulsive pace that doesn't let up for about another twenty minutes, when Kong finally drops Ann like a rag-doll in the heart of his mountaintop sanctuary. For a three-hour movie, King Kong is fast.

And for a movie not called Kong: Skull Island, King Kong is an amazing showcase for the island upon which it is set. Filmed entirely in constructed locations (because no real jungle, in New Zealand or elsewhere, would suffice), Kong shows Jackson and his team at their most judicious in playing with the tension between what is realistic and what is purely phantasmagoric. (The Hobbit trilogy's forests and jungles, many of them also manufactured, would tip the balance in the wrong direction.)

Like the 1933 film, Jackson's Kong spends its entire second act pivoting between the Ann/Kong set pieces and the Venture crew set pieces, as each group gets itself into a series of encounters with the things that make Skull Island a seriously terrible place to take a vacation. The central, movie-defining piece de resistance in all this, of course, is the extended sequence in which Kong faces down three T-Rexes, as if the film is proudly thumping its chest in its willingness and ability to outmatch the original film's measly one dinosaur.

The sequence as Jackson reimagines it bears all the hallmarks of a lifetime of imaginative play (the reconstruction of the Empire State Building finale will do the same). Where Kong '33 was still locked very much in a sense of the proscenium arch (both due to effects limitations and its overall place in the development of film technique), Kong '05 is more three-dimensional than most 3-D movies made since Avatar. The Kong/T-Rex throwdown is staged in X, Y, and Z-axis moves (a great quantity of it takes place as Kong and Ann tumble down a crevice) and uses the berserk topography of Skull Island (where the crevice in question can be Grand Canyon-deep) to hyperbolize ever action.

It also, of course, shows off the (at that time, new) advantages of having an actual actor performing your digital characters. If Gollum was Andy Serkis' (and motion capture's) breakout role, Kong is the graduate thesis. There's life in those eyes, and specificity in the acting choices, and it all comes to bear in tiny moments where we see Kong judge his own likelihood of defeating the T-Rexes and then deciding, yeah, he can do it.

The depth of the Kong performance drives the film's other supreme advantage: it takes the original film's suggestions of Kong's loneliness and the unfairness of his demise, and fully dramatizes them. Quiet moments between Kong and Ann - first, watching the sunset from Kong's home; later, playing like children on a frozen pond in Central Park - reach deep into the idea of Kong as a character, and imbue him with a lived history that is real, tangible, and heartbreaking.

Being a remake, Kong '05 has one more trick up its sleeve, one which qualifies as an unfair advantage: like Titanic 8 years prior, we know where King Kong is going. The Empire State Building, when it is revealed, is presented and perceived as the story's natural end point, an outsize boss villain that we already know Kong will not be able to defeat. (The near-silent reveal of the biplanes approaching, at the tail end of another shared moment of beauty between Kong and Ann, plays this inevitability like a fiddle.)

This allows Jackson to revel in the destruction of his playset, a slow-motion (both literally and figuratively) elegy for a cinematic event (the death of Kong) that made such an impression on him and so many other fantasy filmmakers in the 20th century. The third act of King Kong is loving and nostalgic without being mawkish or preening; it lands the gory uncaringness of man while making half its audience cry.

Three hours might seem like an insane length for a King Kong movie, but the result is both splendid cinematic spectacle in a theatre-of-attractions mode, and one of the few instances in film where the death of a CGI character feels wholly tragic and wholly earned. There's a reasonable argument that a remake of King Kong never needed to be made except as a once-in-a-generation studio quirk. It's also arguable that King Kong is Peter Jackson's masterpiece.

Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.

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Ard VijnMarch 15, 2017 11:45 AM

Now of course I want to know what you thought of KONG: SKULL ISLAND, heh.

KurtMarch 15, 2017 12:00 PM

You've got my Vote. I love Jackson's take, and embellishments on the classic Kong Story. I love the casting, and I love his fantasy only-in-the-movies version of NYC in the 1930s.

My only complaint about the film (and it is a tiny gripe) is the length, and dodgy CGI, of one particular scene: where all the people are running with the dinosaur stampede. Not co-incidentally, the big Return of the King battle equally irks me.

Great films are rarely perfect films though, and as much as I love the 1933 original, I ADORE Jackson's 21st remake.

KurtMarch 15, 2017 12:05 PM
ManateeAdvocateMarch 15, 2017 12:44 PM

Great piece Matt. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on a family favorite film here in my household. I do love Jackson's Kong more than the '33 version myself, but only due to the fact that it's such a wonderfully heartbreaking love story. The '33 version is such a landmark film (the VERY first film I ever saw on VHS so it has a double special place in my heart), but Jackson's is superlative in my eyes. I just showed Kong '05 to my 7 year old and 12 year old daughters for the first time about two weeks ago. They loved it to death and they cried their eyes out multiple times.

I've never felt the length of this film, or any other film for that matter, was an issue. If I'm enraptured with a story then length is irrelevant to me. I prefer the extended version of King Kong 2005 too. I do not discount peoples' opinions about the length, characters, actor choices or what have you. I just don't share said opinions. It's not a flawless movie, but it's one of my favorites from the aughts.

the hong Kong cavaliersMarch 15, 2017 2:04 PM

Thank you for this ,
Been an advocate for this film for a long time but it seems to be engulfed in the hatred generated Jacksons's hobbit trilogy .
In fact it's quite possibly the greatest remake ever made (with the thing of course) and the most professional fan film ever made

David SmithMarch 15, 2017 2:53 PM

It was good but far too long, Jackson needs an editor

Sylvestre MatuschkaMarch 15, 2017 3:26 PM

The middle part on Skull Island was laugh out loud silly. The ending was better than the original, packing more emotional punch, but that's the only thing about it that's better, imo.

Unflinching_EyeMarch 15, 2017 7:25 PM

Wonderful piece Matt. I wouldn't call it better than the '33 (it was context killed the comparison), but I also don't think there will EVER be a better remake than Jackson's. For all the bashing it took for being overly long and self indulgent, I think Jackson's Kong is frustratingly close to absolute perfection.

I for one love the first act: the faithful (if romanticised) recreation of period New York, and Naomi Watts is magnetic in every scene she's in. It's when we get to the island that I think the complete removal of the unfortunate brontosaurus stampede sequence (and that scene alone) would have tipped the scales from "flawed" to "very near perfect". The third act in NY is fantastic.

Kong's detractors point to it as the epitome of bloated excess, but I couldn't disagree more. How many other tentpole cgi spectacles have moments as emotional as the sunset scene between Kong and Anne; have action set pieces that are as viscerally thrilling; and can reduce me to tears so effectively?? Not many.

From Bad Taste right through to Kong, Jackson had a flawless run (alright, YMMV on Meet the Feebles) to rival that of John Carpenter's golden years. 18 years without skipping a beat. After that one of my all-time favourite filmmakers just kind of... lost it. I really miss him :(

Unflinching_EyeMarch 15, 2017 7:33 PM

Yeah, that battle in Return of the King is a real eyesore in what is otherwise my favourite trilogy of all time. Same with the bronto stampede.

J HurtadoMarch 16, 2017 1:51 AM

You are chock full of terrible opinions

Ard VijnMarch 16, 2017 5:04 AM

Good point, I need to show it to my kids soon.

DMHMarch 16, 2017 10:44 AM

KING KONG and Fay Wray are two iconic names that still live on 84 years after they made cinematic history in 1933. No remake or reimagining will ever replace their images in the public's minds. Peter Jackson's reimagining and homage is an incredible film but will never match the original's staying power for one reason: it does not ring true to Cooper's larger than life Beauty and the Beast myth that was described in the old Arabian Proverb:

"And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty, and beauty stayed his hand. And from that day forward, he was as one dead."

Without this, the 2005 KONG became a gloried version of MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. The problem with both the 1976 and 2005 versions is they allowed a relationship to develop between Kong and Ann. I know this was inevitable in a more enlightened age, but it made the sentiment and manipulation of the audience much easier. When the 2005 Kong dies at the end, we are drawn in because Ann is in tears too. The genius of the original is that Kong's love for Ann is unrequited. In fact we are not sure if its love, fascination, affection or sexual attraction. The ambivalence keeps the audience intrigued and yet we are fully aware through the genius of the stop motion animation (which is somehow more accessible and real than the more "real" CGI, at least to me) that Kong wants her. When the 1933 Kong reaches the top of the Empire State, the only people on his side are the audience. The story could have made him a total villain (after all, he killed quite a few people) but the pathos in his character and the way he reacted to his injuries and the way he caressed Ann one last time before he fell made us feel for him with tears in our eyes. That is true tragedy and pure cinema. Jackson and all of his friends at WETA could never match the pure simplicity and effectiveness of that.

P.S. I think it is telling that it took WETA 18 months for them to create a CGI Empire State Building while it took less than 14 months for them to build the real thing in 1930. Maybe this says something about how movie auteurs like Jackson spend their time today- I would have spent more time streamlining the story than creating a CGI building. (Cooper originally cut the insect pit for a reason) But years ago, directors like Cooper and Schoedsack and DeMille and Hitchcock cared more about story and narrative with special effects serving the story, not the other way around. But that is for another post.

chuckMarch 16, 2017 2:29 PM

I didn't care for any of it, the whole thing was a mess and I really don't get how this movie is getting glowing reviews.The tone is all over the place, "hero shots" all over in the middle of the movie for no reason (we are on a boat!, we are holding weapons!), and characters that seem to have nothing to do nor do anything to affect the story (I'm looking at you Tian Jing) besides being there to "sell better overseas". Hell I even had a hard time trying to see how Tom Hiddleston's and Brie Larson's characters had any sort of impact on the film, they seemed to be there to just be there as characters, there "skills" didn't seem to be needed for anything they where trying to do on that Island.

I was honestly hoping the film was going to do a better job with Jackson's role, they did a great job setting him up to be Kong's Ahab but sort of just turned him into a typical "bad military guy" at the end.

I know this is just suppose to be the jumping off point for Legendary Pictures "MONSTERVERSE" but at LEAST try and craft a good film!

DreadfulKataMarch 27, 2017 8:06 AM

Lindsay Ellis did a video on the many versions of King Kong in her excellent Loose Canon series

Oh and DMH, it's not an old Arabian proverb. The scriptwriter made it up.

likeucareJune 22, 2017 6:38 PM

I agree wholeheartedly. The new Kong was fine, but not on the same level of filmmaking as Jackson's passion project. The new Kong wasn't as well developed visually IMHO. I also agree they could have cut most of the first half hour or so and it would have been even greater.

likeucareJune 22, 2017 6:48 PM

I get the nostalgia and I loved the original Kong, but it doesn't hold up all that well to people born decades after it came out. I do not share your opinions about the unrequited love all. But the girl "falling" for the ape I can see why people would roll their eyes. However for me it made the impact of his death a bit more tragic than the girl going "whew" I'm glad they finally killed that ape!

likeucareJune 22, 2017 6:51 PM

May I see your opinion judging credentials please? Way to articulate your thoughts though, very insightful.

DMHJune 23, 2017 8:46 AM

I showed the 1933 KONG to my 10 year and 8 year old nieces, respectively, and they were mesmerized.

Ard VijnJune 23, 2017 9:24 AM

Yup, same here. I saw it at age 20 and loved it. I need to show both the 1933 and the 2005 versions to my kids.

Ard VijnJune 23, 2017 9:26 AM

Matt and J are friends and colleagues, have been for years, and are always teasing each other in these comments. Throw James and Pierce in and the real insults start.