(Peter Jackson, New Zealand/USA, 2005)
There's an old saying: 'leave 'em wanting more.' Peter Jackson's never heard of it. At least he hasn't judging by his longwinded remake of King Kong. Yes, the original was pretty silly, and yes, the story was thin, but it rocketed along for a trim hour and a half, and no one watching it ever complained about its faults, because before they could, another great set piece came along. Jackson's new version extends the original story to breaking point and beyond. Nearly three hours long, it feels more like three days.
Jackson and his co-writers have obviously watched the original film many times, and have tried to think what they could add to improve it. For me, the real answer is: not much. For what it is, the original is perfect. But Jackson hasn't simply given up, and instead has decided to add in all the scenes that were only implied in the original. So we get to see the circumstances that led Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) to be on the boat to Skull Island, learn all about producer's Carl Denham's (Jack Black) troubles with Hollywood suits, and so on. This is a genuinely new angle, but there's a reason that this material was elided in the original. Because it's not a vital part of the story, and forcing in so much extra content weakens the structure of the film.
The boat trip to Kong's Skull Island home is now very long, with pretentious readings from Heart of Darkness, and evocations of Moby Dick. Both great novels, with far more depth than Kong, but apparently Jackson couldn't get funding to make one of them instead, and so has to shoehorn his serious stuff in here. There's also some Shakespeare in Love style post-modern mocking of the original, with in-jokes at the expense of the now na´ve-seeming 1933 film. Add to that a running stream of jokes with writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) about the film industry and the result further distances the audience from caring about the story.
The voyage is much too long, but it builds characters, and has a story. Both disappear once we get to Skull Island, as the film becomes an endless succession of set pieces, all of which are impossibly extended, far beyond the point of tedium. Jackson and his team probably brainstormed every possible way these scenes could play out, then filmed them all, andů then kept them all in. Jackson has now proved something weird: the slowest, most knuckle-bitingly tedious art house film is not as boring as CGI dinosaurs rampaging endlessly. There's a reason the makers of the first Kong cut out the spider pit sequence: because to include it would be too much of a good thing. Jackson puts it back in. And then makes it go on forever. And while he's at it, he adds lots of funny phallic monsters, swarms of giant insects, killer bats, and God knows what else.
But while the new film spends much too long on the island, the scenes back in New York are over too quickly. The Empire State finale is the only truly successful part of the film. The CGI effects are incredibly realistic, whether showing the panorama of the city from high above, or inducing vertigo with dizzying point-of-view shots from the whirling planes. Watts' chemistry with her monster co-star kicks in at this point too, and Kong's final tumble from the top of the tower is superior to the original - proving it is possible to improve on it after all.
But it's all short-changed by being wrapped up too fast, and the abiding memory of King Kong remains the tedium that is Skull Island. The key to Jackson's version is a scene with Driscoll after the return to New York: a talented playwright, he is watching his latest play delight a small audience in a tiny theatre. He then goes to a massive theatre, where that old hack Denham is exhibiting Kong. The auditorium is gigantic, balcony after balcony, stretching back to infinity, and every seat is filled with eager punters. But they don't get what they want. That's the real story of Peter Jackson: faced with the choice of making something good and small, like Heavenly Creatures, or something rubbish and big, but which gives him a global audience - like Kong. For now, he's chosen the latter, but maybe, just maybe, he never will again. 4/10
Adrian Horrocks (December 2007)
Although not what it could have been, there's one thing that nobody can deny, it's that the realisation through CGI of the eponymous Kong must rank as the single most convincing character application of computer technology to date. Donkey Kong he aint. And a man in a suit he aint either. So, until they manage to produce a computer program that can produce screenplays that even Robert McKee would sing the praises of, it continues to fall to humans to rely upon their creative judgement to know when a script is clearly excessively long. Particularly when it's in the dizzy region of 45 - 60 minutes too long.
There is a two hour film worthy of a fistful of Oscars struggling to shake off the indulgent flabbiness of Jackson's (and his wife's) script. The rather large budget is certainly up there for all to be seen, right through to the tiniest of details. He even hasn't forgotten his roots - the cage for a Sumatran Rat Monkey providing a nod to those (like yours truly) who've championed Jackson since before Braindead. The acting is good if not always great, and all technical aspects of the production as impressive as any studio expending $200m should expect.
So it's a real shame that the film geek excesses of some sequences make even me, a former fanzine publisher, wince with embarrassment. Take two examples: the brontosaurus stampede and the giant insect encounter. Both initially achieve everything they were presumably in the script for. Seeing the dinosaurs turn from gentle grazing to Western-style cattle stampede was novel and thrilling. The opening moments of the giant bugs scene are flesh creeping and disgusting. But the effect of both is fatally undermined by their duration. They just go on, and on, and on... and on. Awe gives way to indifference. Indifference gives way, frankly, to irritation. "Okay, so big bugs are really unpleasant!" What more is there to say?
The saving grace is that although far too long, for the remainder of the film, mainly those sequences not set on Skull Island, we are at least witnessing flabbiness presented in its most exquisite form. If it's voluptuous eye candy your after then gorge yourself. Even the crucial central relationship between girl and gorilla works brilliantly. This is one very rare example where I think you can attribute credit to the improved special effects resulting in improved drama. In this respect, the subtle emotions that are conveyed by Kong's digital face genuinely make this version superior to the 1933 original.
to Jackson too for setting this is the decade (in fact the actual year) in which
Merian C. Cooper's original debuted. Importantly, this not only adds to the believability
of the fantastic script having events happen in a more innocent world, but adds
hugely to the viewing pleasure too. This is one movie where the director's cut
ought to be significantly shorter than the theatrical version. The mad
ways studio marketing machines work these days - I wouldn't rule that out either.
Rob Dyer (May 2006)
King Kong (1933)
King Kong (1976)
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