Directed by Peter Jackson. Starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Andy Serkis, Thomas Kretschmann, Jamie Bell, Colin Hanks, Evan Parke. (2005, PG-13, 187 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 16, 2005
To begin with, it’s a love story, the old-fashioned Hollywood kind that is rarely if ever attempted these days without first injecting enough winking, snarky irony to justify this whole suddenly silly idea that "love conquers all." Well, to hell with that: It does. Peter Jackson’s three-hour-plus remake of Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 cinematic godhead is more than the sum of its gargantuan parts (big budget, bigger stars, biggest simian ever); it’s also a sweet-natured romantic fable, albeit one that packs in carnivorous cockroaches, rampaging brontosaurs, and the ever-Freudian Empire State Building among its requisite emotional baggage. And, too, it’s a corker of an action/monster movie: part RKO serial (natch); part square-jawed, testosterone infused manly romp; and part classic journey into the unknown that recalls and references, surprisingly and splendidly, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – "Mistah Kong – he dead." Jackson’s film is littered with canny references to Cooper’s original – the director knows that film is untoppable, a touchstone of dreams and dreamers the world over – but never fails to be its own unique hybrid. Much of that uniqueness, which makes the whole familiar story fresh again, comes from advances in special-effects technology. Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings’ Gollum) played Kong for the motion-control cameras and then had his image animated into the final, furry product, resulting in an inspired and heartbreaking tour de force of acting and gimmickry that’s, hands down, the single finest piece of special-effects wizardry yet achieved. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance that contains enough subtle nuance and emotional resonance to give technophobes serious pause: This half-human, half-CGI creation will make you reach for your hanky, so bring one and snuffle with abandon. The story, by Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh, is an expansion of Cooper’s original. Filmmaker Carl Denham (Black), unscrupulous, unpolished, and very much of his time (and ours), sets out aboard tramp steamer The Venture to the uncharted Skull Island with Watts’ starving vaudeville hoofer Ann Darrow and the Clifford Odets-like playwright Jack Driscoll (Brody) in tow. The sea voyage encompasses the first third of the movie, and while it takes a bit too long to get going full ahead, Jackson luxuriates in it, dropping a handful of Cooper’s own shots into the mix while introducing the main characters, their back stories, and plausibly setting up the dread ahead. Skull Island, of course, is the main attraction, rife with flora and fauna both bewildering and beautiful, and here Kong is truly King. The interplay between Watts’ melancholy blond and the great ape is almost too real to be believed. It’s touching and heartfelt in a way even modernistic, non-effects-driven films can’t manage. The film’s climactic act – the return to New York City, all Depression-era half-finished skyscrapers and Hooverville encampments bordering the moneyed splendor of the Great White Way – is pure, soulful Hollywood filmmaking at its finest (although the film was made almost entirely at Jackson’s New Zealand-based WETA Studio). It’s enough to make you weep not only for the displaced and doomed Kong but for the nearly lost art of cinematic panache, embodied here by the reckless Denham and in our own reality by the genius of Peter Jackson and precious few others. Only Jackson would have the presence of imagination to include a third-act pas de deux in the frozen wonderland of Central Park. The sequence borders on the cornball but rises above it by sheer old-fashioned Hollywood chutzpah. Watching it, you want to laugh but the awful lump already forming in your throat won’t let you: You know how it all ends.