Saturday, 8 April 2006

King Kong (2005) DVD

King Kong’s back! Bigger, longer, and more insufferable! Peter Jackson blows King Kong to LOTR-sized proportions

Surely you must’ve watched the original King Kong some time in your life. It’s the grandfather of monster movies, and the image of King Kong grabbing the screaming Faye Wray as he climbs the Empire State Building will forever be seared into our pop culture consciousness. King Kong wasn’t the best movie of its era, nor was it the most original. Instead Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack ransacked all the current special effects and camera tricks used in other films to create a movie that would inflame the imaginations of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson and inspire them to make movies of their own.

Cashing in on his success from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson decided to remake King Kong as his next project. The director has chosen to work in the spirit of the creators of the original movie, which means his version features as many special effects and CGI methods cribbed from other science fiction and monster/horror movies he could find. Will the result be a spectacular and inspiring work of art, or will they only remind us of what movies Jackson’s special effects are imitating?

In addition, the original movie was politically incorrect, with accusations by film critics that Kong and the natives of Skull Island stood in for every backward, uncivilised, barbarian savages who require subjugation, or even the African-American other. Others have complained about how creepy it was for a giant gorilla to tear apart a screaming Wray’s blouse (that’s the other unforgettable scene from the movie). How will Jackson make a more politically sensitive, yet authentic film? And we do expect Jackson to put his own mark on the movie, since it’s pointless to make a straight, scene-for-scene remake.

With so much many issues for Jackson to contend with, does his remake work? I definitely would agree that King Kong is visually stunning. From Depression era New York to Skull Island, Peter Jackson’s sets are meticulous and more real than real. On the special effects front, you can see references to Jurassic Park, Jumanji (there’s a stampede of dinosaurs), his own Lord of the Rings series (the only thing different in Skull Island’s jungle are the missing elves and ents, while the natives live in a fortress from Mordor), the Alien series (facehugging monster insects make an appearance), Arachnophobia (the original scene where the sailors are eaten after falling into a spider’s nest was deleted from the original 1933 film and recreated here) and even the Blair Witch Project (I disagree completely with the use of slo-mo, jerky handheld footage in a few scenes). The result is impressive, but it will take to time see if Jackson’s King Kong will inspire or even be more well-established in public consciousness than the 1933 original. Certain scenes, though, appear to be there just because they might spark off a really cool video game (King Kong wrestling multiple dinosaurs, knocking over cars, or scaling the entire New York City skyline).

Several key elements in the plot have been reworked to so that the movie bears the stamp of Peter Jackson. Notably, Jack Black’s Carl Denham is more of an Orson Welles figure, a genius director with a touch of the madness of Captain Ahab. Adrien Brody is too waif-like to play a leading hero but since Jack Driscoll is a playwright aiming for off-Broadway success, he fits in just fine until he starts scaling mountains to save Naomi Watts’s Ann Darrow. The most significant change is the relationship between the blonde and the ape. Jackson’s version will be known as the one that humanised King Kong (played by Andy Serkis), that made Watts sharing tender moments with the great beast instead of screaming at it for the entirety of the movie.

An unwelcome change is the persistent references to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (a character borrows the book, others quote from it) – the American party of explorers are less of colonising imperialists on Skull Island than crazed hunters of a Great Black Ape hiding behind the bushes. Sadly, the savage, barbaric natives have not been humanised or reworked. On the other hand, some memorable lines from the original are preserved, proving Peter Jackson knows just when not to change something for the sake of change.

One of the weakest points of the film is Jackson’s belief that longer is better. At 3 hours and 7 minutes, King Kong is very tiring to sit through. Even his final showdown with the planes on top of the Empire State Building reaches epic length. Kong’s death is foreordained, yet the planes fly round him again and again, shooting more and more bullets that hurt him, slow him down, but cruelly and sadistically don’t deliver the final blow. It’s like Peter Jackson decided to make The Passion of the Kong. That’s what I hope this otherwise great remake won’t be remembered for.

DVD Extras

Skip the R3 Singapore release. There are not much extras on this R3 disc, merely a car advertisement involving King Kong and a Tourego, and a tourist promotion advertisement for New York. You are advised to either buy the 2-disc R1 DVD set, which has a Skull Island pseudo-documentary, a 35-episode production diary, and a featurette on how the dinosaur fight was made. If you have the patience, you can wait for the 4-disc collector’s edition, which will feature commentary tracks from Peter Jackson himself, and probably an extended director’s cut.

First published at incinemas on 7 April 2006

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