Peter Jackson has waited all his life for a chance to remake King Kong, but his challenge is how to make his new version matter.
Gone is the relevancy of the 1933 Kong as a skeptical assessment of the New Deal, with the adventurer-promoter Carl Denham as an FDR stand-in laying the groundwork to unchain the common masses for the consequential chaotic dissolution of civilization.
Assuaged are the stark racist overtones (the original was renamed King Kong and the White Woman for German audiences), particularly as to a demonizing of black masculinity and the perceived threat to white feminine purity.
Even the urge to pigeonhole it as the latest and perhaps most blatant example of 9/11 allegory--the meddling in the internal affairs of another culture brings destruction to the heart of New York City--is obviated by the otherwise forgettable 1976 remake, which climaxed with Kong scaling the Twin Towers.
No, the symbolism is found not inside this film, but with the film itself. In choosing the Art Deco days of the 1930s as opposed to a modern-day setting, Kong harkens back not only to a bygone era, but to the gilded age of filmmaking. In concert with his Lord of the Rings triumvirate, Jackson has now firmly established himself as our epic filmmaker laureate, a director who melds the bombast of Cecil B. DeMille with the thematic artistry of David Lean. Through both showmanship and storytelling, Jackson is wowing the audiences of today by reviving the way movies used to be made.
The 1933 Kong was purportedly Jackson's favorite film as a youngster, and his remake manages to serve as both homage and an amplification of its forebear. The main actors in this $200-million blockbuster are visually more evocative of a '30s Hollywood casting call, with the exception of Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow. The crew of the cargo ship Venture still curiously includes Charlie the Chinaman, but there's more time dedicated to character development, lending an emotional punch to the crew's later travails. On Skull Island, the natives (whose emergence ushers in a jarring, ominous and delectable change in tone) are given more murderous menace, but are more racially indeterminate than their Afro-centric predecessors.
Kong battles not one T-Rex but four, on the ground and suspended by vines over a ravine (a truly breath-taking sequence). Jackson restores a scene featuring flesh-eating insects that was cut from the original as being too grisly for contemporary audiences. And, Kong's Gotham exhibition gets a gaudy, Broadway stage treatment that evokes genuine pathos.
For all its impressive (yet occasionally overbearing) visual effects and stunning set design, Kong is constructed around two simple, driving narratives--the descent into darkness, and the relationship between beauty and the beast. Of all his additions, perhaps the most curious is the periodic references to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The analogy obviously relates to the Venture's excursion into the jungles of Skull Island. However, more tantalizing is its extension to film director Denham (Jack Black), reframed here as a far more duplicitous fellow than Robert Armstrong's original. Part huckster, part scalawag, part egomaniac, Denham lies and cheats his way toward finishing his movie. If directors Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, who made a name before and after their Kong shooting exotic documentary footage in Asia and Africa, saw themselves realized in their Carl Denham, then Jackson undoubtedly imprints a self-deprecating view of himself onto Black's version. "The whole world will pay to see this; we'll make millions," Denham (or it is Jackson?) wistfully muses, and his drive transforms into obsession, oblivious to the adverse consequences suffered by those around him.
But, as expected, the primary focus of Kong is the titular silverback and its own obsession with Ann Darrow. Naomi Watts inherits the venerable role, and although it is unlikely that Watts' career will be defined by it to the same degree Wray's was, Watts' performance elevates the actress to new heights (pun intended). Unlike the original, the film begins with a square focus on Darrow, a struggling vaudevillian actress who is on the verge of joining a burlesque show to make ends meet before Denham spots her in a window reflection. This "saddest girl in New York" finds conventional romance in the form of Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), altered here from the ship's captain into a scriptwriter. However, the love in her heart is for Kong, and Darrow's metamorphosis from damsel-in-distress to Stockholm syndrome sufferer to the girl who gravitates toward the biggest stud on the schoolyard somehow manages to come across as both corny and authentic. Only Watts' star wattage and Jackson's aplomb lend heft to scenes like Darrow performing an impromptu vaudeville act to tame Kong, and Darrow and the great ape playfully sliding across a frozen Central Park pond.
Jackson lays it on a bit thick at times--such as the incredulous sight of Darrow's ascent to the spire of the Empire State Building to stand by her man during the film's overlong and overwrought climax. Nevertheless, Jackson's biggest alteration becomes clear. In lieu of a one-sided fixation, this Kong is a mutual love story--in fact, a love triangle--intertwined to thrilling effect with drama, comedy, action-adventure and science-fiction.
With apologies to the mighty Kong, Peter Jackson may be the Eighth Wonder of the Cinematic World.