Peter Jackson’s King Kong sports a pot belly, and it’s not a good look. His film carries extra baggage, too, nearly an hour and half’s worth. Some of the padding pays off: the giant bugs (similar to a scene cut from the original because it was too intense); the skating in the park. But the subplots involving little Jimmy of the steamer crew reading Heart of Darkness (even Coppola couldn’t pull that off) and the ambitions of Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) to become another Clifford Odets only slow things down. Audiences today, just like those in 1933, pay to see a spectacle, and that’s where King Kong most disappoints.
Surely the state of special-effects art now can blow off the screen anything made just five years into the Sound Era? Yes and no. The two triumphant genres of the ’30s were musicals and horror films, and as with the stained glass of Chartres, the secret to making them is lost. Or maybe rejected. Compare Chicago with Top Hat, or King Kong with King Kong. Count the cuts during the action scenes or the production numbers. They sure give the retina a workout, but . . . Scary? Moving?
Take a look at one of the new version’s showstoppers, a stampede of brontosauruses chased by raptors. Not a single shot lasts more than two seconds, and the camera swoops in so tight and fast and erratically that I couldn’t make head or tail of it — literally — and didn’t much care.
Compare the log scene in the old and new versions. Kong has surprised Denham’s crew as they try to cross a giant tree toppled across an abyss. In 1933, maybe because of the old effects technology, the nightmare unfolds in long takes with horrible clarity and logic. The Max Steiner score emerges with diabolical emphasis, the silences allowing each scream to register. Now, Cuisinart editing takes over, abetted by James Newton Howard’s soundtrack. Again the impact is not emotional but visceral. Who cares about these people? Maybe the video game allows for more sympathy.
Don’t blame the actors. True, Jack Black is inexplicable as Carl Denham, the blustery showman in search of a movie (is he supposed to be funny or just inept?), and Brody’s Driscoll squeaks as the third wheel in the Ann Darrow/Kong relationship. But Naomi Watts is far better than Fay Wray, and Andy Serkis out-acts the six-inch fur-covered doll who originally played Kong. A good thing, too, because what was implied in the first film gets spelled out here: they’re in love.
And so the tragic last act plays out with much the same grandeur as before. What can it mean? The first film, made during the Depression and released the same year the New Deal and the Third Reich were getting started, makes sense as a parable of oppression, fascism, and war. Hard to read this one, though. Maybe as a dramatization of the conflict between movies as art and movies as manipulation. If so, then shouldn’t Ann, the human being, take the plunge, and not Kong, the special effect?
Issue Date: December 16 - 22, 2005
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