Mar 9, 2017

Why Peter Jackson's "King Kong" is Underrated

Scene from King Kong
With Friday's release of Kong: Skull Island, it is a great time to remember the cultural impact that the King Kong franchise has had. Okay, it pales in comparison to some monster movie franchises - specifically Godzilla - but there's no denying how iconic and familiar the story has become since the 1933 original movie famously saved the movie studio. There's the scene in which he climbs a building amid airplanes shooting at him. There's the tragic line that follows as he's whisked to his demise. Yet there's one adaptation that probably has received more flack than it deserves: director Peter Jackson's 2005 remake, which was his first post-Lord of the Rings film. It was mired in mixed reviews at the time, but I feel is deserving of more recognition. It may just be a bigger version of the story we know, but is that a bad thing? I think it's key to why it works.
The important thing to note is that like most people, the 1933 film King Kong was a big deal to Jackson. It was a film that inspired him to go into film making. The story of "The eighth wonder of the world" being shot down in the jungle and brought to New York is a simple story, but one that captures the excitement of action cinema. Nobody is sure what Kong is, but they still tamper with his massive scope, trying to nail him down with the power of mankind. There's even a poetic subtext that comes when the ape forms a fondness towards humanity, the same kind that is trying to kill him.
While the film is over 80 years old, it's important to remember the technical feats of King Kong. The film was a hybrid of live action and technical effects that featured revolutionary camera techniques. It brought Kong to life as he stumbled through his stop motion life and brought menace to the screen. The effect of cinema still makes the movie work, but audiences in decades to come will be forgiven for finding it silly. Many have tried to imitate it while improving Kong's physical appearance, but none could quite strike the balance that was necessary to make a cutting edge film's technique match a story full of sincerity and heart - especially given that it centers around a large ape that would probably be played by an inanimate object, if that.
Which brings us to Jackson's remake. Over the course of his early career, he produced films like Braindead that showed him playing with techniques not far removed from his influences. They were more demented and even more graphic, but they owed some mystique to the way that monsters moved on screen. By the time that Lord of the Rings came around, he had become meticulous enough to notice how to blend live action camera tricks with special effects in ways that blended together beautifully. The three films were an epic that showed his capabilities as a filmmaker. In fact, they amounted to a great big thank you letter to films like King Kong, which granted him the opportunity to imagine a world beyond his own. It only makes sense then that he would choose to remake the film in 2005, with promise of recreating scenes from the 1933 film that had long been considered deleted. 
One could argue about the cast being a little lopsided, especially with comedian Jack Black in a serious role. There's even arguably bad green screen during chase scenes. However, there's an allure to what the film was doing that escapes any one detriment. Jackson's King Kong was going to be what the 1933 film would've been had it had the capabilities to present its monstrous island adventures in elaborate detail. There wouldn't be any restrictions, especially as Jackson had just come off of a series of films that managed to make actors appear at drastically different heights within camera. This was a master getting the chance to make a passion project, and what he made featured a blend of his demented early years with the technical prowess of a veteran who had partnered before with innovative technology company Weta. It may have been the longest interpretation of King Kong to date, but what was on screen was worth the excess.
For starters, Jackson's recent success gave him the chance to have elaborate sets that brought the story to life. He managed to make moments such as the boat ride to and from the island into cinematic and beautiful set pieces. Every detail was perfectly placed and small moments were given the chance to expand into something greater. These characters felt more real and by the time that they got to the island, there was an understanding of why they went. While the 1933 film's brevity allows for the intensity to come through stronger, there's no denying that Jackson's fondness for everything allows for the viewer to get trapped into a monster movie epic. At three hours, he allows the audience to feel the scope of the universe and even feel menaced by the size of everything, including Kong.
This comes through in fight scenes on the island, where Kong is furiously rushing through the forest. It's also very effective in the closing act when Kong runs through New York. Unlike the original, this is a chaotic journey that is full of nuanced carnage. The camera and technology allows everything to move in a fluid motion, even managing to make the skyline have a deeper and more resonating beauty. You begin to feel like you're watching Kong struggle both visually before your eyes as well as internally. It may arguably not be as innovative as the 1933 version, but there's no denying that the 2005 remake is done by a master whose reverence allows the story to play out in triumphant fashion.
There's valid arguments to be made that its length plays against it. With the original barely clocking in at over 100 minutes, the choice to make a three hour movie is a little egregious. Had Jackson made it 10 years prior, there's a good chance that it wouldn't be longer than 150 minutes. However, coming off of one of the most elaborate film trilogies in history, there was a sense that maybe his over reliance on the moment played into scenes going too long, especially with a cast that wasn't always going to be people's first picks. Yet it's an incredible achievement to think that King Kong could be an epic of that stature and with a budget that big. There's something almost admirable about that, even if the film occasionally lags. Still, it's a breathtaking spectacle that shows the potential of the 1933 original if the technology was available to make it bigger and more expressive.
It does seem unlikely that Kong: Skull Island will top Jackson's King Kong in terms of quality. Even with the Apocalypse Now-style cinematography, it does seem like an alteration of the story that will return things more to its thriller roots instead of a more emotionally rich metaphor for humanity. Even then, there's something to reviving such an iconic character who is very well known, but would probably be laughed at by audiences not akin to classic cinematic technology. While no version compares wholly to the original, I think that Jackson's King Kong is an effective if flawed update that manages to deliver a strong attempt at the ultimate monster movie. It may not be that, but it's so breathtaking most of the time that it frankly doesn't matter.

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