"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, December 18, 2015

King Kong

Considered to be one of the greatest movie monsters of all time, King Kong has enjoyed many cinematic incarnations, most recently Peter Jackson’s lavish love letter to the 1933 classic. There is something inherently and powerfully mythic about Kong that inspires filmmakers to revisit the monster time and time again but none have managed to best the original despite innovations in special effects technology. Why is that? At its heart, King Kong (1933) is a cautionary tale about the hubris of man and the dangers of interfering with the laws of nature.

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a fearless adventurer/filmmaker who travels all over the world looking for dangerous animals to capture on film. He represents said hubris and sums up his larger than life ambitions quite well early on when he tells his backers, “I’m going out and make the greatest picture in the world – something that nobody’s ever seen or heard of. They’ll have to think up a lot of new adjectives when I get back.” Denham was the James Cameron of his day.

This time around, however, he has to have a woman in his movie because the public wants romance. He finds his leading lady, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), on the street, caught trying to steal a piece of fruit, and is struck by her beauty. She is just desperate enough to accept Denham’s vague yet persuasive pitch. Pretty soon, everyone is on board for a long cruise to a distant and exotic land. On this latest excursion, Denham has not disclosed to the crew of the Venture where they are going or for how long.

Once the ship reaches a certain point, Denham reveals his mission to the Captain (Frank Reicher) and the first mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot): he plans to find an island not located on any map. Its denizens are far removed from civilization and worship a god known only as Kong, a mythic creature he hopes to find on the island and photograph. Denham describes him as “neither beast nor man. Something monstrous. All powerful. Still living, still holding that island in a grip of deadly fear.” It’s a tantalizing teaser that makes us want to know more.

The first 20 minutes of King Kong do an excellent job of establishing the main characters and their relationships with each other while creating an air of mystery about their destination. Denham remains elusive about his intentions until the Venture arrives at specific coordinates. They find the island and it is revealed in an atmospheric sequence that begins with a memorable shot of the ship enshrouded in fog. The closer they get, the faint sound of tribal drumming can be heard, which effectively creates a foreboding mood. The establishing shot of Skull Island is incredibly evocative and is an impressive sight to behold, capturing an eerie tone that is quite thrilling to behold.

Once Denham and his crew land on the island, they run afoul of the natives who offer Ann as a sacrifice to Kong, a giant ape. It is a fascinating snapshot of the times – the thinly-veiled xenophobia as Denham thinks he can fast talk his way through negotiations with the village chief, as if this place is just another location that is there for him to use. From this point, King Kong becomes a rousing action/adventure movie as Denham and company discover just how dangerous this island is as they encounter all sorts of lethal creatures that do a good job of thinning the away party’s numbers.

Peril lurks at every turn as Kong is forced to take out a Tyrannosaurus Rex in an exciting and fantastically-realized battle. The stop-motion animation is particularly impressive here – giving the knock-down, drag-out fight a visceral quality that is missing from Jackson’s movie with its heavy reliance on CGI re-imaging. There’s an almost tangible quality to the ’33 version that no amount of then-state-of-the-art motion capture work in Jackson’s incarnation can hope to replicate. The Kong effects still hold up after all these years and one marvels at how the big ape’s fur ripples in a given scene or how the filmmakers expertly cut back and forth from long shots of a stop-motion animated version to close-ups of his head crushing some hapless victim in his mouth or large hand or foot stomping someone that gets in his way. Conversely, the pained expression on his face when he realizes that he’s bleeding from machine gun fire during the film’s climactic battle is particularly heartbreaking.

Robert Armstrong plays Denham with the kind of can-do, might-makes-right, self-made man qualities that would be popular in many 1980s action movies. For example, once Ann is captured by Kong, Denham and Jack go rampaging through the jungle needlessly killing a dinosaur after they’ve already subdued it with gas grenades. Denham represents naked ambition – a man that will risk life and limb to get what he wants even if it means taking an impoverished woman off the street and convincing her to make a film on an exotic land far away. She’s starving and has nothing to lose, which makes her decision an easy one. He wants to capture the giant ape so badly that he even considers using Ann as bait. All he sees is dollar signs – fame and fortune no matter the cost.

Fay Wray is excellent as Ann, a woman drawn to Denham’s expedition as a way to escape her poor living conditions only to become a part of something that she hadn’t bargained for in her wildest dreams (or nightmares). Her screen test for Denham does a nice job of showcasing Wray’s acting chops as Ann has to react to her director’s instructions. The actress is so convincing that she has the ship’s crew invested in her performance. Right from her first on-screen appearance, we empathize with Ann and care about what happens to her, which is important when she arrives on the island and is immediately put in peril. Wray also has the challenge of acting opposite Kong and it is her reactions that help flesh out the creature and make him sympathetic.

Kong’s “inspection” of Ann is that of an adolescent discovering women for the first time – he’s inquisitive and tentative, intrigued by what she wears and even how she smells. It is a fascinating scene in large part because it gives Kong some depth – he’s not just some dumb monster rampaging through the jungle but rather a curious creature fiercely protective of Ann.

The movie was remade in 1976 and again in 2005 by Peter Jackson who re-imagined it as an epic, mega-budget, fanboy love letter to the original that inspired him to become a movie director in the first place. Clocking in at double the running time of the ’33 version, Jackson’s movie is an ambitious juggernaut that, like his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is ambitious in scale and scope and yet still has that personal touch.

Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is a struggling Vaudevillian actress whose venue has been closed down due to poor attendance. The country is in the grips of the Great Depression and times are tough. Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a filmmaker working on an adventure film that is in danger of losing its funding. However, he has come into the possession of a map to a mysterious island that may save his film. Denham even tricks up-and-coming screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) to stay on board so that he can finish the film’s screenplay. In desperation, Denham steals the existing cans of film and assembles a cast and crew (including Ann) and sets sail for the island on his map.

Jackson follows the story structure of the original quite faithfully but fleshes out each segment so that we spend more time in New York City/on the boat, Skull Island and back in the city. He takes the elements from these segments and amplifies them. For example, Kong doesn’t fight a Tyrannosaurus Rex, he fights three of them! Jackson also goes to great lengths to flesh out the main characters and show what motivates them, developing their relationships. By the time we get to the action sequences we know what makes them tick, what is at stake and what they have to lose thereby making the action sequences more compelling.

He still manages to think like an independent director by inserting whimsical interludes, like those early on in the film between Denham and his assistant (Colin Hanks). It is these details that are just as important as capturing Manhattan circa 1930s. Jackson thinks on a macro and micro level unlike Michael Bay who works on a grandiose level.

The attention to period detail is incredible. ‘30s era Manhattan is faithfully recreated with the extensive use of warm, golden lighting being quite inviting. There is a scene where Denham convinces Ann to join his expedition that takes place in a diner, which looks like something out of an Edward Hopper painting. Another example is the glowing, warm light that comes out of the portholes of the Venture in the background of a scene that suggests warm life and a more intimate feeling. There is a connection between the characters and all the elements in the scene.

Jackson is also a master at creating the kind of atmospheric worlds in his movies that immerse the viewer completely. The places the characters inhabit have that lived in look and an authenticity that gives this world texture. The lighting in this film is impressive with nods to Classic Hollywood cinema. For example, Naomi Watts looks absolutely radiant in the initial scenes on the boat as Jackson manages to top the visual splendor of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). In sharp contrast is his depiction of Skull Island as a horrifying, foreboding place, a harsh environment filled with jagged rocks and inhabited by nightmarish natives. There is something very unnatural about them and it’s in their wild and crazed eyes.

The movie takes us deeper into the island as the rescue party sets out to find and bring back Ann from the clutches of Kong. This is an action-packed section that manages to top anything seen in the first three Jurassic Park movies. The Brontosaurus stampede, for example, is intense and exciting as is the Tyrannosaurus/Kong rumble in the jungle.

Jackson is able to create almost unbearable amounts of tension out of every exciting chase as the rescue party is picked off by Kong and other nasties on Skull Island. He also gently guides us into terror as we go from the whimsy of the Ann-Jack romance to the tension and an unease of the fog-enshrouded, uncharted waters of the island. Its first appearance, cued by ominous music and then the sight of the massive wall appearing out of the fog is impressively staged.

At the time, Kong was arguably the most realistically CGI rendered character ever put on film (even topping Jackson’s previous achievement with Gollum from the Rings films) and this is due in large part to Andy Serkis providing the basis for the ape’s movements and the realistic expressions on the animal’s face. For example, there is a scene where Darrow performs for him and we see his mood go from anger to bemusement and back to anger when she stops. We see all of these emotions play out on Kong’s face in completely believable fashion. It really is an astounding achievement as over the course of the movie we begin to empathize with Kong just like in the original.

I’m of two minds when it comes to this cinematic incarnation of Kong. On the one hand, I appreciate the skill and artistry that Jackson instills in every single frame of his movie, but on the other hand, it still feels like nothing more than a really expensive fan letter to the original with the mandate that bigger is better. That being said, it’s a really well-made fan letter to the original.

The ’33 King Kong version is ultimately a tragic monster movie as the poor ape is taken from his natural habitat and exploited for profit only to meet an untimely demise amidst the concrete jungle of New York City. The real villain is Denham whose lust for greed results in the deaths of many people during the course of Kong. The movie is certainly a stinging indictment against the hubris of American culture imposing itself on foreign civilizations. Denham and his landing party interrupt an important ritual thereby offending the natives and they don’t expect any kind of reprisals? And then they capture Kong and exploit him like some kind of freak show for the rich and privileged to gawk at in amazement. No wonder Kong gets mad, breaks free and trashes New York City in an attempt to be alone with Ann, the woman he has fallen in love with. By the end of the movie, Denham has a lot of blood on his hands and a lot to answer for.

What makes Kong such a compelling monster that still beats all the CGI creations of today is that his creators were able to impart a personality by giving him such an expressive face that is able to convey a wide range of emotions – anger, curiosity, pain and even love. It is really a shame that most people who were raised on CGI effects laden movies probably won’t appreciate the artistry that went into making Kong and laugh at the dated effects. For those of us who grew up in the pre-CGI days, weaned on glorious Ray Harryhausen classics like Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Kong still thrills. It is also one of the best action/adventure films ever made.


  1. It's the ferocity of the original Kong that still strikes me; he tugs our heartstrings but he's totally undomesticated, which is why we can buy the ending, tragic as it is. Jackson's more sentimental rendering of Kong leaves his work a colossal bummer.

    1. Agreed on all counts. There is a sincerity and a genuine heartfelt vibe to the original that feels forced and manufactured with Jackson's movie, which is all spectacle.

  2. King Kong is really the grand-daddy of adventure movies. So much of it works so well, from the story construction, to the editing and the pacing. It is just a well executed film. But it is a shame that some folks are going to ignore it because of the stop motion effects and black and white photography. But really so many elements from that film inspired countless films afterward. Even the score by Max Steiner is considered one of the first real film scores with themes for characters and music supporting the action. Steiner helped create film music's place in film, and what he did with "King Kong" is impressive, especially since he was trailblazing in a lot of way.

    Jackson's film is fun and over the top. It has some really great highlights. But it also feels way too bloated to me. It is something that Jackson usually ends up doing - more is better. I think it worked fine in LOTR, but in King Kong and the Hobbit series, it becomes less fun as the movie trundles along.