Due to his work on the much-acclaimed live-action Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson’s name has become synonymous with the word “epic”. Following his sojourn into Middle Earth, the question on everyone’s mind was simple: where could Mr. Jackson go next? His decision to helm a reimagining of King Kong may have seemed like a strange choice for the filmmaker, yet it was a match made in cinematic heaven – Jackson’s treatment of the classic story is an epic, entertaining and moving blockbuster. Jackson and his team have expanded upon the original 1933 movie to add welcome depth to the characters and present a whole new interpretation of the source material. While it clocks at a mammoth three hours – nearly two times the runtime of the 1933 film – Jackson’s soulful, entertaining epic stays afloat for the entire show. Along with James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson is one of a select few Hollywood directors capable of understanding how to successfully marry emotion and spectacle.
Set in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, stage actress Ann Darrow (Watts) is struggling to earn a wage. But a chance meeting with filmmaker Carl Denham (Black) permanently changes the trajectory of Ann’s life. Carl also has his problems, though – his financiers have pulled the rug out from beneath him, and Carl is struggling to both finish his latest movie and find a leading lady to appear in it. After some arm-twisting, Ann accepts the job as Carl’s leading actress, while Carl also cons his way into hiring a cast & crew and chartering a ship. However, Carl’s people are oblivious to the fact that the filmmaker has set his sights on the mysterious Skull Island. During the voyage, screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Brody) takes a liking for Ann, and a romance begins blossoming between the two. Unfortunately, their fortunes take a turn for the worst upon arrival at Skull Island. The island natives kidnap Ann and offer her as a sacrifice to Kong; a massive ape who immediately becomes smitten with the blonde actress. Thus, the crew venture into the dense jungles of Skull Island on a mission to rescue Ann.
King Kong is a lavish, high-octane, epic action-adventure. The film was produced for a gargantuan $200 million, and every cent of it shows up on the screen. For Jackson, making this film was not just following up The Lord of the Rings, but also accomplishing a lifelong dream. Since childhood, Jackson has been enraptured with 1933’s King Kong, and he attempted to make his own version when he first came to Hollywood in the mid-1990s. Flush with money and awards after the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Universal Pictures allowed Jackson to remake King Kong on his own terms. Like all personal projects, this particular flick ran the risk of not working, but Jackson’s passion for the material fortunately did not dim his creative senses. Jackson opted to use the 1933 King Kong as his blueprint, and has greatly expanded upon it. The basic premise is similar, but the experience of Jackson’s King Kong is wholly different. In fact, Jackson has produced what could be considered the definitive King Kong, as virtually every narrative possibility was explored here. People have complained about the three-hour runtime, yet no moment feels inessential. Granted, by the end of King Kong you feel like you’ve experienced a long motion picture, but that’s the same with all epics, fromLawrence of Arabia to Gone with the Wind to Seven Samurai.
Instead of transplanting the story of King Kong into a contemporary setting, Jackson recreated the early 1930s backdrop of the original film. To the credit of the production team, the recreation of ’30s-era New York is stunning, as are the lavish jungles of Skull Island, both of which were excellently rendered using a mixture of digital effects and intricate sets. Fortunately, the rest of the CGI effects are equally impressive; believably conveying a world of fantastic creatures and astonishing sights. With this film, Jackson set a new standard for visual effects advancements, as Kong and the dinosaurs were rendered using amazingly detailed, borderline photorealistic effects. If you’re seeking pure eye candy, King Kong is the world’s biggest candy store. Jackson’s directorial efforts are similarly impressive – the extended action sequences on Skull Island are rousing and exhilarating, while the quiet moments are affecting. Some action beats do push the boundaries a little too much, but the set-pieces are always enjoyable nonetheless. Topping this off is James Newton Howard’s powerful score. Despite having only seven weeks to compile the music, Howard managed to deliver several marvellous compositions that augment the epic feeling of the material.
The cornerstone of Peter Jackson’s King Kong is not the action-adventure material, but instead the relationship between Kong and Ann. This is where the heart and soul of the movie is derived from, and where the film emerges as something more than a visual extravaganza. In the 1933 King Kong, Ann is terrified of the giant ape – he treats her like a plaything, and she both hates and fears him. In the 1976 version, a forced romance develops between the ape and the female protagonist, but it feels unearned. However, for Jackson’s version, a tender, two-way relationship between Ann and Kong is meticulously developed over the course of the movie. Additionally, for all of the action and exhilarating destruction on display, the final section of the movie is essentially an affecting portrait of how cruel humans can be towards those we do not understand. It certainly helps that Kong was brought to life using phenomenal digital effects – his range of motion is superb, and his facial expressions are so sincere that it’s hard to believe he is not real when you look into his eyes. Andy Serkis, who “played” Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, lent his motion capture skills to Kong, and Serkis’ performance is stunning.
As for the cast, all of the actors are impressive. Naomi Watts is a joy to behold as Ann Darrow; she’s frequently ravishing, and she embodied the spirit of Fay Wray while also presenting her own interpretation of the role. Watts had the difficult job of convincing viewers that she’s in love with a CGI creation, but she pulled it off with aplomb through sincere facial expressions. Meanwhile, as Carl Denham, Jack Black has received a lot of criticism, yet his performance works – he played it straight when the material called for it, and he was able to convey Carl’s insanity with supreme effectiveness. And as Jack Driscoll, Adrien Brody is perfectly fine. While he’s not an actor that one would typically think of to portray an action hero, Brody put in a solid effort. In the supporting cast, Thomas Kretschmann is a particular stand-out – he’s a show-stealer whenever he’s on-screen as Captain Englehorn.
As an epic action-adventure, King Kong excels tremendously. All of the technical aspects are top-drawer: the cinematography, James Newton Howard’s score, the digital effects, the pacing, the action sequences, and the direction. And as an emotional journey, King Kong is still a success. It’s a terrific piece of entertainment, but it also has a soul. King Kong is 2005’s biggest and best blockbuster, and – in the shadow of Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla – Jackson’s film proves that it is possible for a classic monster to make a triumphant re-appearance. And what of the extended edition of the film, I hear you think? It adds a bit of interesting footage, but nothing feels truly essential. Plus, the swamp scene is marred by atrocious underwater effects. The extended cut is only for established fans.