Reel Opinions

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

King Kong

If you're looking for sheer spectacle, you can't do much better than Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong. I dare say that this film will probably be remembered for its effects much the same way the original Jurassic Park and Matrix films were for their's. Yet, that's probably all they'll walk away with. Though very entertaining, the film is a highly uneven 3 hour series of extreme highs and middle ground lows. When the movie hits these extreme highs, you feel giddy and excited as few films can make you feel. Unfortunately the middle ground low sticks around for way too long, thanks to Jackson's insistence on making this thing 3 hours, when 2 and a half would have sufficed.

When our heroine, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), has a chance encounter with film director, Carl Denham (Jack Black), there's no way she could have known what was in store for her. The time is New York in the Depression Era, and work is obviously scarce for an undiscovered actress such as Ann who has up to this point idled her time performing to mostly empty theater houses in a Vaudeville act. What she does not know is that Carl is having hard luck himself. He's on the run from the studio and the authorities after he took his film footage, determined to make the movie on his own when he feared the studio wasn't giving him the support he needs. He wants to shoot his adventure movie on a hidden uncharted island that has yet to be discovered, though he has uncovered an ancient map to. (How he came in contact with said map the film does not explain.) This maverick filmmaker needs to get out of town and on the nearest boat if he wants to shoot his film. When Ann hears that her favorite playwright, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) is writing the screenplay for Carl's film, she agrees, hoping it to be her big break.

Where Carl leads her is not the luxury transportation of the stars that she was expecting, but rather a run down boat run by a shifty crew of rugged sailors. As they voyage across the sea, Ann strikes up a relationship with Jack, never realizing that the ship's crew are starting to have doubts if Carl has their best interest and safety in mind for the voyage. While lost in blinding fog, the ship has a near-collision with mysterious Skull Island - home to savage natives, and a terrifying beast whose roar can be heard echoing over the island. Ann is captured by the natives, sentenced to be a sacrifice for the mighty Kong. Jack and the others start a desperate mission to rescue her, finding that they will have to contend with dinosaurs, inhumanly large insects, and other creature long thought extinct, yet still thrive on this forgotten piece of land. While the men fight for their lives, Ann slowly begins to realize that the giant ape she has been sacrificed to is strangely protective of her, and seems to show emotion and understanding toward her.

One simply cannot exaggerate when talking about the grand scope of King Kong. Peter Jackson has put together a visual masterpiece that contains action sequences that are so high octane that you almost can't believe that the guy who made it was making R-rated Muppet movies just a couple years ago. The entire middle portion of the film, when Jack and the ship's crew are hunting for Ann and the beast that took her, is so thrilling that the movie literally never slows down to allow the audience to catch its breath. It does teeter dangerously close to becoming a live action video game at times, as the action set pieces seem to literally come one after another, but the sequences are put together and filmed so expertly and effortlessly that you won't have time to complain. Jackson allows us both a sense of wonder and horror during these sequences. We awe at the dinosaurs the first time we see them casually making their away across the land, yet we tense up with fright during the film's spectacular stampede scene. And anyone who has a fear of bugs would be best to close their eyes when our heroes find themselves trapped in an underground region, completely covered with giant, venomous insects that kill their pray by swarming all over them and swallowing them whole. (Which Jackson portrays with almost sadistic glee in depicting the fate of one of the more unfortunate crew members.) The action sequences are fast, yet edited in such a way that we never become lost.

But, of course, it is the film's title character that we have come to see, and he is simply a marvel from the moment he steps into the film. King Kong is quite simply the most "human" and believable CGI character ever put on film, and hands down surpasses anything George Lucas pulled off in his newer Star Wars trilogy. Thanks to the talented special effects artists and animators, Kong comes alive in a way that few special effect characters ever have. When you look into his eyes, you can almost tell exactly what he's thinking. A lot of this has to do with actor Andy Serkis, who performed all of Kong's movements and facial expressions via motion capture technology, which the special effects artists then applied to the character. I personally think Serkis deserves some kind of Oscar for his work, as not only does he perfectly capture the movements of a beast, but he is also able to latch onto the humanity of the character. Unlike the more cartoonish animals of Chronicles of Narnia, King Kong is completely believable, and simply a marvel of design, animation and performance all rolled into one. Watch the scene where Kong battles off a pack of hungry dinosaurs, all the while trying to keep Ann safe. He's holding her tightly in his fist as he fights off his attackers, switching her from hand to hand. In this scene, he simultaneously displays his superiority over the other creatures on the island, as well as his desire to protect this mysterious woman that he feels a bond with. Not only is it exciting and emotionally powerful at the same time, but the effects work of blending the live action Naomi Watts and the CGI battle sequence is flawless.

Jackson has also wisely decided to make Kong much more than a giant ape who runs amok and destroys a city. He has given the character much more of a heart which makes him sympathetic to the audience. Even his appearance is somewhat heartbreaking. While he is still king of his domain, you get the feeling almost the first time you see him that his reign will not last long. This is evidenced by the number of scars he displays across his body from past battles. He also has somewhat of a tired look in his eyes, like he knows he's still strong, but does not know how long he will be able to keep up the act. This decision is a wise one, as not only does it make Kong much more than just a "movie monster", but it also makes his already tragic downfall that we're all expecting at the end to be all the more tragic. It is tragic here because you sense a certain bond between beast and woman. Ann almost seems to go with Kong willingly, and they get to share a few tender moments together in the city before the ape's fateful climb up the Empire State Building. It's here that the film is at its best in just about every aspect. The special effects artists make Kong so human we can almost sense his pain (Look at the way he turns away from Ann when he's hurt by the bullets, like he doesn't want her to see him like this.), Naomi Watts' performance is real and genuine (you get the sense she has real feelings, and is not just pretending to stare at an invisible giant ape), and Jackson's direction handles it with care, as in the wrong hands, such a scene could have come off as silly and caused unintentional laughter with the audience. The scenes between Ann and Kong are the film's other highlights besides the jaw-dropping action sequences, and are full of tender emotion.

It's the rest of the film that things begin to drag and make you question if this movie really needed to be 3 hours. The human cast is so underdeveloped, as they're either there simply to move the plot along, or they're their to become monster bait. Heck, Adrien Brody is so forgettable and dry in the film's human male lead role that you almost wonder what Ann sees in him over Kong. Their relationship seems forced and rushed, as if they fell in love because the script requires them to, so you never quite believe that his character would be so desperate to save her that he would be willing to risk his life and the lives of everyone else on the ship. In fact, the only thing noticeable about Mr. Brody's performance is the fact that the man has a rather large nose. The entire rest of the human cast fails to make any kind of impression whatsoever, except for Jack Black as the scheming filmmaker Carl. While I don't think the guy should give up comedy for more serious roles, he certainly wasn't bad, and at least was an interesting character, which is a lot more than I can say for any of the other men on the ship, who were either walking stereotypes, or shoved to the background. Naomi Watts is obviously the human star of the show, and she delivers a wonderful performance in just about every aspect. In each movie she's in, she seems to prove more and more what an amazing talent she is. Her scenes with Kong are the highlights, as she treats them as if she was dealing with another actor. Her performance is so alive in just about every aspect that you once again wonder what she sees in Brody's character.

I'm afraid I must admit that although I liked the film, I was still held back. As I mentioned, the movie is extremely uneven. The first hour or so dealing with introducing the human characters and the journey to the island could have easily been trimmed a little without losing anything. Even when they get to the island, it still takes a little while for the movie to truly amaze us. The film takes its sweet time getting to the good stuff, and unfortunately, it takes quite a bit longer than needed. There's just simply too much set up with characters we care little about for us to remain completely interested for its entire running time. When the film is trying to dazzle us, it is a roaring success in just about every way. It's when the movie takes a step back and lets things quiet down that we start to squirm in our seats. It is a spectacle without enough human element to truly make us care about the plight of its heroes. We care about Kong and Ann, but we don't care about the people looking for them. The film does have a heart, unfortunately it's supplied almost solely by an artificial character generated by a computer.

King Kong is a tough film to review. It's hard not to rave, but at the same time, I can't fully get behind it. If Jackson had made his human characters as relatable and sympathetic as the monkey, this would be one of the best films of the year. Personally, I think the director should just maybe step back from epics, and do a small film. One where he can reconnect with human characters, and not have to put so much emphasis on CG, grand spectacle, and 3 hour running times. With the Lord of the Rings trilogy and now this, he's obviously proven he's mastered the art of the spectacle. However, this movie proves he still needs work in making human characters that are as believable as the non-human ones.

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