With his remake of King Kong , director Peter Jackson has almost matched the young Stephen Spielberg in his ability to keep you on the knife’s edge. In the movie’s first half, he sustains two out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire sequences so outlandish you almost can’t stand it. You might do what I did, and simply bust out in disbelieving laughter at the way he puts the screws to you.
Jackson, who says the original 1933 King Kong is what made him want to be a director, has stayed true to the well-known plot. A group of adventurers follows an ancient map to undiscovered Skull Island, so an obsessed director (Jack Black) can shoot a movie there. The writer, Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody), and star actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), begin a flirtation. They are interrupted by grotesque natives, who capture them and offer the woman as sacrifice to a sixty-foot-gorilla called Kong. Ann looks down from the gorilla’s fist and sees the ground below littered with pulled-apart damsel bones. Kong, usually a vegetarian, must crave animal protein every once in a while.
But because Anne is blonde, Kong stays her execution. Like Shaherezade, she performs to stay alive, and fascinates Kong. She soon escapes him, but is set upon by dinosaurs in the primordial forest. Kong rescues her. In their own way, the two fall in love, sharing a sunset and some kind of understanding. The gorilla, not the writer, always gets the cheerleader. Sorry if I sound bitter.
The Skull Island stuff, the bulk of the three-hour film, is gorgeous and exciting. But King Kong has some trouble getting going. The long establishing scenes on the ship don’t work. Jackson and his writer/wife Fran Walsh try to get us to care about his secondary characters, so we will feel a tug when they die. We don’t. In a movie of high adventure, gratuitous violence is perfectly acceptable. The minor characters are there to be stabbed, crushed, and eaten for our pleasure. The film’s ending, coming after such action highs, necessarily feels redundant and anticlimactic.
King Kong peerlessly blends the real and the digital. You have squint to see that sometimes the little people in long shots are computer generated. Then, real actors are inserted into environments that look real, but aren’t. Rather than relying on digital sets, Weta, the New Zealand effects company built by Jackson, used more miniatures than all three Lord of the Rings movies combined. Miniatures are just more there than digital backgrounds, because you can sense they have been created by human hands, and they are photographed rather than drawn.
With all of its special effects and dazzlingly inventive action sequences, the best part of the film is Naomi Watts. She’s conventionally pretty, nothing special, but she has a purity and sweetness unspoiled by the world. Her beauty is not remote, but approachable and warm: a kindergarten teacher, a girl next door, a buddy who’s a secret wildcat in bed. This is her specific charm; watch as she transforms, as she did in Mulholland Dr . As Ann Darrow, she follows Fay Wray and Jessica Lange in the greatest screaming role in the movies, and becomes a siren.
King Kong is playing on six screens at Showplace West; that ought to about cover it. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.