With King Kong, Peter Jackson shows himself to be at once a peerless conjurer of cinematic dreams and a born publicity man who knows how to oil the tracks before his show rolls into town. The latest issue of Vanity Fair proves this with the tale it recounts of a pilgrimage taken by the director and his female lead to New York in advance of the film's shooting, where they sought out a personal audience with 96-year old Fay Wray to negotiate terms for the hand-over of the Kong legacy. The old pro played her final part to perfection, at first swooning with disbelief that anyone would dare mount a Kong production without her and jealously withholding the tap of her dubbing sword until the last possible moment, when she pulled Naomi Watts aside and whispered an endorsement of palm-worthiness. "Holy Mackerel, what a show!" Carl Denham might say.
This new King Kong is frozen in 1933, but it's a contemporized period piece and its star is a thoroughly modern monkey. The relationship at the center is no longer a simple Stockholm syndrome-saga about a kidnapee and a sympathetic brute, but a creepy Harold and Maude friendship between a woman and her unlikely playmate. The libidinous, bristling hothead of the original film has mutated into a nerdy champion, skilled at holding off the jock dinosaurs who come sniffing for trouble but clueless as to how to take his reward afterward. This Kong would be no more adept at peeling the clothes off of Naomi Watts than the players of the film's inevitable video game. Were it not for that unwise detour at the end, his visit to New York City might have ended at Scores, with Kong handing over all his money to strippers.
The appearance of the beast is also an overhaul. The first Kong was a missing link, plucked from somewhere in the middle of the History of Man evolution chart with his shifting posture and wide, intelligent eyes. The new Kong is more in tune with our current stylistic aspirations, which is to say he looks more "real." Movie monsters today must have a natural pedigree that makes their reality difficult to disprove - digital dinosaurs must be certified as real by six paleontologists and building-sized apes must look like real apes, only building-sized. That's the wisdom on display here.
Peter Jackson opens his show with a sumptuous swim through Art Deco Manhattan and the kind of cheeky montage that Billy Wilder used to open his romantic comedies with. Al Jolson's "Sittin' On Top of the World" colors in the background as snakey lines of vagrants coil around the edges of a city fully invested in its own hustle-bustle. Important business (show business) is going on in the little step-ladder high-rises that bow toward the Empire State. A sweaty Carl Denham, played by the lost Elvish prince Jack Black at his most gleefully insincere, is trying to bamboozle some no-nonsense producer types into funding his latest money-losing film project. Down on the streets, on a lower-rung of the entertainment world, things are more desperate. Our Ann Darrow is performing an unimpressive vaudeville revue that quickly sees her out on the streets and out of prospects. She considers and refuses an offer to show up at some sort of house of ill repute, and then at her most desperate, delicately fingers an apple off a street vendor's cart. This is one of the intersections where Jackson's scenic tour-bus of a movie - almost exactly twice as long as the original - comes careering around the corner to meet up with a memorable moment from the original.
In the film's next sequence, the psychic bridge between past and present that Jackson has labored to build begins to buckle a bit. After the chance meeting with Ann, Denham and his crew set sail with her aboard a tramp steamer for Skull Island, off Singapore. The idea is to film where no film crew has ever set foot before, and the story will largely write itself. The hammy, love-sick sailor Driscoll - "Say, I guess I love you!" - from the original been traded out in favor of a hack screenwriter character also named Driscoll, played by a somewhat sleepy Adrien Brody. It's in creating new characters to populate the rest of the ship that Jackson makes his biggest mistake. He invents two crewmen, one a mentor (Evan Hayes) and the other his protege (Jamie Bell), and gives them nothing to do but form a bond of mutual pointlessness as they debate the best way to behave in any given situation. These two characters are so without purpose that the hubris of the filmmaker must be called into question; Jackson apparently never made the connection between his own personal success in trimming fat and the numerous opportunities in his film. When the ship finally docks on Skull Island, one of these characters is mercifully smashed to particles, in the film's most heart-tugging moment.
Skull Island is the place where we must put aside the 800-pound gorilla for a moment and deal with the 800-pound elephant, which is the original film's scene of racial barter, or attempted barter, between the natives and the visitors. After dropping anchor and wading ashore, the crew in Merian C. Cooper's film encounter a collection of witch-doctorish savages who would be at home boiling Bugs Bunny in a pot. They are immediately enraptured by the Harlowe blonde, Ann, referring to her as "the golden woman," to which Denham quips "Yeah, blondes are scarce around here." Six native women are then offered up in trade. Much thought clearly went into disassembling this bomb for the re-do, since Jackson's natives don't even bother to say howdy, let alone dicker over the going rate of blondes. They make their entrance from off-screen, hurtling a spear through one of Denham's Star Trek-type go-alongs and then quickly surrounding the principals with knives at their chins. This viciousness makes sense if you take the topography of Skull Island seriously. These people are supposedly co-existing with Stegosaurs and monkeys as tall as ferris wheels - a little buyer's remorse pique over the state of their property value is in order.
The adventure that unfurls once the crew passes through Kong's keep-out wall is on a different plane than everything that has come before - it will make your knees shake with excitement. This even goes for someone like me who is uninspired by the idea of digital dinosaurs in the year 2005. (Until digital magic can produce a romantic comedy starring Edward Norton and Marilyn Monroe, will we really continue to be awed?) The success that Jackson achieves in these passages lies in the fact that the island is so infested with living instruments of death that there's no stay in the tension as long as you're there. In the original Kong, there's a quick terminus to the dinosaur action after King has his moment of cruelty in prying apart the jaws of his primary foe, but here that's only one point in an epic battle that escalates and builds as the number of dinosaurs multiplies, all of them trying to snatch Ann out of the hand of her new protector. Especially memorable is an absurd and hilarious moment when Kong shuffles Ann from hand to hand and back to front like your annoying uncle playing keepaway at a family reunion, while a hungry T-Rex continually snaps at her, providing as close a shave as CGI can muster.
The best moment in this interpretation of King Kong comes at the point of Kong's death. Not his actual death in falling from the Empire State, but the point at which his death becomes a foregone conclusion - his capture and emasculation in front of Ann on the rocky shoals of Skull Island. It wasn't quite believable when he was felled with tiny gas bombs in the original and it's not quite believable now, but what is striking in this version is a moment after Kong has been tied down, when his eyes fix on Driscoll as he is jerking Ann forcefully away from the scene by the arm - a gesture that Kong perceives as an act of violence. He instantly rallies, throwing off his restraints with one flex and rushing headlong into more gas bombs, which bring him crashing back to the island floor. It's a moment of strange and unexpected poignancy.
The denouement in New York City that follows is somewhat flat and flakey in comparison - I'll spare you a description of Kong and Ann's silly skating-rink date - with more collateral damage in the way of cars heaved toward the screen but less of that feeling from the original of a nightmare on the loose. The original Kong, in addition to being a proving ground for every effects spectacular that would ever follow, also had the latent power of a signpost, warning against venturing into the unknown and bringing the unknown back with you. This Kong has little to say about Western anxieties, or a fear of the unknown. Peter Jackson wants you to be on Kong's side, and you will be. The audience at my screening saved their one loud, unhesitating burst of applause for the moment when Kong leaps high off his Empire State crown and splinters an Army bi-plane with his bare palm.