"The beast looked upon the face of beauty. Beauty stayed his hand, and from that moment he was as one dead."
(Carl Denham, King Kong 2005, paraphrasing a quote from King Kong 1933)
"There are only four questions of value in life..What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for? What is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same. Only love."
(Don Juan De Marco, from the film of the same name)
It is a rare thing when a remake surpasses the original film upon which it was based in quality. In fact, more often than not the results are disastrous. A few examples of this are the 1997 version of Psycho, the 2001 version of Planet of the Apes, and a 1976 Dino De Laurentiis movie entitled King Kong. It would seem, then, that Peter Jackson has accomplished, if not the impossible, then at least the highly unlikely. He has made a remake that is actually better than the original.
I realise that many fans of the 1933 King Kong probably read my last remark with disbelief. Not a few probably are accusing me of blasphemy. After all, the 1933 King Kong is an unabashed classic. It is one of the most influential movies of all time, inspiring filmmakers from Ray Harryhausen to, well, Peter Jackson. Its iconography is part of Anglo-American pop culture--who can't look on the Empire State Building and not think of the great ape? And I must confess that the original King Kong is one of my favourite films of all time. Indeed, I wore out my VHS copy from watching it too often and I bought it the moment it came out on DVD. But I cannot lie. I honestly think Peter Jackson has taken a masterpiece and created an even greater masterpiece based upon it.
Indeed, it is hard for me to know where to even begin. I suppose the most obvious place to start is the film's astounding special effects. Kong looks real. This is not a stop motion puppet as in the original film (which was state of the art for the era and still holds up fairly well) or a man in a monkey suit (as in De Laurentiis' mammoth piece of garbage). This a CGI creation superior even to Gollum of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And it is not enough that this Kong battles T. rexs and climbs the Empire State Building, this Kong emotes as well as the best actors. He displays a wide range of emotions through his facial expressions, from rage to jealousy to love. The state of the art FX wizardry doesn't end with Kong. There are dinosaurs and other beasties, not to mention an incredibly accurate, realistic creation of New York City circa 1933 that involves CGI, miniatures, and a four block set. It cannot be said that Jackson and his crew did not do their research. His New York City of 1933 looks like the real thing, right down to the streetcars.
Despite its state of the art technology, Jackson's King Kong feels very much like an old time movie. Many films today would have us on Skull Island within the first ten minutes. Not so with Jackson's remake. It is nearly an hour before we even see Skull Island and its best known inhabitant. That hour is spent setting up the milieu of Depression Era New York and developing the characters. By the time the viewer reaches Skull Island, he or she will feel as if he knows actress Ann Darrow (the exquisite Naomi Watts), flashy producer Carl Denham (Jack Black), and screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) as well as his or her next door neighbours. That character development is made all the easier by the performances of the actors. Indeed, I believe it would be a grave injustice if Naomi Watts does not receive an Oscar nod for Best Actress. Her Ann Darrow is beautiful, sexy, funny, and smart. It is easy to see why Kong falls for her. Jack Black does well as Denham as well, a flamboyant character who is one part Darryl Zanuck, one part Merrian C. Cooper, and one part P. T. Barnum. Kudos must also go to Andy Serkis, whose movements provided the model for Kong. Indeed, Serkis even provides the roar for the big guy!
What makes Jackson's King Kong so great goes beyond its state of the art FX and the performances of its cast. At the heart of the film is the work of Peter Jackson, who not only directed the movie, but co-wrote the screenplay with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. Jackson has captured the heart of the original King Kong. Neither the 1933 version nor the 2005 version are giant monster movies. Instead they are both stories about love. And it is the love that Kong has for Ann Darrow that Jackson brings to the fore of the movie. Taken not only with her blonde good looks, but her spunk, intelligence, and sense of humour as well (she seems to be the only woman who ceased to fear him after a time), Kong is literally willing to die for Ann. To protect her he faces giant lizards and even an entire family of Tyrannosaurus rexs. Indeed, one gets the feeling that he even climbs the Empire State Building because of Ann. Here Kong is, the inhabitant of an ancient island facing 20th century technology. He knows that he will die in the end, but he must protect the one he loves. After years of living alone, Kong at last found a reason to live for and to die for.
Indeed, it is the climax atop the world's most famous skyscraper that makes Jackson's King Kong superior to the original. It is not simply the advanced FX technology, it is the scenes between Ann and Kong. Both know what is going to happen. Both know that in the end the biplanes will win. Yet neither will give the other one up. It is arguably one of the most tragic and most romantic endings of any film.
If the original film continues to be popular with grown men long after they have ceased to be boys, perhaps it is because we can sympathise with Kong, even identify with him. I know I do. Peter Jackson's remake increases the sympathy for Kong and identification with him. Forget that he is a giant gorilla. He is Everyman.
Here I must point out that despite the fact that it is a tragedy, Jackson's King Kong does have a sense of humour. There are some hilarious scenes between Denham and Ann, between Driscoll and Ann, and even between Kong and Ann. And there are a number of injokes for fans of Merrian C. Cooper and the original King Kong, not to mention one injoke that only long time fans of Peter Jackson will get (and it doesn't have to do with Heavenly Creatures or LotR).
I realise that there are those who will scoff, that there will be doubters who read this review. But Jackson's King Kong is a truly great film. It is an old time adventure story and a story about love that will bring out the kid in any adult wiling to be a kid again. Forget Brokeback Mountain and Pride and Prejudice. King Kong is the best film of this year.