Monday, December 12, 2005

Kong Review

KING KONG reviewed by John Shirley

Directed by Peter Jackson, starring Adrien Brody, Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Andy Serkis. Written by Fran Wash, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson.

"It's not an adventure story, is it?" says the character Jimmy in Peter Jackson's more-than-a-remake of King Kong. Jimmy's referring to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a work much invoked in this film, but he's also clearly talking about King Kong, and he's right: it's not an adventure so much as a story of inner exploration. It's also a love story. A story of love between a woman and a giant ape.

You know the story, don't carp about spoilers: Movie director has a map providing directions to an unknown island, wants to film its mysteries, finds a lost world reminiscent of Conan Doyle's, teeming with dinosaurs and dominated by the giant ape, Kong. The pretty blond beauty, Naomi Watts in this version, is kidnapped by natives to be sacrificed to Kong, and, though terrified, she instead develops a peculiar rapport with him, as he protects her against dinosaurian predators. She's rescued by her beau, and the director manages to drug the giant ape and take him back to New York, where disaster and tragedy ensue. But wait—there's more.

This being an homage as well as a fresh take, it's set in the era of the original, the 1930s, against the backdrop of the Depression, the decay of Vaudeville—both nicely presented in quasi-Felliniesque scenes—with somewhat familiar coldblooded movie studio types propelling Jack Black as Carl Denham, the grasping and manipulative director, into fleeing the country in a rusty old tramp steamer—itself an homage to a whole genre of adventure films--so they don't seize his basic footage. Without his star he plucks one from the chorus line of the unemployed, Naomi Watts, likable and affecting as Ann Darrow, and nearly drags her aboard the tramp steamer, where she meets the vain, Lex Barker-like leading man, and, more importantly, Adrien Brody, sullenly attractive as screenwriter Jack Driscoll. Since Driscoll is fated to rescue her on Skull Island, they've got to set up his motivation, so they make sure you know he falls in love with her, in the course of the voyage to the island. Jackson and writers have to kind of rush that romance, to set it up in time, and you never do quite believe in it—but then the characters in the film are all fairly sketchy. They have to be, the movie doesn't have time for back-stories, it deals in archetypes, because the archetype of primate sexuality, rage, and loneliness has to crowd out the rest of it: Make room for Kong.

The ship too is crowded, so much so that poor Driscoll has to bunk in a cage kept in the hold for wild animals. The writer, forced to sit in a cage and type—that kind of symbolism I relate to.

When they get to the island, basically crashing into it in the fog, they quickly encounter the most repellently savage savages you've ever seen in cinema. Jack Black, quite convincing as Denham, pretends he's going to give the receipts of his masterwork to the family of the men killed, in their memory, but we quickly realize he's full of crap, he'll say and do anything to get his film made. (Does Jackson emphasize this because he knows every director has to be a trampling bully, and he has guilt pangs about it?)

Ann Darrow is inevitably plucked by Kong, like a fruit, from her sacrificial bonds. He seems about to eat her for several minutes, as he rages through the jungle, carrying her in his hand, and here Jackson explores every last possible variant possible to a woman carried in a giant's hands—a kind of Kama Sutra of man-handling by a building-sized ape. We see her flung about helplessly in his grip, at first terrified, then dazed, her mouth open, her hair whipping about, her head flung back, and the comparison to sexual ecstasy is undoubtedly intended. When Kong saves her from three, count 'em three, giant dinosaurs, fighting them all at once, she stands awed and clearly touched, a primal femaleness in her responding to Kong's archetypal primal male protective instincts.

A little later she makes friends with him—even dancing for Kong, a combination of burlesque and jape, trying to keep him entertained, perhaps so he won't eat her. She soothes his savage breast, and they enjoy a sunset together, a scene that's so well handled you somehow believe it.

One of Jackson's challenges was to come up with fresh dinosaurian terror. The Jurassic Park movies are the gold standard of dinosaur mayhem, but Jackson has set a new standard that future explorers of cinematic lost worlds will have to improve on. His dinosaurs look great, dino by dino, and a marvelous scene with T-Rexs entangled with Kong in vines, hanging in a canyon, is a completely unexpected burst of originality.

Jackson has a habit of pushing the envelope on special effects, trying to convey imagery that isn't quite technologically possible yet. A brilliantly imagined dinosaur stampede, with our heroes dodging under gigantic feet, the thunder lizards tumbling over one another, shows its special-effects seams: some of the characters are distorted, warped at the edges, and the scene sometimes has a two-dimensional look. It looks like he tried to do something combining CGI and blue screen that doesn't quite work—but the Niagaral flow of titanic imagery will sweep away most of your objections. Earlier in the film the Time Square scenes are colorful and well-researched but the backdrops aren't always convincing; too, there are moments on Skull Island when some miniatures look, well, miniature.

But Jackson more than makes up for any slight visual defects in the movie--makes up for it with Kong himself, who's a solid, breathing entity, with undoubted presence; the illusion is unprecedentedly perfect. In the magnificent climactic scenes, we see Kong humiliated, depressed, chained--then released, primal rage unchained, to rage magnificently through New York City. The final scenes at the Empire State building largely follow the original film but are of course more immaculately realized—and they're choreographed as artfully as any ballet, as movingly as an opera.

Symbolism enwraps interlocked themes; male sexuality, female desire, hidden agendas, friendly faces hiding monsters, human indifference to suffering, the mindless savagery that is civilization—crueler than any giant ape could be, calling us to a need to redefine our relationship with wildness, with the animal world itself. At one point Jackson rather heavy handedly quotes Heart of Darkness to explain his subtext, telling us we all have to explore our own Skull Islands, come face to face with inner beast, see it as it is, and if not tame it, come to terms with it.

Despite Jimmy's caveat, the movie is bursting at the seams with adventure, but it's the relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow—and between us and Kong—that makes the film work. We feel Kong's loneliness as our own; we feel his desire for contact with the Other as our own; we look into his eyes and recognize ourselves. We come to love the big guy as much as Ann Darrow does.

And when King Kong dies--that's going to be our end too, don't you see. We're apes, who're going to fall on the pavement, shot down by “civilization.”




Blogger starbender said...

Sounds like a good flick!

8:17 PM  

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