A Dream Come True: Peter Jackson's King Kong
Remakes are nothing new in Hollywood and that can certainly be said for the classic story of King Kong. Beginning with Meriam C. Cooper's 1933 landmark creature feature, it's been retold twice in a major way; first with Dino De Laurentiis' 1976 partial misfire, and again in 2005 by Peter Jackson. This weekend, we'll get a brand new reimagining of the story when Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kong: Skull Island rampages into theaters everywhere. It's been over ten years since Peter Jackson unleashed his version of King Kong on audiences that had become accustomed to his epic sense of storytelling thanks to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and although it's a period piece, King Kong is still one of the most modern and important blockbusters of the new millennium.
During the post-production stages of Return of the King, Jackson's lifelong dream of remaking his favorite film of all time began. It's clear that he has always loved monsters; you can see the influence in almost every picture he's made, so it makes sense that he would eventually put his stamp on The Eighth Wonder of the World. His King Kong is both faithful to the original but also much more action packed and vast in scope - not just a story of beauty and the beast, but a ripping adventure yarn featuring a stellar cast, insane action sequences, and revolutionary (to this day) visual effects. Weta Digital really went to town on this film, using Jackson's preferred method of using both CGI and miniatures to achieve a realistic effect and even ten years after its Holiday 2005 release, King Kong is still a groundbreaking achievement.
A main part of the effects holding up is Andy Serkis, motion-capture extraordinaire. In recent years he's taken on the role of Caesar in the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise, but back in 2005 we first got a glimpse at his unique understanding of what makes a gorilla tick. Unlike previous iterations of King Kong, or even Kong: Skull Island, this Kong is simply an oversized Silverback Gorilla. His movements are incredibly accurate to a real-life ape, even down to the way he interacts with humans. Look up any video of Koko the gorilla (the famous sign language ape) and you'll notice numerous similarities. Here is a Kong that you truly care about over the course of this three and a half hour film - you root for him, you don't fear him but you fear for him, and in the end, you cry for him. Never before or since has a King Kong film or CGI effect elicited such a response.
In addition to the wonderful Andy Serkis, the rest of the cast is truly on point, giving their all to Jackson's insane vision. Naomi Watts is a vision here giving one of the best performances with a CGI creation that I've seen. She sells it as Anne Darrow and makes the audience believe that yes, there really is a 25 foot tall gorilla standing in front of her. Her character moments with Adrien Brody are classic in a way. Brody, playing a writer who can pack a punch, plays a bit against type here, as Action Star isn't exactly the first phrase that comes to mind when thinking of Oscar winning lead of The Pianist. That said, these two make a great combo in the face of the absolute horror to be found on Skull Island.
Major credit must be given to Jackson for deciding to cast Jack Black in the role of film director Carl Denham. Black is magnificent, with a performance that isn't just surface level. A man that is haunted by past failures in the film industry, there's a darkness to the man that Black keeps just under the surface. Another highlight here is Kyler Chandler as Bruce Baxter, the star of Denham's picture. He's a terrific comedic foil to the ongoings of the expedition, and Chandler revels in switching to full-on diva mode, constantly mugging and hamming it up when needed. The cast that's been assembled is one of the main reasons the film works so well, thanks to them you're never bored and always invested in the proceedings.
King Kong might have the most action of any blockbuster, impressing at every turn. The first hour may be all setup, gathering the characters and setting the story in motion, but once Jackson gets to Skull Island, you better buckle up buttercup. It's just one crazy action set-piece after another as the team fights everything from stampeding Brontosaurus to giant insects to velociraptors. Meanwhile on another part of the island, Kong is protecting Watts during one of the most epically staged battles I've ever seen. The fight between Kong and two (!) T-Rexes is a thing of beauty, featuring amazing fight choreography, at least three separate locations, and of course ending with that satisfying crack of the Rex's jaw.
Once the film gets to the inevitable conclusion in New York City, Jackson is able to have a field day with some iconic Depression Era imagery. Vaudeville, Broadway, Hoovervilles, everything is here and with much more detail than in the original '33 film. For obvious reasons, that version's filmmakers didn't want to showcase to harshness of the Depression, seeing as how America was still struggling through it, but with a modern lens, Jackson is able to transport you to a different time in America. This NYC feels real and lived in, thanks to the use of actual sets as well as CGI backgrounds and matte paintings. It sounds cliche to say that 'every dollar is on the screen' but in this case it truly is.
As Kong and Watts wander through the city, with the National Guard hot on their tails, a rare moment of beauty is allowed as the couple come across a frozen pond in Central Park. Derided by many as breaking the flow of the story, it's possibly my favorite scene in the film. Jackson knows that after two and a half hours of action, we need a breather, and so does Kong. A lovely ice dance ensues, further strengthening the bond between beauty and the beast. Of course that scene is short lived as the National Guard quickly chases Kong to the top of the Empire State Building. If this finale doesn't get you worked up, nothing will. It's not only an impeccably staged final sequence, it's heartbreaking as well. Here, Serkis does the best work of his career, and it's an unforgettable moment in blockbuster cinema.
A blockbuster remake in both scale and emotion, Peter Jackson's King Kong is one for the ages. It has everything that made the original great, and adds heaps of action to an already action packed story. It's rare that a three and a half hour film moves at such a swift pace, but Jackson is able to keep your interest with bonkers action, effects, and some sweeping melodrama. It's that elusive mega budget film that tells a familiar story but with a heart that's sorely missed by most pictures. Most will remember Jackson as the guy that made six films set in Middle Earth, and rightfully so, but for me, it will always be Kong.