Click here to read Meghan O'Rourke's essay about the sexual politics of Peter Jackson's King Kong.
Forget Titanic. Peter Jackson has remade King Kong (Universal) as a spectacular three-hankie tragic love story—sometimes dumb and often clunky and always pretty cornball, but just about irresistible. Watching its gloriously florid climax atop the Empire State Building, wailing teenage girls will bang their heads on the seatbacks in front of them. Grown men will weep at their own inadequacies. Giant gorillas will beat their chests in vindication.
His structure is nearly identical to the great 1933 original, which was a lean, muscular, and rather stoic piece of work. Jackson's is cluttered, groaning with period detail, and endlessly show-offy—a riot of computer-generated effects. He seems to be crowing: "I love the first Kong, I was weaned on it. But lookee lookee at what I can do!" Jackson began as a splatter director, and there are horror-meister touches throughout. But there's also a dose of Cecil B. DeMille-style extravagance—and shamelessness. The eighth wonder of the world isn't Kong; it's Jackson's cojones.
Jackson and his co-screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, are smart to give their King Kong a social context, even if they don't follow through on the implications. In the first act, they serve up Hoovervilles and soup kitchens—in grim contrast to all the Deco skyscrapers going up. Jackson alludes to the famous Lewis Hine photographs of workers way atop the almost-completed Empire State Building—little do they know the space will soon be occupied by a giant gorilla.
Even more astutely, they de-bimbo-fy the actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), who's now a vaudeville performer with a tender regard for an old duffer on the edge of losing what livelihood he has. She's tempted, but she won't debase herself by doing striptease. She's inspired by the work of Jack Driscoll, a social dramatist in the Clifford Odets mode. And she's a melancholy fatalist, obviously unlucky in love. She tells the hot-dog impresario Carl Denham (Jack Black) that "good things never last," and Denham—desperate for a slender blonde leading lady after his star decamps—replies that she can trust him, he's a movie producer for crying out loud, and that Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) has written his screenplay. One step ahead of the creditors, Denham, Ann, Driscoll, and a bevy of colorful supporting actors chug off in search of the legendary, fog-shrouded Skull Island. That's the first hour—the groundwork slowly laid for the movie's true star.
The first thing one notices about this CGI Kong (modeled on the work of actor Andy Serkis—Gollum) is that he's not the two-legged lumberer of the other versions. He moves on all fours. He leaps. He's very fast. The most obvious way in which Jackson ups the ante is by upping the pace. The action is even more headlong than in Spielberg's Jurassic Park and The Lost World—although Jackson doesn't have Spielberg's elegance. The showpiece of this Kong is a multileveled sequence in which the giant gorilla (holding Ann) battles three hungry dinosaurs while plunging down into a mammoth gorge: falling from tree branch to tree branch as he's chomped, and smashing back and keeping Ann just out of range of all the snapping jaws. The army of computer guys must have pulled a lot of overtime. This is Jackie Chan stuff in three dimensions—a three-ring circus that would leave even Spielberg going, "Damn!" (But why oh why does Jackson insert cheesy-looking slow-motion subjective camera shots at moments of extreme stress?)
However jawdropping the big effects (there's a dinosaur stampede and some giant white worms who suck men into their squishy maws), they're elbowed aside by scenes of tender intimacy. To keep the gorilla from tossing her away (or eating her), Ann juggles and hoofs and does her vaudeville shtick, and Kong enjoys knocking her down with his giant index finger and watching her scramble to her feet. When she tells him to cut it out, he throws a hissy fit. He shakes the theater with his roars, rips out a few trees, hurls a few boulders, and beats his chest. But he knows—as so many of us know—that it's not a battle he can win.
Serkis makes Kong remarkably fluid in his emotions: This is the first giant gorilla with an actor's subtext. He even has spells of depression, staring out from his cliff-throne at the sunset—a lonely monarch, indeed. King Kong reminded me a of a movie called The Guest, in which Athol Fugard plays the South African writer, scientist, and morphine-addict Eugene Marais—a man who identified profoundly with the baboons who'd stare every day in forlorn isolation at the sinking sun. Ann's juggling doesn't assuage Kong's terminal loneliness. So, she lies beside him and they have a little snooze. He makes her feel so safe, so protected against all the T-Rexes and giant spiders and big sucking thingummies. When the heroic Driscoll appears to liberate her, she hesitates. How can he need her as much as Kong does? The cowboy lovers of Brokeback Mountain despair of making a life in civilization like the one they have in that elemental wilderness and ask: Can one build on Brokeback Mountain? Well, it's a piece of cake next to building on Skull Island.
Jackson doesn't deal with the implicit racism of King Kong—the implication that Kong stands for the black man brought in chains from a dark island (full of murderous primitive pagans) and with a penchant for skinny white blondes. But the director has supplied a fatherly black man (Evan Parke) on the crew to look after a teenage misfit (Jamie Bell): See, blacks aren't all out of place in civilization! Some even take care of whites! (Parke and Bell—whose character is reading Heart of Darkness—have the movie's biggest groaner: "This is not an adventure story, is it?" "No, Jimmy. It's not.")
Jack Black's increasingly despicable Carl Denham is an odd piece of casting that doesn't quite come off. Black has hustle and good, glittering eyes, but the part needs some stylization, some period flair—and Black is too modern a hipster. Adrien Brody is dewy, but he looks great typing away on the screenplay in an animal cage below deck. (Look, it's a screenwriter. Don't feed him while he's working!) Naomi Watts, however, is pure gold: spark plus heart. Jackson couldn't computer-generate a lovelier heroine. Ann and Kong, sittin' in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g. Well, not really. It has to be platonic, alas. But this is the first King Kong that makes you dream of the possibilities.
Update (12/16/05): David Edelstein's response to charges of kneejerk liberalism and/or racism is here.