Where to go, when you’ve just overseen an era-defining, universally adored masterwork? Yes. For Peter Jackson, guest editing an issue of Total Film was always going to be a tough act to follow...
We’ll start again.
Where to go, when your shelves are creaking under the weight of 17 Oscars? When you’ve filmed the unfilmable, hushed the purists, herded in the punters, united the critics? When you’ve audaciously re-invented yourself from shabby schlock-jockey to master storyteller with the fantasy flair of Lucas, the cinematic dash of Spielberg and the grand designs of a David Lean or Ridley Scott?
You do something else they say can’t be done, of course. Or at least something that’s been done before, but badly. For Jackson, John Guillermin’s 1976 Kong remake must have served as a virtual check-list of What Not To Do…
Reset in modern times? Well, no – because Denham has to be a Barnum-like chancer selling something genuinely new to an un-jaded audience, - and as Jackson himself has pointed out, the buzzing period biplanes are essential – the alternative being some copper in a chopper spanking the monkey with a rocket-launcher.
The lure of an oil-rich Skull Island? No – because Kong’s kingdom has to be an aberration – something primeval and time-suspended. Forget environmental bugbears, we need bugs the size of bears.
Make the ape/woman relationship a bit lighter and funnier? We’ll get back to that one…
King Kong 2005 isn’t flawless, but it certainly isn’t another committee-driven, box-ticking, beige blockbuster. It’s the work of a visionary director with developing technical skill; pouring heart, soul and a slosh of independent spirit into a project which, under more mainstream control, would surely have imploded like a big-star supernova (Cruise as Jack? Jolie as Ann? Pitt as Carl? Cabin girl Dakota? Cap’n Morgan Freeman?).
While Jackson was constrained by the sheer volume of Rings material, here, he’s set free to steal the soul of his boyhood obsession. His raging passion for the simian superhulk doesn’t so much leap off the screen, it hides under your seat, follows you home and takes you cruelly from behind while you’re brushing your teeth.
With Black’s sly, venal turn as producer Carl, Jackson has channelled a character who jabs at all he finds distasteful about the Hollywood sausage-machine the New Zealand-dweller remains peripheral to. Carl’s presentation to the studio is met by a request that the film contain plenty of “boobies”. There’s a tweak for the sniffier reviewers (“Monsters belong in ‘B’ movies!”), a one-liner for industry screenings (“Trust me – I’m a movie producer!”), and even a nod to his own struggles, when he was close to being a jobbing director taking knock-backs for Bond movies (“Defeat is always momentary”).
For such a long-faced lightweight, Brody does a reasonable job of turning Jack from buttoned-up scribbler to an action badass with – yes! – a dirty white vest, and Watts is a wonder – all willowy and winsome with big, bright, haunted eyes. She captures the breathy ’30s-style beautifully. “You’re all I’ve got!” she tells a craggy mentor. If only some great alpha-apeman would come along and sweep her away…
It’s a good hour before Venture’s hull crumples against the jagged edge of Skull Island – and another ten or fifteen minutes before we catch a glimpse of the chimp. But Kong is a colossus. Far, far from the original’s comical stiffness, Jackson’s ape is alive with emotion. He strides, he stomps, he snorts, he leaps, he lunges, he roars, he snores. He lives. Every inch of his fuzzy fur prickles with vitality: his howl, his growl, his yawn, his scowl, his furry great gut, his imperious strut… Best of all is his big grumpy old-man face. It’s as if the adventurers are naughty boys who’ve woken him from a noon nap and no, they can’t have their ball/blonde back.
Using an actor with the wiry athleticism of Andy Serkis as motion-capture blueprint was a dash of genius. Giving Kong too much emotion (bloke in a gorilla suit!) is what made the 1976 rehash so daft and grotesque. But by blending CGI and Serkis’ studied physicality, Jackson has hit just the right note of authenticity – casually evolving the reality/FX hybrid he and Serkis began with Gollum. This Kong isn’t just a brute force of nature. He feels. Attacked, he howls with outrage. When Ann tries to escape, he sulks. The crucial Kong-Ann relationship has been carefully cranked to just the right level of tenderness and dignity. The scene where Ann tries to cheer Kong up with a spot of vaudeville (pratfalls raise a snigger, not too keen on the juggling) is a joy, but a later sequence where the two, er, go ice-skating is destined to divide audiences between dreamy sighs and unintentional guffaws.
Apart from Kong, the film’s other key CGI character is Skull Island itself – dripping with family-size freaks (droning dragonflies, squatting lizard-monsters, fluttering cockroaches, spindly centipedes, swooping bats, scuttling scorpion-spiders, gut-spinning raspberry-jelly… penis-worm things). Mostly, the clanging sound design lends believable beef to the CGI (the hollow monster-munch thunk of hungry jaws, filling-loosening howls, bowel-shuddering footfalls), but a stampeding brontosaurus sequence feels way too videogamey – a daft attempt to out-dinosaur Jurassic Park.
Still, Kong vs T-Rex? Try Kong vs three T-Rexes – in a titanic, 20-minute brawl featuring head-locks, arm-chomps, wrestling tussles, judo-flips… all stumbling and tumbling in one great squirming onslaught of rumble and rhythm.
Kong clunks when Jackson steps away from his ringmasterly command of sheer spectacle and tries a little too hard. Iffy flecks of pantomime-style comic relief – japes amid the apes – veer from funny to fussy. The teeming urban Art Deco production design (where everyone wears hats) feels stage-managed and sterile, with little sense of any real Depression biting into the Big Apple. There’s also an unwelcome artsiness creeping in to Jackson’s style (ropey literary nods, a forced big-up of the Arrogance Of ‘Civilisation’ theme, some queasy slo-mo and motion/sound blur…). It’s like Grandad over-complicating a sturdy bedtime story by dragging in a big bag of props.
But he never loses sight of the story’s essence: doomed romance. The dizzying finale still throbs with tragic majesty, as Kong conquers the highest man-made point – king of his captors’ world – before, with one last sparkle in his sage old eyes, he slides away, and the fall is a silent eternity...
Jackson was nine when he first saw the original, 12 when he banged together a home-made stop-motion version. Now, with his post-Rings absolute power, he’s come full circle. He tells interviewers he doesn’t do it for the money, he does it because he can. King Kong is a $200 million labour of love. “I feel like a kid again,” he said, recently. You will, too.
Epic escapism. A two-hour movie ironed out to three. Like it matters. Kong is king and Jackson is the geek who's inherited the movie-Earth.