Monday, March 11, 2013

King Kong (2005) (Movie Review)

     Monster movies in general are not high art, they’re B movies, popcorn entertainment, and that’s all they really need to be. However, there are some exceptions, when a typical monster movie set-up goes the extra mile, and can be credited as a real work of art. Of course, the first truly great monster movie that can be regarded as a Hollywood classic is 1933’s “King Kong”, and even the monster himself is an icon that deserves more respect than a typical giant monster. However, while “King Kong” in general will always be looked back on as film legend, the majority of his films in the years to come were B grade movies with no question. Some were actually good for all they aimed to be, while others were just embarrassing. However, the 2005 remake “King Kong” is often regarded as a superior entry in Kong’s cinematic franchise, and perhaps even a genuinely good film just a notch below the original. Now, speaking personally, when I first saw this movie upon it’s premier back in 2005 … I absolutely hatted it, and even viewed it as one of the worst theatrical experiences I ever had. However, I’ve grown up sense then, have viewed films differently than I did as a young teenager, and I’m ready to give this remake a second watch, and see if there’s more merit to the film than I originally noticed, or is it still just as boring and uninspired as I remember … let’s find out. 

     As far as remakes are concerned, this is one of those cases in which the story and events are virtually identical to the original, just 3 hours longer, and with a modern look. Filmmaker Carl Denham leads an expedition to a mysterious island, where he hopes to shoot a ground-breaking motion picture. Upon arrival, it’s revealed that the island is populated with living dinosaurs, savage natives and a giant gorilla called Kong. Among the passengers of the film crew is a beautiful young woman named Ann, who gets kidnapped by the natives, and offered as a sacrifice to the mighty King Kong. However, the great beast takes a mysterious liking to her, and after rescuing her from several ferocious creatures, she in return gains feelings for the mighty ape. Carl on the other hand see’s the beast as an opportunity to make even more money than he ever would have just making a film. Thus, Kong is captured, and shown off in full display on stage in New York … where nothing could possibly go wrong. Whenever I see a remake or reboot, I want the film to give a new spin on it, and change things up in a way that’s unique. This was my biggest issue with the film when it first came out, as it just felt so pointless in being a copy and pace job of the original ... right down to the exact same opening title card sequence. Yet, after giving this film a second viewing as an adult, I did find myself engaged by the experience, and found just enough details that … might not make it better than the original, but good enough to stand on its own. 

       Without a doubt, I think the original is the all-around better movie … but, King Kong as an individual creature and character, I think is actually superior in the 2005 remake. The original was all about the exploration of whether or not a giant monster could have a heart, while this new portrayal goes a step further, and seems to explore whether or not an animal could have a soul. While the original Kong behaved more like an animal following emotional instincts, this Kong seems to make a deeper connection with our lead girl, and displays true feelings akin to the love which stems from a human soul. This in return makes Kong feel more like a character rather than a giant monster, and I just found myself feeling more connected to the mighty beast as portrayed in this film. Andy Serkis plays the motion captured performance of Kong, and he really brings the ape to life. He gives Kong the proper movement and posturing of an animal, but laced with the physical emotion and personality of an individual. One of my favorite little details is how after rescuing the girl from a T-Rex, he sits down and postures like he wants a “thank you” for what he did. I’m sure some could argue that Kong should behave more like an animal, but I always viewed Kong as a character with feelings, and more than just a big animal. So, despite being a cut and pace of the original story, I still really love this portrayal of Kong, and personally, this is my favorite version of the character on film thus far.

     I also think that our female lead in this version is superior, as the original girl was certainly likable, but Naomi Watts takes the role of Ann Darrow, and gives her an edge. She’s vulnerable and often needs to be rescued, but she also displays strength, courage and isn’t a cliched screaming damsel stereotype. 

Also, acting off a giant monster is challenging to pull off, yet Naomi Watts makes it convincing, gives the damsel role a reasonable sense of dignity in the process, and without too much mellow drama. I like how she makes a connection with Kong by entertaining him, making him laugh, but also standing her ground, and saying no when the ape pushes her too far. Seeing her actually talk back to Kong is great, and it irritates Kong, yet leaves an impression on him, which he somehow respects. I also like that the two have quiet moments, where they just sit down, observe the beauty of a sunset, and while she clearly knows she doesn’t belong with the big ape, she’ll still make the effort to have a positive connection with the beast. The down side is that, this film gets far too carried away by giving this relation a romantic angle. The original had a simplicity in which our lead felt sorry for the ape, but this one just gets too close to Kong, to the point where their actually ice skating together. I distinctly remember seeing that on the big screen for the first time, and just feeling embraced I was watching it.   

     The remaining cast, while packed with known talents, can’t help but feel boring and dull in execution. I always found Jack Black an odd choice as Carl Denham, as he just felt too animated in the role. His bug-eyed expression and posturing give him the screen presence of a criminal mastermind, and it’s just off-putting. Adrien Brody plays the human boyfriend, and he’s about as exciting as watching paint dry. I get that he’s supposed to be relate-able, and down to earth, but that can be done in a way that’s at least engaging to watch, and this just wasn’t. This brings me to all the added fluff in this movie, as there are way too many detours and scenes that just meander on. Now, I’m all for buildup, as movies in the vain of “Jaws” have proven that the most exciting monster encounters are kept off screen, but this film is just tedious, especially with an hour-long boat ride that just deflates the anticipation. There’re also some really odd moments that aim to be artsy, but just come off as silly. Perhaps the most unintentionally funny moment of all is when the author types out the name of Skull Island, and it’s all done in this overly intense editing style, and just feels goofy. Now, there is some build-up that’s effective enough, as I really like the scene with the shady cook relaying the chilling tale of a shipwrecked survivor, and his encounter with the very island their searching for.

     Of course, I need to address director Peter Jackson, who is a very credible filmmaker, and adds a stamp of quality to the film. For all this movies faults, he does still succeed in giving the film a sense of awe and wonder. Also, Peter Jackson was largely inspired by the original, and this remake was clearly a passion project of his, as opposed to a studio trying to make money. I really like all the little details, like all the rocks leading to the island, and how Kong’s face seems to be carved in them. I also like the added detail of giant Gorilla skeletons in Kong’s cave, which indicate that he wasn’t the first of his kind. One minor problem I have is the films representation of 1933’s New York. In general, I never thought that “King Kong” needed to be a period piece, but beyond that, New York in this film just looks synthetic to me. I’m always under the impression that it’s a studio back-lot, and everything from the people, to the vintage vehicles just feels artificial. 

      Let’s talk about the adventure on the island, which starts strong, but goes downhill fast. 
The arrival on the island, and the frightening encounter with the natives is all very effective. I especially like how I can’t even tell what kind of ethnicity these natives are, they’re just really creepy and savage folk. The scene with Ann being offered as a sacrifice is also very well done, and when she gets taken by Kong, it invokes a sense of excitement, like a great adventure is about to begin. Unfortunately, once the quest to rescue Ann takes shape, I find myself getting bored again. I’ll always love a movie with Dinosaurs, but there’s just something off-putting about how their portrayed in this film. The big problem is that it suffers from an overabundance of CGI monsters, and just too much going on in a single scene. I’ll never forget how exciting the original was just by having a single Brontosaurus chasing a man up a tree, but this film goes completely overboard with a stampede of them, Raptors thrown in the mix, and perhaps one of the most disgustingly overblown special effects shots I’ve ever seen in which the Brontosaurus’s are toppling over one-another. There’s also a very boring scene in which our heroes are attacked by giant bugs. While this makes for a cool tribute to a deleted scene from the original, it once again just isn’t exciting to watch, and the CGI bug effects have not aged very well.

      One good scene is the recreation of the iconic moment when Kong attacks the men on the log, as this was shot and filmed with great tension and suspense, but there just aren’t enough good scenes like that. The most upsetting sequences of all was Kong’s big showdown with the T-Rex, which for this film now becomes a brawl with three T-Rex’s at once. It’s another case of too much going on, when the original was satisfying enough with just one T-Rex battling Kong. It felt like a small, yet exciting showdown between two titans, but this film just feels like an over blown monster brawl. The effects and designs of these three T-Rex’s are also really off-putting. I’ll always look back fondly on the T-Rex from “Jurassic Park” as one of the greatest movie monsters of all time, as it genuinely felt like a real monster with size, wait and a frightening presence. The three in this film just look and feel like cartoon monsters, and their desire to eat Ann is just plain ridiculous. It actually gets to a point when a T-Rex is dangling in the air on some vines, but it’s still determined to get Ann in its mouth, like it’s the only possible meal it could ever get. Finally, there’s a very rough transition going from the island setting, and then back to New York. It all happens in the span of a jump cut, and suddenly all three of our principle heroes have apparently been adjusting to their new lives for weeks, or maybe even months, and it’s all quickly rushed through the span of a minuet.  

        Now for all my problems with both the boat ride, and the over stuffed adventure on the island, everything balances out with the film’s final act in which Kong gets loose in New York. This is when the remake really shines, and actually begins to surpass it’s original in many ways. When Kong first breaks out, it never once comes across like a mindless monster on a rampage, but rather a character we’ve come to sympathies with who’s now lost in a larger setting. I also love the running joke of Kong picking out random blonds in a desperate attempt to find Ann, only to cast them aside. The two reuniting in the street was a bit cringe-y, but I at least like the idea of her willingly going to Kong as opposed to him kidnapping her like in the original. Another great touch is when Kong climbs the Empire State building with Ann, and they share a moment that echoes back to their initial hill top sunset. The finale with Kong battling the planes is an absolute marvel to behold, and a rare case in which I find myself enjoying the remake over the original. While the action on the jungle island was way too over stuffed, this climax keeps the event simple, but presents it on a grand and breathtaking scale. The way this scene was shot, lit, passed, and performed is film-making at it’s finest, and it maintains a happy balance between both the spectacle and the drama. While I still felt the romantic angle was taken too far, I absolutely love the added details of Ann standing in front of Kong, and trying desperately to get the plains to stop firing on him. The final moments the two share together are just effective enough, and the film closes on a proper melancholy, yet genuinely high note.

      In the end, this movie never had a direct follow-up, it was self-contained, but it still felt kind of pointless, as it was a mirror image of the original classic. For as bad as other films in the franchise got, I at least admired them for doing something different with the mighty ape. Still, I can’t deny a competently made film, with a firm direction, and genuinely admirable qualities. It won three Oscars for best special effects, best sound editing, best sound mixing, and also had a nomination for best art direction. While I can’t say the film has completely won me over, I’m thankfully not as resentful about it as I initially was. It has strengths, and even some fair improvements over the original. Plus, for all its shortcoming’s, it dose convey a very majestic sense of wonder laced with its spectacle. This in turn makes it the closest in spirit to the original film, rather than just another cheesy monster flick. In general, I’d recommend the original, but this 2005 remake at least contains enough merit to make it worth a single viewing.

I give the 2005 remake of “King Kong” 3 stars out of 5.    

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