Friday, December 23, 2005

King Kong

The 2005 King Kong isn't just an action film. It's a love story. Certainly a love story between the Beauty and the Beast, but more than that, a loving tribute to the original 1933 film. Kong fans will spot many homages to the original, including some of the actual props from the original, part of Peter Jackson's personal collection.

I first saw King Kong from the backseat of my parents' car in 1952, when I was four years old. I say "saw," but I really didn't see much. I was hiding, and that seat became a lifesaver for a small child. Still, the image of Kong caring for Fay Wray stuck with me for many years. That movie started my love affair with science fiction/horror movies that has lasted a lifetime.

The love story survives because of the skills of two actors. You probably think I'm going to type the name of "Adrien Brody" here, but I'm not. Brody is effective, is more than a hero than anyone else on this ship which fills the screen for the first half of the film, but he's just an afterthought. The two actors who deserve all the praise are Naomi Watts, who makes us believe she's looking at a flesh-and-blood ape, and Andy Serkis, who, yes, makes us believe we're looking at a flesh-and-blood ape.

The one big criticism I have of Peter Jackson's paean to King Kong is that it's not much of an action film when he had a chance to make it so. The director wastes so much of our time in setting up the drama. We don't need the set-up. We take one look at Naomi's eyes, and we see what she sees. We don't need slide after slide of the Depression to know the stage is set in desperate times. Yet Jackson spends an inordinate amount of time showing us sad scenes, explaining too much about Jack Black's desperation to make a film about....what was that film about? We're needlessly introduced to characters who disappear later. It's a full hour before we get to the scene of all the action, Skull Island. But, oh, what action it is!

We finally get what we paid for when the scenes with Kong start rolling. We instantly feel in our hearts that Kong is the last of his species, the last of the Silverback gorillas, giant-sized, and supposedly king of this prehistoric island. Except that no other critter on this island recognizes his supremacy, and fights him every step of the way, from dinosaurs to insects to bats. These scenes are adrenaline-pumpers; you'll find yourself gulping for air during every scene with huge, menacing dinosaurs trying in their own way to survive. In one sequence, Jackson takes the original 1933 scene of Kong fighting a T-Rex, and amazingly makes it more exciting, bigger. It's a constant battle for the big ape, and he's tired. And angry. We're angry, too, for wasting a good hour to get to the best part of this movie, the reason we came. Kong is exceptional. Kong is an amazing technical achievement. There is nothing in film to this date that can compare with the fact that Kong lives in front of us. Lifting Ann to his face, fighting for her. We see every emotion that wanders across his face. And all of this is due to the superb acting of Andy Serkis.

Andy didn't get enough credit for his "shadowing" of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Jackson gives Serkis full credit in this movie. And, in addition, Andy gets another role as an emotional cook, Lumpy. His character really lights up the screen, and seems the emotional center of the crewmen in spite of an inspired-yet-enigmatic performance by our ship's captain played by Thomas Krestchmann. But it's in Kong that Serkis gives his greatest gift to us. He IS Kong. The scenes between Kong and Ann are so touching that they touch us in surprising ways. So when the love story winds its way towards the inevitable denouement on the top of the Empire State Building, it's Andy and Naomi, and we're pulling for them even though we know the heartbreaking ending.

This is not the film I caught glimpses of behind the backseat of our family Lincoln. It's a different film totally, yet with the same characters and eventual end. We forgive Peter Jackson and his indulgences in setting up the film. The time we spend with Kong is well worth the wait. Kong is King. Thumb's up.


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