Tuesday, 4 March 2014

We Three Kongs part two: The King of Hearts

The 2005 remake of King Kong was an unashamed labour of love and devotion for
Peter Jackson.  But sometimes love is blind, especially in the editing suite.

We’ve had the puppet, the performer and now it’s the turn of the pixels
I’m in this film!  Or at least, a very small headline announcing my Knighthood is.   In 2003 I was given an unusual and rather urgent job.  The art Director on the new remake of King Kong needed several mockups of various New York newspapers from the early 1930s composited and then printed in their hundreds.  I was supplied with actual mastheads, page and typeface samples, and then left to design and compose dozens of dummy pages.  The small story announcing my ennoblement was a combination of boredom, desperation and mischief.
It was worth it however when I saw the film with my family, wondering if ‘my’ papers had made the final edit only to find that they appeared prominently in the opening scenes, overlaid with a song from my Dad’s favourite: Al Jolsen.

Paper trail – freshly printed 70-year-old newspapers.
Given Peter Jackson’s apparent reluctance to leave anything out (the film runs a Kong-sized 3 hours and 7 minutes!), I probably needn’t have worried.  But let’s talk about the positives first.

The main reason for re-making a 70 year old fantasy adventure must surely be a technical one: in the digital age every single hair on Kong’s body can be painstakingly rendered, any imaginable scenario can be put on screen.  The effects in Kong 2005 are quite literally flawless, from the recreation of depression era New York to the nightmarish Skull Island (the exact opposite of the beautiful Hawaiian beach scenes in the previous remake) and its primordial denizens.
But watching the pot-bellied, quadrupedal 25-foot Kong of this version, I wonder if the film makers might have missed the point in a little in going to such lengths to make him exactly like a gorilla. To my mind, there was always a little mystery about exactly what the eighth wonder of the world actually was – he’ s more the personification of untamable nature and noble savagery than simply a scaled-up simian.  The gorilla is not noted for its range of facial emotion, either.  Of course, a 1930s impression of what the then little-known and rarely-seen animal actually was would have contributed to the original  film’s depiction of a ‘living myth’.

Apeing nature: the new Kong is indisputably a gorilla, when he’s not Andy Serkis with spots on his face…
Of the cast, Naomi Watt gives the most notable performance, stepping into Fay Wray’s shoes and building a complex rapport with her giant admirer.  Wray herself is referenced in a dizzying piece of post modernism, said to be filming with Director Merian C Cooper over at RKO as the original Kong theme looms onto the soundtrack.  Alas, whether she would ever agree to long-standing plans for her appearance at the end of the 2005 film remains unanswered, as she died shortly after her meeting with Peter Jackson.
Watt herself gives Ann Darrow the bright, hopeful exterior but inner core of toughness which a struggling actress in Depression-struck Manhattan would surely need.

Of the other two leads, I’m afraid the rather vulgar Jack Black only comes across as stunt casting to me, while the lugubrious Adrian Brody seems completely out-of-place.  They both acquit themselves well, but wouldn’t have been my choices. Better is Thomas Kretschmann as Englehorn, merely a salty sea-cipher in the original, now a charismatic figure capable of stealing the screen from the leads.

“Ugh – it’s horrible – get it off!”, squealed the terrified weta.
The film’s two huge set-pieces are re-crafted with the love and dedication expected.  Firstly, the T-Rex (sorry, V-Rex – the films efforts to depict dinosaurs and a primeval ecosystem which have continued to evolve should be applauded) battle is nothing short of magnificent: tellingly taking a family of the evil saurians to match the verve of the original 1933 stoush.  Perhaps best of all is the climactic stand-off atop the Empire State Building.  My favourite scene of all is the quiet moment which Kong and Ann share on the skyscraper’s ledge, echoing their earlier sunset tryst on Skull Island. Gazing into the dawn-lit sky, Kong imitates Ann’s earlier mime for ‘beautiful’ and her eyes widen as realises how much more than a mere beast he really is; before the roar of the arriving air squadron brutally tears their last tender connection apart.  It tears me apart every time, too.  70 years of race memory means we know exactly what the outcome of this unfair assault will be.  The light literally fading from Kong’s eyes before he falls, in the film’s only justified use of slow motion, is heart breaking.
One of the most iconic images of the twentieth Century is lovingly recreated
And now onto the ‘less positives’ of Kong ‘05:
The fact that it’s simply too long is self-evident.  At times it feels as if the voyage to Skull Island might be happening in real-time - I don’t really care about Jamie Bell’s brattish character or even Carl Denham’s issues with the appalling studio executives.  Jackson’s habit of slipping suddenly into slow motion or even a strange ‘smeary-cam’ only elongates proceedings without any clear advantage.
Worse of all, because this lesson was learned seven decades ago, was the re-inclusion of the ‘spider pit sequence’. Film pioneers from the 1930s realised it slowed down the pace of the film and cut it, and the pit’s pendulous resurrection in this version proves them absolutely right.  Even the soundtrack seems to loose interest during this interminable self-indulgence on the director’s part.

The only remaining still of the original, wisely-excised spider pit sequence.
Key sequences deftly set down by the original film seem unnecessarily laboured in this remake.  Ann’s first meeting with Denham, the first landing on the island and the unveiling of Kong in New York are examples of extended exposition which wasn’t needed in 1933 and certainly isn’t needed here.  Perhaps all this extra screen-time would have been better employed resolving the Kong-sized elephant in the room which only the ’76 remake has ever addressed: How did they get a him from Skull Island to New York?

King Kong is, among other things, a story about human ignorance and greed, manifesting in cruelty and the exploitation of nature.  Sadly, this seems to be more prevalent in this version of the story than others.  The brontosaurus stampede is a thrilling sequence, but the sheer level of death and lethal injury inflicted on these hapless CGI creatures for what seems to culminate in an attempt at comedy relief makes for an uncomfortable watch.  Just because you can put anything on screen doesn’t mean that you always should.
The peaceful survivor of a long-lost race meets a tragic end in the name of a chase scene.
For all its faults, Kong ’05 was a loving attempt to be as faithful to the original film as possible*, made by masters in their field who cared deeply about the legacy they felt privileged to continue.  But as I’ve said before, sometimes you can love something too much. I was delighted to find that a re-watching of the first remake gave a fresh, new take on a very familiar tale, whereas this technically brilliant, but over-egged version mainly just gave me pins and needles and the urge to see the original again.

Which I will do soon, to round off ‘We Three Kongs’ with where it all began.

* A script written pre-Lord of the Rings, when King Kong was to be Jackson’s next film after the Frighteners featured some intriguing variations on the story, including Ann Darrow as the daughter of an archaeologist exploring ancient ruins in Sumatra. Denham's crew would have been encountered independently. The under-performance of the Godzilla and Mighty Joe Young remakes around this time put Kong on the back-burner, until a new script was written and filmed almost ten years later.

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