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Beauty Trumps the Beast

 

King Kong

Peter Jackson, USA, 2005

Rating: 3.5

 

Posted: December 19, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

There hasn't been much in Peter Jackson's body of work to suggest that he's a master of misdirection: From early horror-fests like Dead Alive through Heavenly Creatures and, of course, The Lord of the Rings, what you see is what you get. But with King Kong, Jackson's post-Rings attempt at solidifying his base as an A-list blockbuster director, he pulls a classic bait-and-switch worthy of the movie's ethically challenged filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black). Jackson leads us into the theater with promises of thrilling action and the lifelike CGI depiction of a giant ape, touted by Denham as "the eighth wonder of the world." But once we're safe in our seats, he pulls the big switcheroo. It's not Kong whom Kong reveals to be the eighth wonder of the world: it's the luminous Naomi Watts.

Watts steps into Fay Wray's pumps as aspiring actress Ann Darrow, whom the desperate Denham latches onto as the leading lady for his upcoming film. Only problem is, the film's backers want to pull out, so he's got to get her aboard the steamer S.S. Venture -- supposedly bound for Singapore -- so the cast and crew can take off before his investors can catch up to him in time to call a halt to production. But Denham's not actually headed to Singapore. Having come into possession of an ancient map, the huckster convinces the ship's captain to set a course for the uncharted Skull Island, hoping that the exotic, never-before-seen location will give his flagging career a boost.

Unless you've spent your entire life with your nose buried in puerile video games, you know what comes next. The Venture makes it to Skull Island, a scary place teeming with nasty critters, dinosaurs and unsettling natives who kidnap Darrow and offer her as a sacrifice to appease King Kong, the 25-foot ape who lords over the island like a breast-beating two-year-old. The cast and crew -- including screenwriter/playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), action-movie hero Bruce Baxter (a perfectly hammy Kyle Chandler of Early Edition fame), the grave captain (Thomas Kretschmann), his tough-yet tender first mate (Evan Parke) and an annoying and undeveloped kid named Jimmy (played by Billy Elliot -- er, Jamie Bell) -- rescue her and subdue the beast, taking it back to Depression-era New York City, where it chafes at its captivity and ultimately takes Darrow on an iconic date to the top of the Empire State Building, where destiny and film immortality await.

Jackson puts his stamp on King Kong by dragging the story out to a patience-testing (to say nothing of bladder-testing) three hours, mainly so that he can cram in a whole movie-within-a-movie's worth of perilous adventure set pieces on Skull Island. Jackson and his production company get to show off their creativity with a host of creepy-crawlies that prove as dangerous to the Venture's embattled crew as those aforementioned dinosaurs. (The Kong production offices doubtless had the cleanest cutting-room floor in cinema history; it's hard to imagine Jackson left any footage out of this bloated beast of a film.)

Yes, there's an argument to be made (and others have made it) for the movie's symmetrical three-act structure, with the first and third acts taking place in New York and the second on Skull Island. But c'mon: This is King Kong, not King Lear. Ultimately, this is a popcorn flick about a giant ape who, once taken from his natural habitat, tragically dies. Yes, nature is once again brought low by man. (Somewhere, the members of PETA are furiously churning out a raft of "We told you so!" press releases.)

But while the action scenes on Skull Island are impressive, they're nothing more than expensive padding. Okay, Peter, we get that Skull Island is a dangerous place unlike any other on Earth, and that Kong is a bad mutha-effer for surviving it, and thus his death at the hands of man is ironic. But, you know, some of us have bladder-control issues, and besides, the movie could arguably make more money with a shorter running time that allows more screenings per day.

Whatever. Andy Serkis, who so memorably brought Gollum to life in Rings, here "plays" Kong via the magic of motion-capture technology, allowing Jackson's effects gurus to map their CGI creation over his actual movements. It is, to be sure, a moving performance -- Serkis does convince us of Kong's tenderness toward Ann Darrow.

But c'mon -- she's played by Naomi Watts, who proves here that she's one of the most gorgeous screen actresses in cinematic history. Unlike her longtime friend Nicole Kidman, who's becoming increasingly pinched (call it the Renée Zellweger effect), Watts literally shines whenever she's onscreen, especially when she's running, leaping or being thrown around by Kong in suitably skimpy clothing. No matter the digitally generated images she's in competition with, when Watts is onscreen there's no taking your eyes off of her. Other than Scarlett Johansson, she's very likely the only actress alive today with the potential to make us forget all about Marilyn Monroe.

Kong's effects magic is laudable -- a protracted sequence in which the ape saves her from not one, not two, but three Jurassic Park-worthy evolved Tyrannosaurs (called V. Rexes) is a contender for one of the best extended action scenes of all time. But we've seen it all before, and none of it ever thrills us as much as it should. Computer-animated trickery may have finally lost its ability to bewitch us. But the same can't be said of Watts. In an effects-driven blockbuster about man vs. nature, it's not the mighty CGI beast that moves us: It's the beauty.

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