Peter Jackson is out of control. The Jackson who gave us the Freudian overtimes in Dead Alive, the intricate psychology of Heavenly Creatures and a sweet love story in the highly disturbing Muppets satire Meet the Feebles, in short the Jackson who once took chances, is no longer around. The filmmaker who once dared to instill subtext and nuance into disrespectful genres, has been replaced by an overgrown adolescent who has run amuck, a fortysomething toddler whose storytelling abilities have been occluded by a need to fling random computer-generated bodies around and spend countless dollars on special effects.
This is not to suggest that King Kong is without its merits. It is enjoyable in a ridiculous over-the-top way at times. It can be viewed, after its insufferable opening 75 minutes (written with dialogue so hackneyed and didactic it could have been lifted from an old ABC afterschool special and an aw-shucks savant named Jimmy reading Heart of Darkness and an Asian servant stereotype to boot), as an exercise in seeing just how far Jackson will push his Barnum-style showmanship (for this is, after all, an expensive and sensationalist circus). For my money, the fun started at the dinosaur run, which operates as a methed up Jurassic Park, although without that sense of wonder that greeted Spielberg’s film. But when one is watching a movie just to see what a filmmaker will throw in next, that’s hardly a suitable motivation for experiencing film, even when it wears its exhibitionism on its sleeve.
Jack Black is woefully miscast. Robert Armstrong’s Denham wasn’t an eyebrow-raising scenery chewer, but a man fully committed to his hucksterism. The great Naomi Watts is wasted, reduced to a doe-eyed cartoon offering us the most cliched idealism in the first hour and a sense of Kong-centric solicitude in the last two hours that isn’t particularly convincing. She’s also not much of a screamer. Adrien Brody is better, but he is given nothing other than a Clifford Odets/Barton Fink-style stereotype.
It’s worth pointing out that any film which has its heroine wearing high heels while climbing up a ladder to the top of the Empire State Building is highly suspect. If one considers this homage, then I suppose it works in the way that Jackson’s cameras flying over skylines represent an improvement in technology that Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack didn’t have. But I was never really convinced of this Skull Island or New York the way I was the 1933 original. I never cared for the characters or had a reference point for where the story was heading. I’m curious what gives Jackson a fair pass and Lucas, who is similarly inept, a fail. Are the film geeks so caught up with experiencing anything Jackson does or his frequent courting of folks like Harry Knowles that criticism of his overwrought tendencies is no longer welcomed?
Perhaps Jackson’s Kong is best represented by its titular character, who really isn’t much of a character this time around because not only does Jackson edit his Kong sequences with a paucity of master shots, but, despite the who knows how many dollars that have gone into making Kong’s fur bristle convincingly in the wind or to tranpose Andy Serkis’s facial expressions onto Kong’s face, this Kong does not have a soul. His movement is slightly off during all FX moments, even during the telltale beatings of the chest (which should be Kong’s ultimate personal signature). And I suspect it is because the film has been rushed for its holiday release or the visual effects team didn’t bother to base their modeling on real gorilla movement. This is a Kong that has been thrown together with buttons and expensive machines. One can clearly see with this Kong that not a single human hand touched it. And this is problematic, given that the whole arc of the picture focuses on Kong.
But more troubling than this is (to my eye) poor attention to detail with some of the visual effects. The blue-screen effects have been rendered without an attempt to match depth of field. Meaning that when one sees an actor in front of such obvious projetion, the disparity between what the camera has set focus at and what the CG people have set focus at seems notably off by large degrees at nearly every moment. Even Kubrick understood how important this was with 2001. Kubrick’s opening ape scenes, for example, were shot on a soundstage with rear projection. But you’d never know it from looking at it because Kubrick was anal about lighting schemes and focus for all corresponding images. No such luck with Jackson, who is clearly too happy to let his anarchy loose without justification.
If we judge this film on the script, we see that it fails. The best dialogue in this picture is extremely self-evident irony or elementary satire. We have Denham explaining, after a fellow crew member has been masticated upon, that he’s making the film and that “all proceeds will go to the family.” (Again, the Barnum tone here, too easily parsed and spelled out for the audience, is suspect.) We have a character mentioning that every B-movie needs a monster. The like. Hardy har. Yes, we’re clued in, Jackson. No need to hit us over the head with the irony mallet. And the gratuitous slow-motion strobe effects don’t help either.
I enjoyed this film in spots, but I had absolutely no stake in the characters. I could not care about this Kong. It is the most soulless movie that Jackson has ever made. It doesn’t strike me as innovative. It doesn’t strike me as particularly trusting. And as much as I bemoan Spielberg’s blatant manipulative devices, I think that Jackson (with Kong, at least) might have outfoxed Spielberg in the shameless manner he’s worked off the roller-coaster ride impulse.
Kong is a film which takes no chances. With a $200 million budget, it seems too expensive for a movie with a barebones plot. (The 90 minutes of the 1933 original, which doesn’t appear to have been dramatically altered outside of the gushing ape pathos given to Watts, has been stretched out to 3 hours and 7 minutes.) And I suspect that Jackson’s megalomania here is what led to the eleventh hour replacement of composer Howard Shore with James Newton Howard.
Turns out that the real out-of-control ape here is Jackson.