Chest thumpers and sensitive guys
For all the technical wizardry on display in director Peter Jackson’s King Kong, there are overtones of insecurity here and there. Jackson’s script, written with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, even expresses them a couple of times, in dialogue they give to Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), the screenwriter of King Kong’s film within the film.
As Driscoll is sailing with film director Carl Denham (Jack Black) on their fateful voyage, he talks with actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) about the new play he’s writing for her. He tells her it’s about a man who doesn’t express his feelings for the woman he loves. “It’s in the subtext,” he says. Later, as Denham exhibits the captive Kong in New York, Driscoll stands looking at the tacky stage show Denham has built around Kong and comments on “Carl’s infinite ability to destroy the thing he loves.” Since Black seems to have been cast as Denham because of a certain resemblance to Jackson (just as, in 1933, Robert Armstrong’s Denham resembled writer-director Merian C. Cooper), it’s easy to wonder if Jackson isn’t making a similar accusation—about destroying the thing he loves—against himself.
Jackson can relax; he hasn’t destroyed King Kong (if the 1976 remake with Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges didn’t do it, nothing could). In fact, he’s done the original considerable honor—but also some slight damage along the way. The honor comes in the form of the jaw-dropping special effects Jackson deploys to tell the story, the pinnacle to date of 21st-century computer imagery.
The damage, on the other hand, ties in with the earlier conversation between Driscoll and Ann: “It’s in the subtext.” In this King Kong, there is no subtext; everything is right there on the movie’s shiny, flawless surface. Of course, audiences in 1933 didn’t need to be told about the Great Depression; they were living it. But those brief scenes still resonate. Jackson, Walsh and Boyens, on the other hand, take us on a tour of depressed New York, ironically set to Al Jolson singing “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” We see almost every apple seller and soup kitchen in town before settling down with our main characters. Such laborious literalism, and obsessive dallying with minor characters, inflates the running time to nearly twice the length of the original.
When the expedition gets to Skull Island, the picture kicks into overdrive, and the second hour is by far the movie’s best. Jackson avoids most of the dumb mistakes committed by the 1976 version, but he repeats a big one: In his version, Ann develops an affection for Kong that matches his feelings for her. But the poignancy of the 1933 film is that Kong’s love for Ann is entirely unrequited; Fay Wray’s Ann is relieved and happy to see the big ape shot off the Empire State Building. He may cherish her, but he’s caused her nothing but nightmares. Many women can identify with that, but it’s just another subtext that falls by the wayside here. What was poignant in 1933 becomes bathetic in 2005.
This changes everything in the last third of the film, back in New York. Out of loyalty to Kong, Ann refuses to participate in Denham’s plans, so Denham, Ann and Driscoll have all gone their separate ways, and the movie has to work to bring them back together. In 1933, Kong breaks loose because he thinks Ann is being attacked; in Jackson’s version, it’s because he’s mad that Denham has hired a different blonde.
When Kong escapes, Ann appears to join him for a moonlight cavort on a frozen lake in Central Park, and her giggling happiness with him drains the danger from what should be the climax of the film. When their skating is broken up by an attack from the U.S. Army, they flee to the top of the Empire State Building. Ann fails to save Kong from the attacking airplanes, and the two share a tearful parting worthy of Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.
In Jackson’s hands, Kong’s night in New York becomes less a rampage than a tantrum, with Ann and Kong just two sweethearts minding their own business when the planes attack. By then, the pace has grown so sluggish that Jackson seems to dawdle, reluctant to bring his labor of love to an end. In 1933, Ann Darrow was relieved when Kong finally fell dead onto Fifth Avenue; in 2005, the audience is.