With the release of Kong: Skull Island this past weekend, it’s tempting to think back to that last King Kong movie you might remember. Faded golden art deco, the golden glow of Naomi Watts lit in soft focus. Jack Black as a determined movie director, dedicated to making his picture at the loss of men and equipment alike. A few tyrannosaurus rex’s fighting an extra-large monkey.
Maybe it’s time to take a step back and look at Peter Jackson’s 2005 opus King Kong.
On second thought, maybe it’s best left in the past. Whatever you remember about King Kong it is probably something having to do with a dreadfully boring fight between multiple T-Rex’s and the outsized Kong, or Jack Black as a carnival barker of a movie director or maybe length. The most memorable thing about King Kong is the length. At its shortest, the movie is still a three hour beast, in its extended cut it’s three hours and twenty minutes.
If you can get past that extended timeline, maybe plan in a few breaks to stretch your legs and remind yourself of the existence of the sun, you still have to put up with a plot that drags along in a way that would make glaciers envious. The first thirty minutes is dedicated to Naomi Watt’s career as a struggling actress, turning down roles at ‘30’s era strip clubs before being snatched up on accident by Jack Black’s struggling director. The toughest part of this is that it’s clear that these scenes are set up, but you’re so buried in the muck it’s hard to find the glimmers of payoff when they arrive. Watts’s career as a vaudeville performer pops up later in her cliffside performances for Kong, but Jackson never says something in a single scene that he couldn’t say in five.
Where King Kong suffers is in its emotionality. Clearly there is a twisted love affair between Jack Black’s performance as an unbalanced director and the magic of cinema. There’s even a father son relationship between two crew members that goes precisely nowhere. The movie wants us to believe that there is a love affair between Adrien Brody’s thoughtful playwright and Watts’s down and out actress, but their attraction is so flat it’s delivered in dialogue rather than in performance. Watts has more chemistry with the camera than with Brody. She lights up the screen, and it’s easy to see how she was spotted on a grimy street or why everyone stops when she shows up. Jackson has made it so that she literally lights the screen, soft filters highlighting her pearlescent skin and her curling blonde hair. When they say “Was Beauty that Killed the Beast,” you understand it because she’s like a mosquito lamp:a thing so beautiful, you can’t help but be pulled towards her despite her deadly embrace.
Brody himself delivers a good performance as a somewhat hapless writer turned action hero, a role the movie seems aware is against type. When the actual action hero turns tail and runs, it’s Brody’s reedy frame that climbs the mountain and rescues Watts from the clutches of the gorilla. Black too plays such a nuanced role as both fierce dreamer and egotistical showman, gamely filming even when it seems that any sane man would’ve fled, that it’s a shock more directors haven’t cast him in dramatic roles.
The computer generated effects have not aged well. With a CGI spectacle like King Kong this is difficult. One of your main characters is a giant ape, and he moves in this with a sinuous fluidity that betrays his CG foundations. In one particular canyon run sequence where the crew flees from long necked dinosaurs, the shot is a jumble of grey dinosaur meat interspersed with real life actors running across superimposed “flesh.” It’s comical in the worst way, feeling less like a well crafted sequence and more like a theme park green screen camera. Part of this is certainly the 12 years since the movies release, but it also has to do with an over dependence on new technology.
There isn’t a good reason to see King Kong. Not really. If you have an afternoon to kill, track down a copy of the Korean game show The Genius. Go outside. Play Night in the Woods or whatever game the cool kids have right now. But don’t see King Kong.