18 December 2005
movie review::king kong
peter jackson is remarkable. i’m still puzzling over how the director of trash-cult fare “meet the feebles” and “bad taste”, or the art-house staple “heavenly creatures” managed to convince a studio to give him the equivalent of the GDP of a small country to make a film version of lord of the rings, which most people would have considered an unmanageable proposition. but few would argue that he executed his vision with skill and that the money (from a business perspective) was well-invested.
so it should come as no great surprise that he was happily handed another tonne of money to go remake, king kong, the grand poobah of monster movies, released originally in 1933 and remade (badly) in 1976.
like lotr, this was a labour of love for jackson, who is, as always, deeply respectful of his source material. although the movie is double the length of the original, it incorporates all of the elements fans will remember from it. he even gives little winks to the original within his film: when low-life director jack black (an excellent performance for almost the entire film) and his assistant are desperately trying to think of a replacement for their leading lady, black suggests “fay” but is told she is unavailable because “she’s doing a picture for rko”. there are more subtle hommages as well, like the screams. other than the monster himself, fay wray’s incessant, ear-shredding screams are the thing that most people remember from the 1933 king kong. jackson plays with this a little as his characters embark to the auspiciously named skull island. there are bones and cadavers (always signs of a friendly, well adjusted population), lots of scream-inducing scenery, but our heroine (in this case the radiant naomi watts) holds off. when we finally do get to hear her scream (fay would be proud), it echoes through the eerie silence of the “abandoned” island, reverberating off until it is answered by a primeval roar, rising from somewhere deep in the jungle beyond the wall. this is the director at his most brilliant: a wordless scene with no movement somehow encompasses a world of meaning.
i was very skeptical of this film, not because i lacked confidence in jackson, but because i have, for years, detested the story. i blame bram dijkstra, probably the most astute observer of turn of the century feminine iconography, for my cynicism. the story of king kong fits easily within the world view of the time, that women were precatory and vampiric, that they were lesser creatures who attached themselves to men and drained them of the higher functions to which their greater brains would naturally draw them. kong, as the primal, natural man, is king until he comes in contact with anne, the beautiful blonde female archetype. beauty captivates him, but makes him weak and his desire for the woman leads to his eventual enslavement and death, which psychologists at the time would have argued was allegorical to the emasculation a man suffered at the hands of a woman. think i’m crazy? then explain the quote from black (jackson’s alter ego in the film), widely used in the film’s trailers: “and lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. and it stayed its hand from killing. and from that day, it was as one dead.” still need more convincing? look at the scene where kong and anne sit watching the sunset. the king sits contemplatively surveying his domain, while anne, miffed at no longer being the centre of his attention, tries to distract him by performing some of her vaudeville tricks, the splendour of her surroundings lost on her self-involved mind.
you can view kong as a monster movie, but this is to see only part of the story. it is very much a psychological snapshot, bound up with a fear of sexuality (especially female), a suspicion of the natural and the wild and at the same time a yearning for a return which is impossible. the monster fights, kong trashing new york and the bug scene (bring your own barf bag, i’m pretty jaded with films and i almost lost it) will catch viewer’s attention, but it is the emotional, profoundly touching and indescribably disturbing aspect of the film that will stay with you. jackson has taken a story that has some pretty ugly undertones and made something beautiful and it is that which makes both the film and its director remarkable.