Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Jamie Bell, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis

Directed by Peter Jackson

Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson

Based on a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace

One of Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Roger Ebert’s most well put-together reviews out of the countless in his vault – in my opinion – is his comprehensive and laudatory appraisal of 2002’s Minority Report, the best of the Philip K. Dick screen translations.

In it Ebert ends with the statement that the film “reminds us why we go to see movies in the first place.”

This could also be stated after watching Peter Jackson’s faithful and breathtaking interpretation of the seminal classic that spawned an entire genre in both monster horror and adventure. His frightening, captivating, jaw-dropping and, yes, heartbreaking labor of love; his King Kong.

Following the incredible success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Universal contacted Jackson and fronted him $20 million dollars to furnish his Kong remake idea that had been put on hold since he and his team began working on pre-production details in 1997.  It is still the largest salary amount ever given to a director by a Hollywood studio.

Gathering his team and using both Burbank’s Universal backdrop and his beloved native land of New Zealand as locations, Jackson set to work on finalizing his screenplay, putting together his storyboards, and casting an entirely troupe of actors ready for another epic.

As much of a visual feast as any visual effect-laden film of the CGI-obsessed new millennium, King Kong’s myriad unparalleled ocular delights come from the same Weta Workshop team that helped make the world of Tolkien plausible, then possible, then realized over the course of the seven years it took to complete that unprecedented wonder of filmmaking.

This center on computer-generated effects – from a constant green screen behind almost every scene in the film’s 187-minute length (the added 13 minutes in 2006’s Deluxe Extended Edition DVD are fun, but debatable in terms of their story weight), to the various dinosaurs, giant bats, slithering crustaceans and disgusting insects found on Skull Island – is undeniable, and very obvious in its intent – to shock and awe the filmgoer.

And that – going back to the last line of Ebert’s Report review for emphasis – is exactly what it does.

In its length, King Kong can be clearly divided into three wholly different and exciting venues.  The first opens in New York City in the same Depression-era 1933 landscape that the original was made in, introducing the revised characters of Carl Denham and Ann Darrow – the latter’s consistency with silent screen beauty Fay Wray taken to great lengths by the blond and stunning Naomi Watts.  Their introductions and the long voyage from the Hudson River to the undisclosed and unknown ocean territory “far west of Sumatra” that lies fog-shrouded Skull Island complete this venue.

The second, and by far the most impressive piece of the story, is Jackson’s vision of Skull Island, where jagged cliffs wall off crumbling Mesozoic temples and endless jungle filled with nightmarish beasts from the distant past and the imagination.  The capture of Ann by the island’s natives – Caucasian actors covered in dun-colored makeup, fitted with red-tinted contact lenses and bone-piercings (“they’re to look like no other people on Earth,” said Jackson in production) – leads to the appearance of Kong and the subsequent adventure the crew of the S.S. Venture embark on to save her.

The third and last climax-filled element picks up weeks following Kong’s capture, showing now fame-crazed Carl Denham’s disastrous debut of the giant ape in front of a sold-out crowd on Broadway, leading right to the envisioning of Kong’s infamous Empire State Building ascent and his subsequent last stand.

Kong, of course, is the real star of the film in every sense.  And his inception, creation and acting are what set King Kong apart from the various other monster-filled computer-generated creations of the decade – and the previous installments.  He is a creature almost real to the viewing eye, made so from the painstaking efforts taken by WETA and Andy Serkis – who made Gollum and “my precious” household items both in names and vernacular – as he once more gets back into a motion-capture suit.  But this time, instead of portraying the insane, dwarflike Gollum, Serkis, amazingly, is more-or-less a 25-foot gorilla all by himself.

Kong’s facial features, leaps, sprints – even grunts – are a complete mimicry of Serkis’, and the effect of this attention to detail is top-notch on the screen. Combined with some of the most realistic visual stylings put to detail on a figure, Kong is a thrill to hear and see.  The steady bass of his breathing and grunting, the thrilling, ecstatic way he pounds on his chest when sensing an enemy – be it Jackson’s bigger, more toothy tyrannosaurus rexes, or a squadron of Air Force biplanes – are just a few of the countless features that encompass the crew’s dedication in retooling a timeless cultural icon, and also crafting an incredibly realistic expression of modern visual effects.

Most important of these effects is creating the sheer realism of Kong, to the point that in several scenes his reactions are utterly human in his range of emotions – be it pain, frustration, anger or more difficult feelings, such as pride or love.

Love?

This brings perhaps the most interesting quality of Jackson’ picture to light, how dynamic imagery and a vibrant, thoughtful story can mesh into a most unusual love story – which Jackson’s King Kong undoubtedly is.

In the original 1933 classic the element of Kong’s relationship with Fay Wray was of a rather large baby with a Barbie doll; controlling, obsessive, wanting – with a little undeniable racial undertone thrown in.  The relationship in the 1976 Dino DeLaurentis version with Jessica Lange in her first feature role was strange, almost perverse, and entirely unbelievable.

The strength of the 2005 version is in three major facets: its incredible attention to detail, its accomplishment in finding a perfect medium between visual and cerebral entertainment, and how it makes the unbelievable probable.

The latter facet is nowhere more clear than in the suspense that begins to take hold in the latter half of the movie; not to do with escaping from Skull Island’s vicious prehistoric inhabitants, but with the dreadful reality that begins to take shape as Kong suddenly becomes the film’s protagonist, and the film’s previous heroes become greedy captors of a beast that is actually seeming more and more human.

This sympathy, that brings heart and real drama to what was previously an adventure story, and allows for the deeply affecting, almost wrenching climax, is possible only due to the realism achieved in this uncanny connection between Ann and Kong.

Ann, of which a quick back story was put together indicating how people have been letting her down since her childhood, finds a loyal guardian in the furry clutches of her primate protector.  It is an unthinkable attachment that isn’t clearly defined in words, but rather the nonverbal communication and well-crafted and nuanced sequences involving the two entirely different mammals that have found a niche within each other.

And when this niche is so quickly upset – Ann as a woman has little to say amongst determined men carrying guns, shouting for her to “get out of the way!” – one isn’t sure whether it is Ann’s fondness for the creature or her traumatized state following a day spent on Skull Island dodging dinosaurs and two-foot long centipedes that leaves her crying and pleading.  But what we do know is that it looks real, it looks good.  This realism is a strength that King Kong has in spades, and nowhere has it been added more conscientiously than to this dynamic. It revitalizes the film’s classic feel, updating it for a more open-minded public, and so effectively marries the unrivaled adventure with a subtle but powerful story of unclear yet powerful love.

The film’s effects teams won the film’s only three Academy Awards at the 2006 ceremony; their achievements blowing every other film out of the water in visual effects, sound editing and sound mixing, but their achievements will stand the test of time in another way: replacing the wooden and sterile CGI-creatures of past years with a not only the most realistic, but the most human of monsters.  Jackson’s Kong is a mammoth ape you could just as easily see in your backyard planting giant footprints in the grass as on Skull Island wrestling with reptiles.

For its realization of Skull Island alone the film deserved their Best Visual Effects Oscar; as the attention to detail and the all-encompassing effects that find their way in every scene and every angle demand the viewer’s attention and completely create its own fantastical world.

Something is going on in every sequence.  On Kong’s jungle summit – his throne, if you will – he overlooks the entire exotic majesty of Skull Island.  During scenes shared with Ann, close ups of her face are accompanied by a stunning vista of flying birds, lapping waves and moving clouds behind her.  As the crew of the ship trek through the forbidding depths of the jungle, giant mosquitoes and bugs of every sort accompany them; not playing any part of a particular scene but just adding to the realism. In a scene where Ann shockingly discovers that her hiding place is being shared by a terrifying tyrannosaurus, as the camera pans out from the reptile one can easily see that a few flying insects have taken roost in between his back incisors.

No film can boast such eye-opening, mouth-dropping spectacle.  Each scene of the three-plus hour length is something to behold, to experience with the wonders of Weta’s computer-generated world.  But like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the effects are done tastefully; highlighting story-driven drama, not replacing it entirely like in a Michael Bay picture.  King Kong demanded these unprecedented effects for its realization, but they serve only to enhance the fantastical story, not serve as a substitute for it.  It’s truly the film that belongs in movie theaters.

This is accompanied by a score by James Newton Howard which subtly underlines each comedic, suspenseful or genuine moment with distinctive clarity.  It is as attentive to detail as the make-up designers, storyboard artists and sculpture-makers of Weta.  In addition to capturing the behemoth feel of the story with its booming bass and it sincere moments with the caring touch of strings, Howard also samples pieces of the original score of the 1933 film in various moments during King Kong’s course.

Jackson’s lifelong labor of love on his favorite film ever (he attempted to remake the film as a teen growing up in Wellington, going as far as to create a cardboard Empire State Building and fuzzy Kong figurine) comes out perfectly executed and deserving of at least a reference as the adventure film of our age and one my favorite films to watch if I want to transport my eyes, mind and emotions to a realm of fantasy unparalleled.

Images courtesy of moviemobsters.com, avaliableimages.com, wildsound-filmmaking-feedback-events.com, and nytimes.com, respectively.

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