If you don't want to learn the plot of the film, then read no further!
In 1933, one movie changed the face of cinema forever. It was the first popular blockbuster of the talkie era and became the first movie ever to get an official re-release. That movie was King Kong and it made a star of Fay Wray and an eighteen-inch high model of rabbit fur stuffed with cotton.
Now, in 2005, Kong is back. Forget the terrible De Laurentis remake of 1976, this is a true homage to that classic film of depression era America. Peter Jackson, the man who defied the odds and made possibly the greatest film trilogy in history in The Lord of the Rings, says that the original King Kong is his favourite film (and I agree with him on that point) and his love for that movie shows in this masterful retelling of the classic Beauty and the Beast fable.
The movie begins in New York at the height of The Depression. People are out of work and starving. Crime is rampant and people will do almost anything to earn a buck. Enter Anne Darrow (Naomi Watts). She is a vaudeville actress, loyally performing with her troupe, even though they have not been paid for weeks, until the theatre closes down and she is left broken and beaten on the streets of the Big Apple. A Broadway producer suggests that she work at a Burlesque club and she almost does, turning away at the last minute. Here is a glimpse that this woman has principles that go beyond money.
It is outside the club that she is spotted by filmmaker, Carl Denham (Jack Black). He has just stolen his latest film from his producers after they pulled the rug out from under him and as a double kick-in-the-teeth, his leading lady has walked out as well. Denham persuades Anne to join his cast on the SS Venture, but only after telling her that his scriptwriter is Jack Driscoll, one of Anne’s heroes.
After an hour of character development, that goes by faster than you would expect, as we see Anne and Jack fall in love, the crew become suspicious of Denham (they think they’re steaming for Singapore) and Anne performs for the crew, thus showing us why they risk their lives to save her later in the film, the ship arrives at Skull Island and is almost dashed upon the jagged rocks that line its foreboding shores. While Captain Englehorn and his crew struggle to save the ship, Denham and his plucky band of moviemakers pile in a rowing boat and make for the island.
This is where the film takes a huge turn from the original. Instead of noble natives living a mostly peaceful life (save for the sacrifices to Kong) in tidy huts, here we have a group of true savages, apparently descendants of people shipwrecked on the island and eking a meagre existence among the ruins of a lost civilisation. They capture the group, murder a couple and are about to bludgeon Denham to death when the crew of the Venture save the day. They retreat back to the ship, but do not reckon on the resolve of the islanders. Pole-vaulting across the rain-lashed rocks amid which the Venture floats, one of the savages boards the ship and whisks Anne from her cabin. She is soon dangling from a sacrificial altar screaming into the face of a magnificently-created, 25-foot tall silverback gorilla.
Thus begins a breathless day on the island, as Denham, Driscoll and the Venture crew follow Kong’s trail through the dinosaur-infested jungle. Soon they are running for their lives amid a stampede of sauropods that are being hunted by vicious raptors. This is an exhilarating scene as the tiny humans dodge the huge feet of the dinosaurs, whilst avoiding the snapping jaws of the raptors. They have barely got through this encounter when they cross a strangely-familiar fallen tree and find themselves face-to-face with an angry Kong. Anne has escaped him and he is not in the best of moods.
As the men retreat back across the log, Kong rages and sends it crashing into the ravine it spans. Most of the men survive, but soon find themselves under attack from vicious creepy-crawlies. This is Jackson’s version of the infamous ‘Spider Pit’ scene that was cut from the original for being too scary. It is a bizarre and very claustrophobic sequence as the only sound we hear is the scuttling limbs of the creatures and the screams of the men as they are overcome by the swarming hordes.
Meanwhile, Anne stumbles across a great lizard feasting on a bloody carcass. She backs away slowly, only to turn and find another one of the monsters staring at her. She runs and hides in a hollow tree log. The beast tries to snap its way to her, but is dragged out and we hear something killing it. Has Kong come to Anne’s rescue?
Anne crawls out of her hiding place only to find that it was not Kong that saved her, but a hungry Tyrannosaurus Rex! It sees Anne and lurches towards her, the dead lizard still hanging from its jaws. Anne manages to hide once more and the Rex moves off. Unfortunately, Anne’s bad day gets worse when she looks to her side and finds a second T-Rex lying in ambush. Soon, she is surrounded by three huge, slavering monsters and the end is in sight.
Then Kong swings to save the day and so begins the movie’s tour-de-force action set-piece. Kong grapples with the Rexes, killing one by crushing its head with a huge boulder. As they fight, they make their way to the lip of a narrow ravine and end up sliding into it. Kong, the two dinosaurs and Anne get tangled in the many vines that criss-cross the gulley. Below Anne, Kong still fights one of the Rexes, trading blows as the vines snap one by one and they fall in steps down the ravine. Anne swings on one of the vines to try and reach the cliff face, almost swinging into the hungry mouth of the other T-Rex.
By the time they reach the bottom, there is only one Tyrannousaur left. It faces off against Kong and we begin to see Anne starting to realise that Kong is protecting her. Kong and the carnivore lock horns, so to speak, but the Rex is no match for Kong’s mighty arms. He snaps its neck and jaws and the knowing members of the audience chortled as Kong played with the T-Rex’s limp head. Kong’s roar of victory is so majestic, it almost brought a tear to me eye – really.
Driscoll, Denham and their remaining comrades are saved from the spider pit by the timely arrival of Engelhorn and Anne’s co-star, Baxter (whom we had previously thought to be a coward). Using tommy guns, they make short work of the bugs and the tired men scramble out of the pit. Driscoll goes off alone to save Anne, while Denham and the others return to the wall.
Kong takes Anne to his cave, high in Skull Mountain, and we watch as they bond. Anne performs some of her vaudeville act for him (juggling, pratt-falls etc.), much to Kong’s amusement. As the sun sets over the island, Anne falls asleep in Kong’s great paw.
Jack arrives close to dawn to find both Anne and Kong fast asleep. High above in the cave, huge, bat-like creatures are stirring. He wakes Anne, but Kong opens his eyes and flies into a rage. His roaring causes the bats to swarm out of the cave and they begin attacking the angry gorilla. With Kong busy, Anne and Jack start to climb down a vine. Kong notices and starts pulling them back up. With Anne’s arms wrapped around his neck, Jack grabs the leg of a bat and they fly from Kong’s cave, his irate bellowing echoing across the island.
The bat struggles to stay aloft and Anne and Jack drop into a river.
They eventually arrive back at the wall, but the rickety, wooden drawbridge is raised. As they cry for it to be lowered, Denham shows his cold side and tells his men to wait until Kong is closer. He wants to use the bottles of chloroform that Englehorn uses to anaesthetise big game animals to capture Kong. As Kong crashes into view, the drawbridge is lowered and Anne and Jack rush across.
Kong smashes through the huge gate and has grappling hooks and nets thrown at him, along with a couple of bottles of chloroform. This does not stop the gorilla, though, and the men beat a retreat to the boats. Kong chases them and smashes one of the boats with a mighty swipe of his arm. Engelhorn fires a large harpoon into Kong, hurting him badly. Anne cannot believe what is happening and screams for them to stop. Denham throws another bottle of chloroform into Kong’s face and this does the trick, subduing the mighty beast. Then we get one of many direct quotes from the original.
“We're millionaires, boys. I'll share with all of you. A few months from now it'll be in lights on Broadway -- Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!”
We time jump to New York and see that Denham’s dream has come true. Kong’s name is, indeed, up in lights on Broadway. Denham displays Kong to an eager audience and treats them to a show that recreates the Skull Island villagers’ ritual from the original film, right down to the music. Kong is in chains and looks like he’s had the crap kicked out of him. He is very sad and his great head almost lolls to one side.
Denham has advertised that ‘Anne Darrow’ will be sacrificed to the beast, but the audience does not know that Anne walked out on Carl, as did Driscoll. She is now a dancer in a show and Jack has a new play (a play he wrote for Anne) at another theatre. This is where the New York scenes differ greatly from the original, depicting a more modern aspect to the characters and their outrage at how Kong has been treated by Denham.
As ‘Anne Darrow’ rises from below the stage, Jack enters the theatre, on an errand to patch things up with Anne. He notices that the sacrifice is not who he thought it was. Kong realises that this is not her as well, but another blonde actress. He becomes confused and roars, to the delight of the crowd. Then the press cameras begin to flash and Kong becomes angry. He breaks free of his ‘chrome steel’ chains and begins tearing up the theatre. Jack is told about Anne walking out on Denham as the crowd panics and they flee for their lives.
Kong breaks out of the theatre (after a direct visual reference to Mighty Joe Young) and chases Driscoll (who has flagged down a yellow cab) through the streets of New York. He trashes the cab and leaves Driscoll unconscious inside. Then Anne appears out of the smog, halting Kong’s trash-fest. She allows Kong to pick her up and they head off into Central Park.
It is winter and snow covers the ground. Kong slips onto the park’s lake and enjoys the sensation of sliding around on his bum. Anne shares his happiness and we feel that Kong’s life has had far too few moments of joy. This is short-lived, though, as the army opens fire on Kong and the frozen lake erupts beneath Kong when an artillery shell explodes. Kong and Anne escape to the ‘safety’ of the heights of the Empire State Building. Kong rests for a short while as the sun sets over New York and we are reminded of his lofty home on Skull Island.
Then the biplanes arrive and we all know what happens next. Kong is seriously injured by the machine guns of the planes, but takes out several of them. Anne tries to protect Kong by waving her arms in front of the great ape, in the hope that they will not open fire if she is there. She is correct and the remaining planes break off. She and Kong share a tender moment at the roof of New York (I’m almost bawling by this time), but a sneaky pilot shoots into Kong from behind and he is mortally wounded. He slumps and Anne watches with grief as the light of life fades from his eyes. Then he slips from the building and falls to the ground far below.
Jack manages to get to the top of the building and climbs the ladders to where Anne is standing in tears. He holds her tenderly and we cut to Kong’s lifeless form on the street. New Yorkers are having their photographs taken with the once-proud beast as Denham pushes his way through the crowd. One of the photographers says that the planes got him, to which Denham replies:
“No, it wasn't the airplanes ... it was beauty killed the beast.”
This is a brilliant film that manages to recreate the great, yet simple story of Kong without diluting the brilliance of that classic original (which for me will never be bettered). As I said at the start, Andy Serkis’ performance as Kong surely deserves some sort of award, as does the work of the CG team at WETA Digital.
Jack Black is good as Denham, giving a performance that is much darker and colder than the Robert Armstrong original.
Naomi Watts shines as Anne Darrow, giving an amazingly emotional performance, made even more astounding given that she was acting against nothing for the Kong scenes.
Adrian Brody as scriptwriter Jack Driscoll was surprisingly good. I had thought, being a fan of the original, that a softer Driscoll (as opposed to the tough-guy first mate) would not work, but it does.
Andy Serkis is Kong – nuff said. His role as Lumpy the Cook was also excellent. By God, this actor needs a major, major role that can utilise his talents properly.
All of the supporting cast were well-rendered, with Jamie Bell as cabin boy Jimmy being particularly good and Evan Parkes’ first mate Hayes giving voice to the crew of the SS Venture. Colin Hanks’ (son of Tom Hanks) Preston, Carl Denham’s heart-of-gold assistant, was a good foil to his boss’s ‘must finish my movie’ intensity.
While the amazingly-sad ending is hard to watch, the getting there is amazing and I have no doubt that Jackson will again be in the frame for Oscar nominations next year. I suspect that some scenes were cut from the theatrical release, so I am betting that there will be a Special Edition DVD this time next year. In the meantime, we have the normal DVD to look forward to in a few months, but it will have to be special to match the thrill of seeing this movie on the big screen. This was truly a film made for the cinema – and I don’t say that often!
© Steve Johnson - 2005
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