King Kong (2005)
Peter Jackson's entire film career was inspired by the original King Kong. In a way it was also what his entire film career was working up to. Although his life's work will probably be defined by the Lord of the Rings films, even as early as Dead Alive there were influences from King Kong in his films, and he had started working on his own version after The Frighteners. Unfortunately the early attempt was scrapped due to the terrible 1998 version of Godzilla and an equally abysmal remake of Mighty Joe Young. However, once he was done with his Tolkien trilogy, Peter Jackson was free to do whatever he wanted.
The time spent bringing Middle Earth to life probably helped, since digital effects improved immensely during that time, in no small part due to his own company Weta. The effects in King Kong are clearly Jackson's style, with a design of Skull Island isn't that far from looking like a twisted version of Middle Earth while retaining the look that Willis H. O'Brien created for Merian C. Cooper's original. Although his effects for Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners looked good at the time, particularly when considering the budgets he had, a proper version of King Kong requires much to compete with O'Brien's original effects - something that putting a guy in an ape suit for the 1976 version failed to accomplish.
Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is a Vaudeville actress facing starvation when the theater she is working at is closed down and she fails to get a part in a play by Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). While she is at first reluctant, her redemption comes in the form of an offer by Carl Denham (Jack Black), a nature documentarian who has just lost his lead actress and needs someone who can fit into her costumes. Darrow agrees and soon finds herself on a rundown cargo ship headed for a mythical place called Skull Island, with a shanghaied Driscoll in tow along with Denham's film crew and Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), a self-obsessed b-movie star.
None of the crew, particularly first mate Hayes (Evan Parke) or his apprentice Jimmy (Jamie Bell), are pleased with where they are heading, and after no success at finding the place (as well as learning there is a warrant for Denham's arrest), Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) decides to head for Rangoon instead. However, a sudden fog causes the ship to run aground on the island, and the film crew goes ashore, only to find out the deserted ruins are occupied by violent natives who decide to murder the intruders. Englehorn rescues them, but Ann is taken in the night to be sacrificed to Kong. A rescue is set up, and while Denham and Driscoll attempt to rescue Ann she begins to bond with the 25-foot tall ape, who as usual is eventually captured and brought back to New York with the usual disastrous results.
I have to say that Peter Jackson, rather than making a cynical cash grab of a remake, gave us as much a tribute to the original as a modernization. Some characters are changed, but dialogue, scenes and quotes from the original - as well as some of the costumes - are used whenever possible. There was even an attempt to get Fay Wray to do a cameo to utter the famous last line, but unfortunately she passed away just as negotiations started. Many critics, and many people who just wanted to heap hate on Jackson because he was too popular after the Lord of the Rings movies, misunderstood much of what he was doing. He was honestly trying to make the movie he thought Cooper and O'Brien would have made if the technology to do so existed in 1933.
Still, despite the fact that Jack Black turns in one of the best performances of his career, Naomi Watts is excellent as Ann Darrow and Andy Serkis humanizes Kong even better than the recent Monsterverse pictures, there is a point to many critics and audience members saying the movie was way too long. Cooper and his co-director, Ernest B. Schoedsack, knew that although they had to include human characters to root for that audiences had come to see a big ape wreck things. From the moment Ann is taken by Kong the movie does not let up until the very end. Jackson's version contains a lot of unnecessary character building just to create tension, largely created by making Denham a caricature of obsessive greed rather than just making him misguided and obsessive like in the first film. Black is great in the part, but it does not strike me as the way Denham was supposed to be. It just serves to create an antagonism between Black and Englehorn, and the rest of the ship, that wasn't really there in the original.
Thus, instead of unrelenting action, there have to be times where everyone starts turning against each other, and infighting is not what audiences came to see. It also doesn't help that the romantic leads, Watts and Adrien Brody, have no chemistry together. While normally I would let that go since the main romance is always meant to be Kong and Ann in a weird sort of way, in the end there is that safety net as she and the beast just tend to make each other happy in a platonic sort of way. Unfortunately it also leads to Ann doing a bunch of uncharacteristically stupid things during the final battle on the Empire State Building.
When there is action it is great, with Kong fighting three tyrannosaurs (I know they are an evolutionary off-shoot in the film, and not really t-rexes, but still), finishing one off in the exactly same fashion as Kong in the original. Unfortunately it's strange bat-like creatures (in one the few examples of bad CGI in this) rather than a pterodactyl that Kong fights near his cave this time, but the highlight of the journey through the jungles of Skull Island is the attack by the bugs in the canyon. Based on a deleted scene from the original in which survivors that fell off the log were devoured by giant spiders, this has all sorts of carnivorous arachnids and insects, accompanied by an ambient bit of soundtrack that leaves the entire attack in almost utter silence except for the clicks of the bugs and the screams of our heroes. While there is also an apatosaur stampede and several other encounters with prehistoric creatures this is the one addition by Jackson that truly works.
For the large part Jackson succeeded in his goal of giving the movie a modern remake that wasn't embarrassing, while paying tribute to his favorite film. The problem is that everything in the first movie just came together in a certain fashion that could never be duplicated and, as good of a job as Jackson does, he still falls short of the success of the original. It may simply be that, in 1933, most of what was on the screen for King Kong was something audiences had never seen before, and by 2005 audiences had already seen what Peter Jackson had to contribute.
King Kong (2005)
Time: 187 minutes
Starring: Jack Black, Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, Andy Serkis
Director: Peter Jackson