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Directed by Peter Jackson, this epically long, special-effects driven film is mostly faithful to the original with lots of embellishments. Those embellishments are all in how the CGI was used to bring King Kong and many other creatures to life. While most of these effects are far above par, especially the gorilla, some oddities, such as a herd of stampeding dinosaurs and a swarm of absurdly large insects don’t quite hold up, maybe more because they feel like excess rather than being important – How much peril do the people searching the island need to be in? Still, the adventurous story is a marvel to watch, led by the terrific performance of Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow, the young starlet given the role of a lifetime in a new picture by desperate filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black). Watts is astounding in a physically and emotionally demanding part, her evolution a fascinating journey of discovery. So too is Kong, motion captured by Andy Serkis (also playing Lumpy, a member of the ship’s crew). While the gorilla is CGI, the physical motions are real and Serkis is wholly convincing, even emotional, deeply affecting as the story unfolds. That’s the real key to this film’s success, how the ‘monster’ is made sympathetic, and how the grand scale of the film pulls us into the heart of the unique bond between ape and girl.
Ann has been kidnapped by the local tribe on Skull Island and offered to their ape god King Kong as sacrifice. When the beast arrives he snatches the woman from the mount and returns to the forest. Frightened and struggling, a long series of important events unfold as she is faced with surviving what she is sure is a certain death situation. She manages to flee at an opportune moment, but is immediately met with a slew of horrifying encounters as she learns the island is not just home to an enormous silverback gorilla but also a land where time forgot, with actual dinosaurs from millions of years ago roaming about. Voiceless from fear, she is hunted by a pair of dinosaurs who meet their fate in the jaws of a Vastatosaurus rex, a highly evolved descendent of the Tyrannosaurus rex, who sees her and decides she is next for a meal. She panics and almost runs straight into the gaping mouth of another before Kong bursts onto the scene. While rescuing her, he savagely defeats not one, not two, but three dinosaurs insatiably intent on devouring Ann. When it’s over, he safely cradles Darrow to his home, a giant cave on the top of a rocky mountain.
It is here where King Kong, bloodied and exhausted takes a rest but also learns much about his new prize. Once having run away from him, needing his protection in a wild world she can’t possible survive in on her own, now she realizes the best place to be is with the ape. He sets her down along the ridge of a cliff and takes stock of his beaten body. She, however, is unsure what to expect now that she is here. Kong looks upon her and then rears up and roars, pounding his chest and baring his mangled teeth. Darrow sees that this not a threat but a declaration of his masculinity, a gesture of his strength and devotion to her safety having endured what he has. What can she do? An experienced vaudeville actress, she does what she knows best, a bit of a dance and some pratfalls, then some juggling. The act amuses him, and he gently nudges her with a massive forefinger, knocking her over and howling with satisfaction. Her small frame is not able to take it and she finally shouts at the ape to stop, sending him into a rage as he flits about the cliff, tearing up stones and trees, pounding the ground in anger at the refusal to play. But, he never aims his anger at her. She quickly realizes that this not a mindless animal but a highly intelligent creature with capacity for emotions. A moment later, he brings her higher to an elevated outcropping with a spectacular view of the island and ocean below. They pass carefully stacked piles of large ape bones and Kong finally sits alone, staring out to a setting sun. Darrow is still on edge, curious now as to the depths of the ape’s emotions. She tries to get his attention, again juggling, but Kong is now disinterested, instead seemingly getting her to stop and turn around, to see the wonder of the sinking sun and the sea below. He lays out an open palm, inviting her to sit, and she climbs into his hand and together they wait out the night.
The significance of this moment might be lost in the context of the story that is, admittedly exciting and action-oriented. Yet this is the most crucial scene in the film, one that establishes much about the ape and the relationship he and the girl will form. While both the 1933 original King Kong, and especially the 1976 remake with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange suggested that Kong was attracted (even sexually) to the women he captured, that is not the case here, where Darrow is simply a companion. The glimpse of the piles of bones tells a tragic story without saying a word or being alluded to again, but clearly Kong is the last and he knows it. Whether Darrow puts that together or not is irrelevant. The woman is in a monumentally terrifying situation, and Watts does a sublime job of reflecting that while keeping her wits and making sense of what is happening. The key is communication, and she accomplishes that in a way surely Kong has never seen before. Kong himself sees Ann as something different now, more than an object. This little creature responds to him, does not cower, and in fact comes near. There is a deep sorrow about Kong, his weathered, scarred face and body, his lonely stead atop a home of predators who long to see him die. Skull Island is where he lives, but it not where he is happy. The king on his throne looks down upon the island the orange tinged land, fading under the setting sun and perhaps dreams of something better far, far away. Darrow finally sees that in the long face of her captor in a powerful moment when she witnesses the beauty all around here where once she only saw fear and death. The moment of truth comes when Kong lays out his hand and Darrow gently take her place within it, an act that alters the very symbol of what that hands means, changing from cage to care. This small gesture is the most important moment in King Kong, defining the relationship throughout, a metaphor for the remainder of the film. She is too small in all of this to prevent the fate the ape will soon find, and he overcome by the hope of a friend that he gives up his great power in order to keep her safe.
Fran Walsh (screenplay), Philippa Boyens (screenplay)
Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Andy Serkis