It is almost hard to know how to react to King Kong. My immediate physical response went beyond astonishment and into confusion. I have never seen anything like it.
When I call the film “astonishing,” I mean that quite literally. Watching King Kong roughly approximates what I imagine would be the sensation of actually seeing a 25-foot ape battle dinosaurs and ravage the streets of New York City. I say that not because the movie “makes you feel like you’re there,” or anything silly like that; I bring it up by way of analogy. Peter Jackson, whose Lord of the Rings films are the decade’s reigning triumph, has given us what we should rightly expect — a spectacle for the ages — but also a sweeping, achingly gorgeous fantasy, possibly the most incredibly awesome action movie ever made, and one of the most simply powerful films I have ever seen. I haven’t seen the 1933 King Kong since I was a kid, alas, but I can’t imagine this doesn’t do it justice. It is so good, it might make you cry.
The 3-hour film is rather neatly divided into acts: reductively, there’s a “set-up” hour, an hour on Skull Island, and an hour in New York City. I am already hearing complaints about the set-up. I’m having none of it. I can, I suppose, see how people became impatient for the monkey action. But the opening scenes — faithfully set in the 1930s — are so lovingly constructed, so easygoing in their exposition, that when we see the fantastically beautiful Naomi Watts as a starving out-of-work Vaudeville performer and we think hey, why the hell not? In Jackson’s lush, ornate, eye-popping vision of 30s New York, Naomi Watts as a penniless actress makes sense even without relating it back to the original film’s Fay Wray. And though Jack Black may seem a puzzling choice to play renegade filmmaker Carl Denham, the casting works: Black tones down his style, playing wry and mischievous instead of manic and diabolical; it is, like everything else here, just perfect, somehow.
When we get on the boat, Jackson dutifully introduces a few more characters, but he also gets a chance to shake things up a bit. The New York scenes were casual, almost nonchalant in setting up the various threshold conflicts and telling the familiar story threads that necessarily get this show on the road — we see Ann Darrow’s Vaudeville theater closing down, and the film producers huffing and puffing at Carl Denham’s arrogance, and Denham’s frantic attempts to recruit a new leading lady for his suddenly independent film, and the whole thing has the air of a somewhat mannered farce. Jackson continues in this vein on the boat, for the most part, but there is one moment when, without much prompting, he stops time — that’s the only way I can describe it. I had gotten lost in the relaxed, lovely first act, and this unsettling moment served as a reminder not to get too comfortable.
I won’t relate the details of what happens once we reach Skull Island, much less when we return to New York. You need to see it for yourself. But what follows would seem to be Jackson’s imagination hitting the screen without the filters of feasibility or practicality. The latter two acts contain action footage so incredible and sustained that you can’t help but simply stare in slack-jawed amazement (that, too, is not merely a figure of speech), but even when common sense insists that the screen should just be a clusterfuck of enormously expensive CGI, what you get is meticulous, thought-out, perfectly lucid. Jackson (along with his crew, of course, and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) must be a genius on two levels: for having the audacity to imagine (or, in some cases, reimagine) what we see here, and for having the skill and fortitude to pull it off so flawlessly.
Even in the midst of the unremitting, holy-crap-I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-looking-at intensity, Jackson finds meaning in individual moments. There is a beautiful scene where Ann and Kong watch a sunset, and the best thing about it is how non-perfunctory it is: Jackson holds it, lets it take effect, lets it be important. And it is important: the connection between the beauty and the beast is the source of the film’s ultimate power, and Jackson expresses it in moving, touchingly na�ve ways.
We believe it. I believed it. Crucial to convincing me was Kong himself, whose movements are provided by the invaluable Andy Serkis (you may remember him as the weaselly Gollum in two of the Lord of the Rings films). The film finds the right balance between anthropomorphizing him and allowing him to remain, y’know, an enormous monkey. Somehow, Jackson, Serkis and the effects artists find a way to make Kong express vaguely human emotions — rage, jealousy, amusement, and yes, love — without giving him human features or human expressions. When an animal is a protagonist, the temptation is to give him hyper-expressive eyes; it’s just the easiest way to make the feelings recognizable. But Kong’s are a cool, beady yellow-green — despite his connection with Ann Darrow, he remains almost as foreign, and as irrational, as the real-life bears in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man.
And that, finally is the key to King Kong‘s force. This is a love story — or perhaps, as Jackson imagines it, more a story of friendship — but Kong understands so little, and Ann can do so little. The moment they connect, they are helpless and doomed, for the rest of the world, whether out of greed or out of fear, will unite to destroy them. It’s heartbreaking and relevant, and it’s because Jackson feels this so deeply, and can express it so clearly, that the movie becomes so extraordinary. It is surely the grandest spectacle I’ve ever seen, but as a film it’s not far behind — one of the most impressive, one of the saddest, one of the best.