Looking back at Peter Jackson’s King Kong

In 2005, Peter Jackson brought us an affectionate remake of the classic King Kong. Mark takes a look back...

Without 1933’s King Kong, we might not have Peter Jackson as we know him. The New Zealand born filmmaker saw Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s original creature feature on television when he was nine years old and it became his favourite film of all time. Jackson credits the film for his decision to become a filmmaker when he was a teenager.

In fact, his very first film was an abortive attempt to recreate the film on Super 8 film when he was 12 years old, using an elaborate Kong costume rigged up from wire and his mother’s fur coat. He would later reference a Sumatran rat monkey native to Skull Island as the cause of a zombie plague in his lo-fi splatter classic, Braindead.

Some 20 years later, he had become one of the rising stars in Hollywood, when Universal offered him the chance to remake the film for real. You’d need a hard heart to turn an opportunity like that down and for good or for ill, Jackson’s affection for King Kong permeates every fame of his epic remake, which was released in December 2005.

The script, by Jackson and his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, is very reverent to the original, even reintegrating parts of the story that were unachievable back in the 1930s, but also adding in much more character development.

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The basics are the same – Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a director and a consummate showman who casts a penniless actress named Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) in his movie, just hours before the crew sets sail from New York for the foreign location. This destination is unknown to the crew, but Skull Island holds dangers that have been long extinct in the rest of the world, chief among which is a colossal ape known as Kong (a performance-captured Andy Serkis), who is taken with Ann, and is ultimately taken to a world in which he doesn’t belong in his ill-fated quest to keep her.

The film was a critical and financial success, winning three Oscars and grossing over half a billion dollars at the global box office, but it seems, unfairly, to have wallowed in infamy ever since, on account of its running time. Blockbuster running times have gradually ballooned on average, over the 15 years or so since The Lord Of The Rings was a box office smash, but at 188 minutes, King Kong is the last movie of its kind that actually crossed the three hour boundary in its theatrical cut.

Whatever its flaws, the film looks more soulful than self-indulgent in retrospect. We’ve previously looked at how John Guillermin’s 1976 remake ran into trouble over its effects, and although this production wasn’t without wrinkles, the 2005 film was less messy and significantly more impressive in its time. It’s interesting to look back upon how Jackson went above and beyond, revolutionising special effects and updating classic characters, all while making what outwardly looked to be one of the most expensive fan films ever conceived.

Jackson’s journey to Skull Island

“Monsters belong in B-movies.”

One of the most common criticisms levelled at the film is that it takes a long time to get going, but then the story of the film never began on Skull Island.

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It’s not a literal update, but in contrast to both the 1933 version (it was contemporary then!) and John Guillermin’s 1976 remake, it’s a period piece, which makes the extended opening in New York City vital for context – but we’ll get to that. After this prologue, once they get onto the SS Venture, you start to feel it being dragged out more. You might observe that for a film that goes so overboard so often, it sure spends a lot of time on a boat.

But the time that the film takes to arrive on the island where we find Kong is weirdly paralleled in the long period of development between Universal offering Jackson the film and its eventual realisation. After he made The Frighteners for them in 1996, the studio was eager to keep the director on their books for his next project but despite his obsession with Kong, he didn’t immediately say yes. Similar to Zack Snyder’s later standpoint about bringing the ‘unadaptable’ graphic novel Watchmen to the big screen, Jackson eventually accepted it in order to protect it from other directors who might not appreciate the material as he did.

The film was intended for release in 1998, but Universal stalled it because of two other remakes coming to cinemas that year – Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla and (more pertinently) Disney’s Mighty Joe Young. Along with special effects houses Weta Workshop and Weta Digital, Jackson moved on to working on The Lord Of The Rings, and their success convinced the studio to resume production on Kong in 2003.

Boyens chipped in on the script that Jackson and Walsh had written in 1996, which was less reverent to the original, and the director has since described as “a tongue-in-cheek comedic film with elements of Raiders Of The Lost Ark.” Although the final film still makes a few more passes at comic relief than previous takes on the story and more than a few in-jokes for fans (most glaringly, Denham wants Fay Wray as his leading lady, but she’s making a picture for “Cooper” at RKO), it’s undoubtedly more reverent to the bones of the original film. It’s also a lot bigger-boned than previous versions.

Perhaps as a consequence of the writers coming to this after three movies with their large Middle Earth ensemble (which included nine principal characters and plenty of supporting roles), the characters in King Kong are almost gratuitously well developed all around. The crew of the SS Venture is essentially made up of pulp archetypes, but unusually, they’re all given enough screen time that they’re not just Star Trek-style red shirts by the time they disembark on Skull Island.

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In fact, the most tangential of all of these are Hayes (Evan Parke) and Jimmy (Jamie Bell), who front-load the movie with on-the-nose foreshadowing references to Heart Of Darkness and prove to be the most eminently cuttable characters in a film that could stand to lose about 45 minutes.

Still, Jackson’s unique approach to the material is typified in how he zeros in on and expands upon the three principal characters of the movie – Denham, Kong and Ann.

1. Carl Denham and the filmmaker’s vision

“Will there be boobies?”

During post-production, Jackson ran into problems in getting this film finished. The budget ballooned from $150 million to $175 million, with Jackson covering an additional $32m shortfall himself after the edit came in at far longer than the intended 135 minutes that the studio specified. Despite the spiralling circumstances that made this the most expensive film ever made at the time, it pales next to the difficulties encountered in making the movie within the movie and the fictional and far more ruthless director at the helm.

Carl Denham is Jack Black’s finest performance to date. Back in 2005, much of the pre-release scuttlebutt speculated about whether Black would be out of his element in a more dramatic role, but he brings Jackson’s updated take on the director, as “a frustrated, unsuccessful Orson Welles” type, to life with unexpected subtlety. His usual tics and mannerisms are nowhere to be found here and he gives a nuanced and frankly under-appreciated performance.

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Black’s Denham behaves like a sociopathic charlatan from almost the very beginning of the film. An early encounter with sleazy investors might have you on his side, but even if they’re wrong to ask for gratuitous nudity in his passion project, you quickly grasp that he has been reckless with their money and probably wouldn’t have taken a good note from them either. Instead, he just takes their film stock and their camera equipment and gets on the boat he chartered with the rest of the budget.

It then turns out that the boat is full of people he’s lying to as well, from the crew who think Captain Englehart (Thomas Kretschmann) taking them to Singapore rather than the ominously named island, to playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), who Denham effectively kidnaps as the boat casts off so that he can finish the movie’s screenplay in transit. There’s a very telling character moment in the latter scene, as Jack fails to jump off the moving boat while it’s still in the harbour and then laments that he loves theatre more than movies.

“No, you don’t,” Carl tells him casually. “If you loved it, you would have jumped.” It’s the kind of economical character building that should have made for a shorter movie, pinpointing Denham as someone who will do anything to get what he wants, who can also recognise and exploit those who lack his level of conviction.

Once things go south on Skull Island, he remains maniacally dedicated even after his production is beset by all manner of prehistoric gribblies, repeatedly and solemnly swearing to dedicate the finished picture to whoever has most recently died, while his long-suffering assistant Preston (Colin Hanks, in the Orange County reunion you never knew you wanted) winces from the sidelines.

But after the film stock is ruined and completing the film becomes impossible, Denham’s first instinct is to capture Kong and make a packet showing him off to a paying audience as the eighth wonder of the world, which he manages with the reluctant help of Englehorn and his surviving crew. His instinct for spectacle is matched by his instinct to dominate.

Overall, in this iteration, he makes a surprisingly complex antagonist- a control freak who mistakes his domineering behaviour for artistic integrity and leads many men and eventually (redundant spoiler alert!), Kong to their deaths. Thanks to the early pacing and the prominence of Denham, Jackson’s King Kong is more of a movie about making a movie until the mid-point, after which it is overtaken by the two real protagonists.

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2. Kong: the eighth wonder of the world

“There is still some mystery left in this world, and we can all have a piece of it for the price of an admission ticket.”

King Kong is in the public domain, meaning that the character has been deployed enough times over the last century of cinema that you can chart the development of special effects in Hollywood movies by the way in which he’s brought to life. Hot off the successful integration of Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings, Jackson’s Kong was the first that could be convincingly brought to life through computer animation and performance capture.

Andy Serkis, who also appears in person as the ship’s cook Lumpy, was able to play Kong, thanks to the very latest advances in performance capture, in which his facial movements could be tracked and mapped onto a sophisticated digital character. In further contrast with previous incarnations, Jackson was adamant about Kong acting more like an ape than a human and he and Serkis studied the movements of gorillas to inform the portrayal.

Serkis told us in a 2011 interview, when asked about the contrast between Kong and Caesar, his character in the Planet Of The Apes reboots – “Every movement in that film was about a human connecting with this huge beast who was one hundred per cent ‘other’. Kong basically looks at Ann Darrow three times in that movie. It’s all about the disconnect and him being this lonely, psychotic hobo who can’t connect with other people.”

This actually leads to a more sympathetic portrayal of Kong – he’s more real than ever before, but that only supports the stronger characterisation in Jackson’s version. He has spoken in the past about crying on that first childhood viewing of 1933, when Kong fell from the Empire State Building at the end, and much of what we get here is in service of replicating that sucker punch ending for an audience who will likely be familiar with it in one way or another – it seems like one of those things that people of a certain age will have got from The Simpsons before anything else.

While we’re discussing computer generated characters, it’s worth mentioning here how realising the terrifying eco-system of Skull Island gave Jackson and Weta the opportunity to exercise their depraved imaginations, as in the creation of the toothy worm thing that devours Lumpy in such nightmare-inducing style.

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Even before Kong first appears, the film shifts the horror up a gear as soon as the Venture arrives at Skull Island, hearkening back to Jackson’s smaller and more gruesome works in its most effective moments. Other computer generated setpieces in the film, such as the dinosaur stampede, are less successful, but no less ambitious in their execution.

The character of the island influences the character of Kong, and the knockdown fight between the ape and three dinosaurs, with Ann hopelessly caught in the middle, is a masterpiece of modern action cinema with a jaw-dropping amount of plates spinning throughout the sustained brawl. Given the sheer physical heft of the character, it’s all the more impressive that the film maintains Kong’s character in the quieter moments.

For instance, there’s a scene of unexpected tranquillity and poignancy during the climax in New York, in which Kong slides across a frozen lake in Central Park. If handled wrongly, it could have been cloying, but the performance is paramount. The technological advances here are astonishing, but it’s the effectiveness of Kong’s personality and character that keeps the emotional part of the story from being overtaken by spectacle.

3. Ann Darrow: beauty and the beast

“And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty and beauty stayed his hand, and from that moment he was as one dead.”

In foregrounding the romance, the character of Ann becomes more important than ever before. Heck, Naomi Watts’ take is just more of a character than in any previous version of the story, full stop. It starts from the top, as we see her struggle to make it as a vaudeville performer in New York, against the backdrop of the Great Depression.

In an unsubtle but effective bit of foreshadowing, she performs in a revue that plays to a tiny audience, in which a rotund spectator is the only one laughing. She loses her gig the very next day when the theatre closes down and is almost driven to the one-off degradation of a burlesque hall when she’s turned away by a talent agent.

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Although Denham swoops in and saves her from starving and offers her a job, she is the one who is decisive in abandoning her impoverished life in favour of an adventure in potential movie stardom. No matter how dire her situation, she has a choice and that agency informs her updated importance in the rest of the story. Her preliminary interest in Jack turns out to be one of the more redundant parts of the film, because any love triangle in which Watts magically has more chemistry with a CG monkey than with Brody is gonna struggle to convince anyone.

Nevertheless, Ann’s meet-cute with Kong comes as she’s offered as a human sacrifice, but she’s far from the screaming damsel. She becomes compassionate towards the big ape, but remains more resourceful than before. When she echoes her slapstick routine for this other huge spectator, she even manages to cow the big lug when he starts to get involved in the performance with his gigantic sausage fingers.

The closest she comes to really screaming her head off is in that meet-cute and then later when Denham and the crew try to kill or sedate Kong. But as terrifying as Skull Island is, New York is a more emotionally dangerous and depressed site, dragging Ann down figuratively and then literally doing the same to Kong. The thematic weight of this city in poverty conquering a king of beasts looms larger as a result of the period setting.

But at the end, he isn’t grabbing a fistful of Ann or yanking her through an open window – she’s with him of her own volition when he finds himself cornered in the world that rejected her too, in the most precarious position imaginable, atop the Empire State Building. There, he finally finds himself on the wrong end of a bunch of bi-plane fire and falls to his death. Whatever the pacing problems elsewhere, the ending, and the half hour leading up to it, is as perfectly devastating as it ever was before.

All of that said, it’s also why Denham’s repetition of the iconic final line – “It wasn’t the airplanes, ’twas beauty killed the beast”- doesn’t quite work in this version. It doesn’t describe what actually went down, nor does it represent an epiphany for him, as he’s likely been ruined by having unleashed a huge ape on New York anyway. ‘Twas more like the Depression that killed the beast.

Legacy

“Good things never last, Mr. Denham.”

Although the resurgence of Universal franchises like Jurassic Park and Fast & Furious have since changed the make-up of their all-time highest earners, 2005’s King Kong is up there with the studio’s highest earners. Its box office triumph, coupled with its widespread critical acclaim and Oscar success (in the fields of Visual Effects, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing), might suggest that it should be more warmly remembered. What footprint has it left in popular culture?

As mentioned, so much of King Kong is already enshrined in the public consciousness that it would inevitably struggle to be as iconic in its own right. The legacy of this labour of love is most obvious in breaking the ground for films like Avatar, which took the facial performance capture technology that Jackson and co pioneered and ran with it, the Planet Of The Apes reboots, which also have Serkis playing an ape, and this year’s Warcraft: The Beginning, which boasted the most convincing CG characters to date.

Likewise, subsequent giant monster movies like Godzilla and Pacific Rim have also been informed by the effects work in this one. The next iteration of Kong isn’t too far away, with next year’s Kong: Skull Island serving as a prequel to 2020’s Godzilla Vs King Kong, and already, effects have developed enough to where it might look vastly different. Certainly, we’re all curious as to how you stage a fight between a creature that climbed the Empire State Building and a creature as big as the Empire State Building.

But with its warts and all, we have seldom seen the likes of Jackson’s Kong since, in terms of both spectacle and emotional investment. By its running time and its exquisite visuals alone, you could call it equal parts beastly and beautiful, but the sheer heart of it beats strongly through all of the overblown fan service, which would reach its logical extreme in Jackson’s staggered Hobbit trilogy.

To paraphrase one of Jack Black’s Tenacious D lyrics: this is not the best Kong in the world. This is a tribute.