Starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks, Andy Serkis, Evan Parke, Jamie Bell, Lobo Chan, John Sumner, Craig Hall, Kyle Chandler
Directed by Peter Jackson
Expectations: Surprisingly low. I feel like I just watched this, even though it was like five years ago.
You know the story of King Kong; there’s no need to recap it. It’s a story so firmly entrenched in the American psyche that I feel like infants only just born could give a fairly good pantomime version of the tragedy. So for this review, I’d like to do something different and focus on the quote that ends both the 1933 original and Peter Jackson’s remake (and probably the 1976 remake also, but I haven’t seen that since I was a kid). The famous quote is, of course, “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”
Ever since I was a kid this line has bothered me. It seemed to resonate with the adults around me, but my young mind just didn’t get it. Clearly the girl didn’t do anything to kill King Kong, so why was she getting blamed? Even in 2005, when I saw Jackson’s version in the theater, I thought largely the same thing. As an adult, I can see that the desired intent is probably to convey that a woman who tries to tame the one she loves will ultimately kill that which she loves about him. Nevermind that she doesn’t actually do any killing, but under this logic she dooms Kong to his fate, and thus beauty “killed” the beast. You could also read it oppositely, that Kong became infatuated with possessing the beautiful girl and thus killed himself by allowing the beauty into his heart. While these explanations might ring true for some relationships, I refuse to accept this as the point of the story, especially in Jackson’s remake.
There are a couple of clues in the film that Jackson’s intent was for a different context to the final line, but unfortunately his post-LOTR carte blanche obscured the point in a whole mess of action sequences (presuming that my perceived reading of the film is truly Jackson’s intent, which it probably isn’t 🙂 ). Don’t get me wrong, those action scenes are great fun, I just don’t know if they were what the film needed at every turn. In any case, the first clue is in the character of Carl Denham (Jack Black). Denham is set up as an idealistic filmmaker who not only desires to make great films, but to capture something truly inspirational and unique, a document to prove that there is still wonder and mystery in the world. He is a con-man as well, but at his core he is a man who still sees beauty in the untapped natural world that sits in stark contrast to the then-current rise of mass production and assembly-line factories.
The second clue is when Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and King Kong share a moment on the island as they watch the setting sun from Kong’s mountain lair. As anyone would, Ann is overwhelmed with the beauty around her and she makes a hand signal to Kong as she says, “Beautiful.” Towards the end of the film, as Kong knows that his life is nearly over, they share a similar moment on the Empire State Building. This time around, Kong is the one making the sign to Ann. It is my interpretation that while Kong is noting the beauty of the view, the moment is also designed to remind us of Kong in the film’s earlier moment on the island. The animal in his natural habitat. Kong as the proud hero that we rooted for. Kong as the epitome of natural beauty.
So by combining these clues (along with a quick line from Driscoll (Adrien Brody) about how Carl always destroys the things he loves), the quote that ends the film takes on a slightly different meaning. The beauty that killed Kong is his own, thanks to Carl’s desire to capture and control the beauty he sees around him. This is a great message for men in regards to the women in their lives, and the two-fold nature of the quote’s meaning is what makes it timeless and universal. At its heart, the quote suggests that we must simply love the people, animals and other things of the world around us as is, without inflicting our version of what we’d like them to be upon them.
Of course, this makes a great argument for humans to improve our relationship with the animal kingdom and the natural world around us. No matter how much power we attain, we are merely a piece in the Earth’s puzzle and not its rulers. We must learn respect for everything that shares this wonderful spinning rock with us, whether that’s a domesticated house cat or the eight wonder of the world, King Kong. I only wish that Jackson’s King Kong had focused a bit more on drawing out these themes so that they weren’t buried under a whole mess of fun action. The original King Kong is one of Jackson’s favorite films so I can understand him losing sight of these aspects in the face of just letting his imagination run wild, but it does make his version of King Kong something of a small disappointment (and knocks it down to three stars for me). Those ridiculous stampeding dinosaurs didn’t help much either.
But don’t mistake that for me not liking this movie, as I thoroughly enjoy it from start to finish. It takes a while to chug up to speed, but when it does, hoooooooooo-wheeeeeee! does it deliver. Bugs! Dinos! Thrills-a-plenty! I’ll never forget the tension and absolute joy I felt as I watched the King Kong vs. T. Rex fight for the first time, augmented by the matronly woman in the row in front of me who kept saying, “Oh shit!” over and over and over every time Jackson twisted the screws a little tighter.
And it would be a crime not to mention the amazing performance by Andy Serkis as Kong. I wouldn’t have believed a CG character could ever be that dramatically effective, but King Kong is still the one to beat in my eyes. George Lucas may have been first out of the gate with Jar Jar, but it took Jackson and company to take the technology and craft something worth watching and investing our emotions in. Serkis’s portrayal of Kong is perhaps the sole reason that this essay exists, because the themes I latched onto hinge specifically on Kong being believable as both a beastly and sympathetic character. Serkis may never win an Oscar for his mo-cap work, but he will definitely go down in history as the actor that made us all believers in the technology.
King Kong is a grand adventure, and I definitely recommend it to those who haven’t yet seen it.