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.
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.
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.
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.