Jackson is a gifted filmmaker, but his movie falls victim to the same vices that have befallen similar films from other directors given too much power and autonomy too quickly: the film is too long for its own good, filled with a number of subplots which go nowhere before being forgotten altogether and a number of CG effects which, when blended with the live-action actors, look almost as bad as the horrid low-budget Introvision effects technique that plagued movies like “Megaforce,” “Stand by Me” and “Army of Darkness.”
Jackson spent three hundred million making the three “Lord of the Rings” films, and audiences worldwide were overwhelmed by their epic scope. Here, Jackson has more than two hundred million to make a single film, and as they say, it is all up on the screen: the sets for Skull Island and New York City are grand and grandly intricate, reveling in their exacting detail; the leads and the thousands of extras are properly dressed in exquisite period-authentic garb, and the title character has been meticulously crafted. However, as is the case with other filmmakers in love with their effects, what we gain in period accuracy and creature legitimacy, we lose in emotional gravitas. We can’t help but laugh and shake our heads when, after Kong fights a trio of nasty dinosaurs out to make Ann Darrow a snack (despite having just killed and started to eat another dinosaur which makes Ann, in comparison, look like a tiny crumble of beef jerky left at the bottom of the bag versus the filet mignon they were just having), Ann comes out of it all not only alive (she should have been dead from a broken neck and brain trauma within sixteen seconds) but with her hair, makeup and wardrobe nearly perfect. Sure, a monster movie requires some suspension of disbelief, but asking us to put away every notion of human anatomy, gravity and physics for three hours so the story can work is just too much to demand.
The story is pretty much the same: a film crew goes to a tropical island for an exotic location shoot, and discovers a colossal giant gorilla who takes a shine to their female blonde star, bringing the giant beast back to New York City to exhibit it as “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” only to see Kong escape from his shackles, take Ann hostage and climb the Empire State Building, where he meets his unfortunate demise at the hands of hostile and unsympathetic humans. Carl Denham (Jack Black) might not be the master showman he was before and Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) is no longer an adventurer but a screenwriter, but Ann (Naomi Watts) is still a beautiful, down-on-her-luck blonde, and the three of them, along with a ragtag assortment of film crew and boatmen, head off to the mysterious Skull Island to make a movie. (Be amazed as you count the number of references to the original 1933 film in one single scene between Denham and his assistant Preston before they leave New York!)
The trip to Skull Island presents the first major obstacle to the film’s overall success. We are introduced to a number of characters on the boat, including the ship’s Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann), whose personal greed often persuades him to endanger the lives of his crew; first mate Hayes (Evan Parke), whose main job on the ship seems to be to make sure Jimmy (Jamie Bell), the crew’s youngest member, stays out of trouble; Lumpy (Andy Serkis, who also “plays” Kong), the ship’s crusty cook; and Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), the narcissistic B-movie star who will be the male lead in Denham’s film. With so many characters introduced, this segment (which should have taken no more than half a reel, tops) drags on for forty minutes, so everyone can be given equal screen time for “proper” character development. Which brings us to the second major obstacle: half of these guys are the equivalent of a “Star Trek” landing party red shirt. They exist only to become Kong fodder, or worse. Investing time or emotion in any of them is futile. We know they are goners. But even worse than trying to make us care about some minor character we know is going to die is spending a lot of screen time making us believe one minor character is quite important, and have several other characters perish in order to make sure he lives, only to never see or hear about him again once we leave the island. This leads us to the third and most essential major obstacle which makes this “Kong” a far from satisfying endeavor: time. At three hours and seven minutes, Jackson has forgotten one of the basic tenets of cinema storytelling, that less is more. In fact, at times, this film comes perilously close to aping (no pun intended) Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” in its obsessive need to examine in minute detail moments which could have been excised from the film without hurting the overall story. One such scene, running ten minutes, involves Jack, Carl and several of the Venture’s crew being attacked by gigantic bugs and other assorted creepy crawlies. By the time it arrives, we’ve already become well aware Skull Island is filled with a variety of gargantuan natural predators, and we know from the original film that Jack and Carl must survive, as they are needed later in the story when it returns to New York City. Our knowledge that any other character with them in this chasm is expendable, no dramatic tension can be built as the bug attacks become stronger and stronger. Same with when we finally arrive at the Empire State Building. We know Kong will die. We know no attempt will be made to return the beast back to where he came from. Thus, the protracted aerial sequence lacks solemnity, and we are actually relieved for a moment when Kong’s suffering, and thus our own, is finally over. That is, until Carl Denham arrives on scene, to part the assembled crowd around Kong’s body to give a groan-inducing line reading of the story’s denouement: “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”
Up until the very end, Jack Black does justice to Carl Denham. The character is an arrogant jerk, traits shared by many of Black’s roles, so it’s not really that much of a stretch for him to be a small-time huckster who spews out heartless inane promises he truly believes in as he is saying them, even though everyone else knows they are a bunch of bull. But Black does a mostly solid job in a role that requires him to take his normally bombastic energy and turn it down to a whisper. Naomi Watts is one of the most exquisite beauties in cinema, needing to do little more than show up in order for man and beast to fall in love with her. Ann Darrow is the heart and soul of the story, and Watts does try to infuse the character with some semblance of meaning, even as most of the things asked of her are meaningless. We do feel she has made some connection with Kong and is truly devastated when the might beast is fallen. No one will be making favorable comparisons to her intense work in movies like “21 Grams” but Watts should finally be catapulted to the top of the A-list thanks to her work here. Adrien Brody is anexceptional actor, but his individual persona is best when utilized in more intimate films like “Dummy” and “Ten Benny” or his Oscar-winning work in “The Pianist.” An action hero he is not, and thus his Jack Driscoll is the film’s weakest link. Driscoll spends much of the voyage to Skull Island in a monkey cage in the Venture’s cargo hold (yes, it’s a funny metaphor, Mr. Jackson) and only has a few brief moments with Ann before we are asked to believe this scrawny beanpole writer (yes, it’s a funny stereotype, Mr. Jackson) would alone move Heaven and Earth, and go after an eight thousand pound beast, in order to save her. (Oh, and Jack also writes a romantic comedy play for Ann to star in, when he’s supposed to be working on the script for the movie they are about to shoot. I guess he really is devoted to her.) Brody gives his best to give this poorly defined character some context, but it’s a futile effort. In fact, the one actor who should see the most benefit from starring in “Kong” is Kyle Chandler, the handsome one-time star of the late 1990s CBS show “Early Edition,” whom like Brody before “The Pianist” was seen in many works but was never given that one role which properly utilized his talents. With the vainglorious second-tier star Bruce Baxter, Chandler finally gets to show everyone what he is capable of, infusing his character with beautiful moments of inspired comedy and poignant solicitude when needed. Baxter is the one person in the entire film we can root for, the wild card that can go either way and does actually surprise on more than one occasion. Here’s hoping Hollywood finds a way to make Chandler the star he’s deserved to be for a very long time.
In the end, “Kong” lands with a resounding thud. Instead of expanding the film an additional half hour late in the post-production stage, Jackson needed to trim it down to around two and a quarter hours and concentrate on the basics of the story. The 1933 film still fascinates close to 75 years later not because it attempted to become a landmark work but because of its emotional investments in our two major characters, Ann and Kong, something that Jackson’s film puts in second place. Jackson mostly wants to show off all the cool things he and his FX team can do, which does not necessarily make for great storytelling. The great FX wizard John Dystrka recently spoke to Daily Variety about effects, saying some of the visuals in the “Star Wars” movies were “an embarrassment of riches. I wasn’t sure where to look and I wasn’t how what I was seeing was contributing to and advancing the story.” Something he should have warned Jackson about years ago, for that is how this “Kong” will be ultimately defined. Let’s hope Jackson’s next film, an adaptation of Alice Sebold’s excellent “The Lovely Bones” is a return of the filmmaker who made the beautiful and touching “Heavenly Creatures” on a modest budget, only needing a handful of effects to enhance segments of the story instead of letting them lord over every scene.Rating: C-