14 December 2005

Long Live the King! (No spoilers)

For me King Kong has always been a tragedy first, and an adventure film second. Even at the age of eight or ten, Kong's sentience was never in question. I don't know if it was a question for Meriam C. Cooper, the man who directed the original Kong, but it definately isn't a question Peter Jackson. Jackson's empathy lies with the mis-understood beast. And at least two characters in the film share that empathy, and that is what elevates this from an entertaining popcorn movie like say Jurassic Park, to one of the best films of the year.
I will no doubt ruffle some feathers when I say that this version of King Kong is better than the original. It is better not just because the special effects are, but because the characters are all much more fully realized. Jackson in fact takes an hour developing the human protagonists in this story before we ever even see the great ape. And while the rest of the film is in the "one damn thing after another" tradition of the original, Kong is developed too. It is here that the film transcends the big monster runs amok genre and becomes something so much more.
There were twin dangers here. Either anthropomorphize Kong, or to turn him into a total movie monster. The first approach would have led to something obviously manipulative, and the second would have been just a souless retread of countless other monster movies. Instead Jackson opted to avoid the dangers. He gives us a non-human great ape, something like a gorilla. In this day and age that is the only thing that would work. Audiences are probably too sophisiticated for the simple brute that Cooper gave us in the original. Another bit of genius in a movie filled with it, is the fact that there is no greek chorus. There is no one constantly telling us what Kong is thinking, or up to. There are long segments where Anne Darrow and Kong are trying to figure each other out. We in the audience are trying to figure Kong out too. Is he showing off? Is he angry? Like gorillas, he is very much like us, but he is also something different, something wild. Jackson doesn't shy away from making the audience work at understanding his Kong, who is by the way, a much more thoughtful creature than Cooper's. Some of the quiter footage of Kong on the island plays like a nature film. There is a bittersweet sadness to it too. Clearly there is alot going on in the great ape's head, and as we know how this story goes, out pangs of grief come from knowing that we will never know the full extent of it.
I wasn't really sure what to expect when I paid for my ticket. Would be Meriam C. Cooper's wild ride? Would it be something overly manipulative like the 1970 version, that made Kong into a big guy with a lot of hair. I did expect to like it. I didn't expect to get teary eyed, but I did. Kong won me over, like he did Anne. It goes without saying, probably, that King Kong is one of the most exciting films of the year. More than that though, it is also one of the most touching.