Tom Watches Movies: The King Kong Retrospective Part 4 – Peter Jackson’s Overwrought Three-Hour Love Letter
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For all his faults as a director and storyteller, you can’t say that Peter Jackson isn’t enthusiastic about what he does. Jackson is a fanboy, a big kid playing in a very expensive sandbox. In some cases, this sense of childlike glee can pay off, like in his 1992 splatter opus Brain Dead. Brain Dead is a film with a complete and utter lack of restraint, one that indulges its every whimsy no matter how gross or silly or low-brow, and the result is gloriously fun. But just as often, Jackson’s penchant for indulgence and excess has come back to bite him. This is probably most obvious in his Hobbit trilogy, but the evidence of how destructive this tendency could be was there to see in his 2005 remake of King Kong.
On its surface, King Kong is direct remake of the original 1933 film. While the 1976 version updated the characters and scenario, Jackson’s Kong strives to emulate and expand upon the original as much as possible. Given the original Kong‘s straightforward narrative, there’s certainly room for some expansion, so this idea seems sensible on its face. The problem is that Jackson, along with co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, doesn’t expand the narrative in ways that add any new depth or nuance, but instead just ways that just make everything longer. Combine this with a tendency to similarly stretch out every action or dramatic beat to the breaking point, and you wind up with a film that’s equal parts tedious, exhausting and overblown.
Like in the original, our main character is Ann Darrow, a struggling actress who joins a film shoot for producer Carl Denham, played by Jack Black. They get on a ship bound for a mysterious, possibly non-existent island, and on the way Darrow falls for the dashing Jack Driscoll. They get to the island, Ann is kidnapped by the natives and offered to Kong, which eventually leads to Kong being brought back to America, only to run amok in New York.
The script contrives to take that simple formula and add as many wrinkles and tangents as possible, and for no other reason beyond that it can. Take Jack Driscoll, for example: in the original film, Driscoll is the first mate of the ship and serves as Ann’s love interest and rescuer, but Jackson’s film essentially splits the Driscoll character into three new entities. There’s Adrien Brody, who plays a character of the same name, still the leading man and Ann’s love interest, but rather than the first mate, he’s now the writer of Denham’s movie, who Ann worshiped prior to meeting him. The first mate is now Mister Hayes, a brand new character. Finally, there’s Bruce Baxter, a preening actor and the leading man of Denham’s film. His share of the Driscoll DNA comes when he and Ann are shooting a scene together for Denham’s movie, and their dialogue is verbatim from the script of the original film.
You may be asking why the remake goes to all this trouble. Why take one perfectly functional character and split him into multiple ones? If there’s an answer, it isn’t very evident. Brody’s Driscoll mostly serves the same purpose that Bruce Cabot’s Driscoll did in the original: smooch Ann and save her from Kong. Mister Hayes, meanwhile, has a paternal relationship with Jimmy, one of the deck hands. This relationship doesn’t really go anywhere or serve any purpose in the narrative; it’s just kind of there. Bruce Baxter, finally, has a kind of micro-arc where he starts off as a self-serving coward, but then finds his courage to show up and save the day, at least at one point. These expansions add nothing of meaning to the film, serving to elongate it rather than deepen or enhance it.
The whole script is full of superfluous additions like this, little pseudo character arcs and what critic Lindsay Ellis calls “Forced Peej Conflicts” (Ellis’ reviews of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a great deep-dive on Jackson’s strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller).
And when Jackson’s remake isn’t adding superfluous details, it’s infusing every moment or beat that was there in the original with a seemingly bottomless amount of drama and wonder. Scenes that were innocuous in the original, like Ann Darrow’s first step onto the ship, are made into major moments in Jackson’s version. Everything stops as the music swells and the film holds its breath, insisting upon the monumental urgency of what we’re seeing. Nothing is understated in this film, and if a moment can be milked for “epicness,” it absolutely will. Points that should be made succinctly, like the fact that the film takes place during the Great Depression, are overstated to the point of frustration.
This lack of restraint carries over to the big action set-pieces, all of which take sequences from the original and dial them up to eleven. Remember the bit in the original where Kong fights the T-Rex? Well now he fights three! And they get tangled up in vines over a massive precipice! Ever hear of the lost “Spider Pit” sequence from the original? Well that’s here too, and it goes on forever and is full of lovingly rendered creepy crawlies and bug slime! To be fair, these sequences are frequently fun, or at least fun enough, when they first start, but they all go on longer than they should, and often fall prey to the fallacy that bigger is better.
We all have experiences that made a massive impression on us, usually when we were young. Often our memories of these experiences take on a life of their own, growing grander in hindsight. What took a few seconds in reality becomes an hour in our memory, and moments we didn’t know were important until later become appropriately epic when we look back on them. The moment you met your future wife probably didn’t feel like a big, important moment when it happened, but when you imagine it in your mind’s eye, the lights dim, everything slows down, the focus goes soft, and the music you danced to at your wedding starts playing. Memory is like that – it makes the important things bigger than they ever were at the time, and if you’re a kid, this phenomenon is magnified by ten.
That’s what Peter Jackson’s Kong is. This is the movie that a young, starry-eyed New Zealand boy had playing in his head when he went to bed after watching it. A brisk two hours is now stretched into three, and every scene and detail are blown up under the magnifying glass of a child’s wonder and imagination. Does that excuse the film for being over long, overwrought and over done? No, but it perhaps helps to explain it a bit. As much as Jackson’s Kong is a remake of the original, it’s also an embellished memory of it, a lifetime’s worth of adoration slathered across three hours of film – which doesn’t make it a particularly good film, or even that fun to watch, but it was probably a blast to make.