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Andrew Fox
Posted on Monday, January 23, 2006 - 01:25 pm:   

I just posted the following comments in Lucius Shepard's thread on Peter Jackson's King Kong remake, but I thought I'd repost them here so as to, I hope, entice some of the habituees of my own boards to comment on the film. You might want to read Lucius's review in Electric Story first ( http://www.electricstory.com/reviews/review.aspx?title=new/kingkong ). Lucius is the master at eviscerating these big Hollywood event pictures, but I think I add a wee bit of my own discernment in what follows.

Given how big a fan I am of the original (see my story, "The Man Who Would Be Kong," on Ellen Datlow's late and lamented SciFiction -- http://www.scifi.com/scifiction/originals/originals_archive/fox/index.html ), some friends of mine were surprised that I waited so long to see the new version. But with a toddler and an infant in the house, planning for an adults-only night on the town takes some doing (the last time Dara and I went out by ourselves was for our anniversary back in May). However, there was no way I was going to miss a Peter Jackson-made remake of King Kong on the big screen. I've been (somewhat painfully) aware of the very mixed reception this pic has been getting in the fan press, and I cringed many times while reading Lucius's review. I walked into that movie really wanting and hoping and even expecting to like it, as everything I'd heard about Jackson being a huge fan of the original and wanting to stay true to its spirit and time period, etc. etc., sounded promising.

Well. . .

Not everything about the picture sucked. I thought the big ape himself was very well acted, and his range of expressions didn't suffer at all in comparison with the amazing palatte of feelings that Willis O'Brien was able to conjure from an 18" tall steel and foam rubber model covered with rabbit fur. The movie looked beautiful. The reimagining of Skull Island was impressive and memorable (even if it made even less sense ecologically than the original version did, for reasons listed below). I appreciated some of Jackson's quotes from the original, particularly his use of the music and choreography of the 1933 version's "sacrificing Ann Darrow" ritual for his schmaltzed-up stage version of the same, a nice touch.

But. . .

I think Jackson is the latest victim of a malady which has been increasingly deteriorating the skills and judgement of film makers of action and fantasy/horror/sf pictures ever since the release of The Exorcist back in 1973. I call it the "I can show it, therefore I will show it" disease. Modern movie-making techniques have simply added too many tricks to film makers' trick bags, tricks which are so beguiling that they are irresistable, both because they seem to promise the delivery of the all-important 13-25 year old male demographic and because they are so neato-keeno to the tech-geeks who are making these kinds of pictures nowadays. Watching this movie, I kept thinking that Jackson was the band member from This is Spinal Tap who bought the amplifier because he could turn its volume up to eleven. In virtually every scene, the new Kong wants to outdo the original, and the way it attempts to do so is to turn the volume up to eleven. The original had Kong battling one Tyranosaurus? We'll have him fight three, and then they all fall into a macrame of giant vines and swing around like pendulums until they drop another couple of hundred feet to the ground! The original had crew members getting eaten by a giant spider at the bottom of a pit, until some censor or editor thought this was too gruesome/too distracting and cut the scene out? What a WUSS! We'll have dozens of giant spiders, plus hundred of giant crickets and cockroaches and really creepy worms with extending sucker-toothed mouths like those aliens in Aliens, and we'll have the scene go on for ten whole minutes! The original had the rescue party from the Venture running away from a single Brontosaurus? We'll have them running away from a dozen stampeding saurapods, at the edge of cliff, yet, and we'll throw in a bunch of velociraptors for good measure! Etc. etc. etc.

But far worse, in my opinion, was Jackson's choice, driven, I'm sure, by the capabilities of his technology, to make his fantastical world look naturalistic. In a perverse way, this made his Skull Island far more difficult for this viewer to buy than the original Skull Island was. The Skull Island that Marcel Delgado and Willis O'Brien created back in 1933 didn't look like a natural jungle or swamp. It had features in common with actual jungles and swamps, but it was its own world, which accepting that this fantastical place played by its own rules much easier. Similarly, Delgado and O'Brien sidestepped the temptation to make their Kong simply a very large gorilla. They changed his anatomy from that of a standard gorilla, for reasons both practical (animating Kong with true gorilla-like movements would have taken much, much more work and time) and aesthetic (giving him a true gorilla's hindquarters would've looked ridiculous). The original Kong ended up as more of a gorilla-like monster than a giant gorilla. But Jackson must've decided that modern audiences, knowing what technology is now capable of, wouldn't accept an updated Kong if he weren't a fairly anatomically correct giant gorilla, rather than a gigantic beast with some similarities to a gorilla.

These choices on Jackson's part have consequences, and they aren't to his picture's benefit. If you make your Skull Island look like a "real" place with "real" animals, rather than a fantasy world, your audience is tempted to start asking questions which they wouldn't have necessarily asked of the original. Such as: how is Ann Darrow able to run all over this place in a nightgown and bare feet without ending up a bloody mess with two broken ankles? How big is this island if it can support huge herds of giant sauropods? How do the human inhabitants (and, based on their portrayal, I use that term loosely) of the island survive, crammed in as they are in a tiny enclosure between their wall and the sheer cliffs which fall into the ocean? At least the humans on the original Skull Island had had the sense to settle in the one spot which had a beach, so presumeably they were able to make do with an economy based around fishing and a small amount of cultivation (what do the inhabitants of the new Skull Island do for food -- pole-vault themselves over the rocks and into the ocean, stab a fish with their poles, then get pulled back by ropes? I'm sure that must be highly efficient).

Worse, Jackson's choice to make Kong physiologically like a gorilla made Ann Darrow's survival past the first minute or two of her encounter with Kong utterly unbelieveable, in the sense of, "I don't believe my eyes." In the original, Kong walks mostly upright, like a man with very long arms, which makes his ability to move with Ann in his paw, avoiding squishing her like a fig, somewhat plausible. This Kong initially flings Ann about like a new rope toy. I immediately thought, "What? Is she Wonder Woman? Is she the Girl of Steel? That babe's neck just got broken a dozen times over. She's dead. Kong's carrying around a pet corpse." My reaction intensified when Jackson made the laughable decision to have Kong hold onto Ann all during the Tyranosaurus battle (in the original, Kong places Ann in the branches of a tree, out of harm's way, before turning to box the dinosaur's ears). There is asking me for suspension of belief, and then there's making the unreasonable demand for me to accept events which violate the laws of physics -- a demand which can be made if I'm watching an absurdist movie like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but not when I'm watching a film whose style aspires to the naturalistic or "realistic."

Then there's the whole issue of Ann's relationship with Kong in this version. As Dara said afterward, "Maybe I could've bought it if Ann had been shown to be a radical animal rights activist." Of course, such persons didn't exist back in the days of the Depression. But I certainly agree that Ann's devotion to Kong, extending to her willingness to climb to the very pinnacle of the Empire State Building (and her amazing ability to not be blown off the top by the winds up there! Maybe, rather than Wonder Woman, she's supposed to be Spider-Woman?), into the face of machine gun fire from multiple warplanes, to protect him, was unearned and unsupported by the script. I mean, come on, Jackson -- if you're going to dick around with an hour or so of character build-up before getting us to Skull Island, don't waste it on the red-shirts; show us a Darrow family flashback where Ann's beloved father has hair down his back like an orangutang and little Ann caresses his fur with Lolita-ish intensity before her beloved Daddy gets buried in a mine cave-in or something. Or have him wrestle alligators for tourists down in Florida, and one bites his head off while Ann watches, scarring her for life. . . of course, you'd have to make Ann's father a Mikosukee Indian then, but that might be a plus.

How about we just agree to stop trying to remake and "improve" the old classics and just write some new material? I'm available. Lucius is available. Thousands of us are awaiting the call. Writers are a dime-a-dozen, much, much cheaper to be had than computer animation technicians. Sheesh.
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Adam-Troy
Posted on Tuesday, January 31, 2006 - 06:40 pm:   

Andrew: I'm no pushover, as you know if you read any of my reviews, but Jackson's KONG had me from hello. (Shrug). What the hell.

There are any number of movies I can and will eviscerate, with this year's top being NORTH COUNTRY. But your review was fun...
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Andrew Fox
Posted on Wednesday, February 01, 2006 - 06:53 am:   

Hey, Adam! Good to hear from you. As I wrote above, I walked into this movie wanting very much to like it a lot. I wasn't intending to pick it apart at all. But certain things just leaped out at me -- foremost being that "flinging Ann Darrow around like a rope toy" scene. After I saw that, the picture lost my willing (and eager) suspension of disbelief, and, even though I had done my best up until then to keep them in abeyance, my critical faculties unsheathed their knives, and I started picking those nits, big time.

Give my best to Judi, please!
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Adam-Troy Castro
Posted on Wednesday, February 01, 2006 - 08:35 am:   

She's got it.

I think part of the problem is that certain stories, like King Kong, James Bond, and Batman, are INHERENTLY nonsensical; they don't make sense on any level just to start with, and can all be picked apart. So if they work for us, on an emotional level, they work on every other level. And once they DO lose our trust -- as KONG did, with those logical lapses -- it's hard to get it back.

For what it's worth, the T. Rex scene is my favorite action sequence of the year. Mileage varies.

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