Peter Jackson’s King Kong is a film that’s always sort of haunted me. In case you don’t remember this movie was huge when it came out, dominating a lot of the film conversation that year as well as landing #5 at the year-end box office round up. It was Jackson’s first post-Lord of the Rings effort and clearly cost unfathomable amounts of money to produce with a lot of CGI work that was top notch, cutting edge for the time. And despite all these factors, any impact it might’ve had was wiped away within just a couple of years. Nowadays people don’t even bring up King Kong ’05 as an example of talent gone awry like that same year’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or as an example of major film with no impact like we regard Avatar. What is it about this movie that makes it so completely forgotten by popular culture? Let’s find out.
The plot is pretty much a one-to-one recreation of the original King Kong, revolving around a film crew that goes to an uncharted island only to discover it’s a savage land where dinosaurs still roam the Earth and a massive gorilla reigns supreme. The dinosaur presence is, incidentally, why I chose King Kong ’05 for ‘Jurassic June,’ especially given that the big, mid-film triple T-Rex fight is one of the only things people remember about King Kong ’05. Speaking of which let’s start this out by talking about one of the only lasting elements of King Kong ’05: the CGI and FX work. The film posts a huge amount of CG integration and animation, even more than Jackson’s previous work. That was somewhat endemic to the major releases of 2005; this was the year that gave us Revenge of the Sith, Chronicles of Narnia, and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. The big difference between the films is easily King Kong’s emphasis on CGI characters rather than just set pieces and backdrops, a tract Jackson brings with him from his time in Lord of the Rings directing the CG character Gollum. The CG work in King Kong ’05 is relatively impressive but still deeply flawed in a lot of ways. The individual creatures of the film like the dinosaurs, giant insects, and Kong himself are beautifully rendered with a ton of detail work that lends them a deeply realistic visage.
The problems arise in the realm of CG integration, specifically whenever the film tries to blend scenes with real, physical elements such as people or landscapes with CG constructs. This is most evidence with Kong himself, the animators can do a decent job making him look angry or intimidating but when he needs to genuinely interact in a loving way with the film’s leading lady Anne he just looks confused and lost. Meanwhile Anne’s overly exaggerated interactions with Kong come off deeply unnatural and phony. A big part of why the whole film doesn’t work is that so much of the running time is devoted to trying to really craft a relationship between Kong and Anne but the two just refuse to click on screen. I can’t necessarily blame the actors for this so much as the situation.
Kong is the biggest creature ever brought to life with CGI that was meant to have an emotional connection to a physical human and when you work with something of that size it’s hard to create an adequate stand in. For films like The Two Towers or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, real actors have to interact with incomplete CGI as well but there the CGI character is just being matted in over a normal sized mo-cap actor, there’s no call on the actor to look mystified by the scale of their counterpart and they have an easily accessible counterpart. The really unfortunate thing about the lackluster ape/human interactions is that the entire film is about justifying its own existence under the standard of making the original seem more convincing.
A lot of the subtext of King Kong ’05 ends up lost between the bloat that makes up the film’s 2nd hour (out of 3) and the confused performances but there is something of an idea buried underneath all that. The biggest clue that there’s anything deeper going on in King Kong ’05 is the film’s bizarre obsession with storytelling and mediums, a focus that’s coded into a ton of the film’s opening and closing dialogue. Jack Black’s director character is shown to be obsessed with filming everything they find on the island regardless of the lives it costs, Adrian Brody is playing a play write turned reluctant screenwriter, Anne manages to befriend Kong using her vaudeville act, and the film an extended monologue from Heart of Darkness.
Now as I said a lot of the deeper thematic meaning for this stuff ends up kind of buried under the film’s running time but the central idea at hand is about presenting an audience with something wondrous that’s as genuine and real as possible. That’s why there’s such an emphasis on theater vs. cinema in the film’s limited human interactions and why Kong is put on display live by the film’s end rather than on film. What this is really about is the very act of making the film itself, the idea of recreating the original King Kong but with cutting edge CGI to try and give people that sense of wonder and realism.
The inherent problem with this theme, aside from the technical issues and story woes, is that it’s only the germ of an idea. It actually reminds me of a lot of Joss Whedon work like Cabin in the Woods or Avengers, where the subtext of the film is about the question of its own existence. The difference is that in those films it’s actually created as either a meditation on or a question of the film’s creation. In Cabin in the Woods the emphasis is on the process of making horror films, confronting the restrictive demands of a fickle audience and the insane amount of control and contrivance required to create such circumstance. Avengers’ is equally literal, with the film’s plot basically being about a director trying to convince his financers that getting various random characters together into a team will be a successful idea.
In King Kong ’05 however there isn’t any kind of struggle or highlight, all the background minutiae surrounding the reality of theater vs. the distance of film falls flat because it lacks a defining thought to stand behind. There’s no struggle to overcome and no key observation being presented to us, just the fact that two mediums are difference. Maybe you could argue that the focus is meant to be on how CGI can blend the reality of theater with the scale of film but the film itself acts a rebuttal to that given how un-engaging Kong is as the main character, that leads me to my next point.
Structurally the film is just completely confused and seems to be a little too colored by affection for the first film. What I mean in particular is that King Kong ’05 tries very hard to make Kong himself the main character and that’s largely because Jackson, being a life long monster movie geek, favored the monster in the original more than any other character. Now this approach has worked previously, in fact it’s very similar to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s approach to the Phantom of the Opera, a musical King Kong ’05 actually has a lot in common with. In both cases the villainous actions of the title character remain relatively intact, it’s just that now the female lead is meant to find those actions, to some degree, charming or endearing. The big difference is that unlike Phantom of the Opera, King Kong ’05 has no reason for Anne to like Kong. In Phantom of the Opera so much time is spent developing Christine as a naïveté and impressionable lead that it’s easy to believe her getting swept up in the Phantom’s creepy obsession and musical skill. With Anne, however, she honestly lacks the character development to discern why she’d enjoy time with anyone. Kong is never shown to actually be that nice to her and still comes off ultimately as possessive as the original, his only real act of heroism being when he saves her from the T-Rexs in a scene that is nowhere near as impressive it might’ve seemed at the time.
The stark emptiness of these characters and their interaction is drawn all the more into focus by the fact that everyone around them is actually much more interesting. Jack Black’s half mad, half joking director character is shockingly compelling, Adrian Brody is fun as the play write turned action hero, and the ship’s gruff Captain’s strange affects are actually quite endearing. In fact the only time Kong is actually interesting is during the film’s 3rd act set piece where he rampages through 1930s Time Square as it’s the only time the film understands Kong as more of a force of destruction than a hero. This gets to the heart of why both this and the 1976 King Kong remake fail so badly, they mistake the story for the most impressive part of the original King Kong.
When you get down to it the actual narrative of the original King Kong really isn’t anything special. It’s basically the same pulp adventure story as dozens of other lost world stories with very little to elevate the proceedings. What actually works about the movie are the characters and concepts. The idea of a film crew going around the world to freaky, Indiana Jones meets Doc Savage type pulp adventure quest locations is a good idea. The idea of a giant gorilla that can be at once a force for destruction and heroism is a good idea. An island full of gigantic monsters where dinosaurs roam the Earth is a good idea. None of these ideas are wedded to the plot of the original and in fact do much better without being tied to it.
This is the same problem that plagues so many films these days, the assumption that narrative is the end all, be all of storytelling. It creates such a misplaced enthusiasm for retelling a familiar story that there’s no room for creators to get excited about making the characters and concepts their own or doing something new with them. Worst of all it’s pretty insulting to the audience to assume we’d rather just have regurgitations of previous stories rather than something new and engaging that just takes off from the best parts of the previous film. Luckily the latest King Kong adaptation doesn’t seem to be making this mistake, it’s a CG animated Netflix series called Kong – King of the Apes in which Kong is a fugitive who is pursued by weaponized dinosaurs, coming in 2016.