Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Movie Review: King Kong

I've read a number of reviews of Peter Jackson's King Kong over the last week or so and they have all been overwhelmingly positive. The only negative comment any of them have really made is that it might be a little too long. I'm afraid this is a gross understatement.

Both my wife and I are HUGE fans of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and devoured the extended editions on DVD with all their many extras. Jackson maanged to craft a series of films that lasts for well over twelve hours and still leaves you wanting more, so when I first heard that his take on the Giant Ape clocked in at just over three hours long I wasn't too worried. Even the extended versions of the three LOTR films never really drag and you certainly never feel that any scene is uneccessary so I felt confident that every minute of King Kong would be thoroughly entertaining.

However, this is not the case, and it shouldn't really have come as any surprise, considering the source material. With LOTR Jackson was drawing on a vast amount of source material. Tolkein's masterpiece is both rich and vivid with an enormous amount of back (and side) story to draw from. Tolkein crafted the entire history of Middle Earth from its creation (in The Silmarillion) and the many appendices included in the three volumes further flesh out the world and the character's back story (indeed, many people objected to jackson's insertion of the Aragorn/Arwen romance...but it's all there in the appendices!). Despite stretching past the twelve hour mark, Jackson's dilemma with LOTR was always what to leave out, and he did, indeed, leave out a lot of good stuff. With King Kong, however, Jackson's source material is a film half the length of his own, and so he has added much, and this is where the movie really fails.

But wait, before get too deeply into the movies failings, let's talk about where it succeeds. Jackson initially starts padding at the start of the film, and it's a full hour before Kong even appears. However, this is really not a bad thing at all. He does an admirable job of introducing all the characters and provides a plausible and compelling justification for their trip to Skull Island. Jack Black particularly stands out here as movie producer/director Carl Denham. Here he proves that there's much more to him than being a funny fat man and I hope he continues to get more serious roles. Jackson spends the first hour slowly building the tension and so you never really lose interest or start to get bored. You feel that you're constantly building to something and as the ship gets closer and closer to Skull Island your anticipation continues to increase.

When we reach the island Jackson gets out his full box of tricks and does what he does best - shows us something we've never really seen before. The island looks stunning, both terrifying and beautiful at the same time.

There are problems here however, it does look good but every now and again the visuals fall below the very high level they've set themselves. The brontosauras chase, particularly, has some really awful green screen moments. Indeed, some are so bad that you wonder if they're not some kind of weird Jackson homage to old school effects.

It's also while we're on the island that you receive a rather worrying revelation...you don't actually care about what happens to any of these people. That's not entirely true, you do actually care about Jack Black's character, but he's supposed to be the villain of the piece! None of our heroes are particularly engaging and that's a real problem in a film like this. The whole point of this movie is that they are constantly in peril and we are supposed to be on the edge of our seats worrying about what will happen to them.

Worst of all, we don't really connect with Kong. One reveiwer I read praised Jackson for presenting Kong as an animal and not a monster. To me, however, that's his biggest mistake. Kong is never anything more than an animal in this film, and so we never really engage with him as a character. He needs to have a real personality, a real character but instead he's just a beast, acting on instinct.

This really becomes a problem as we move into the movies climax, which is also where the pacing of the film really falls apart. We know what's coming, everyone knows what happens to Kong in the end, so surely we should get there in a timely and action packed manner? After all, there can be no suspense, we know what's coming, right? Well, not in peter Jackson's eyes. The finale is so long and drawn out that I...I fell asleep. I never fall asleep at the cinema! Not even in the worst films! As Kong began his ascent of the Empire State Building I started blowing Zs at the ceiling. A timely nudge from my wife ensured that I didn't miss too much of the movie...I'm not sure if it wouldn't have been better if she'd left me to sleep. Kong can't speak. He's an ape. So Kong and Ann stare at each other, in a deep and meaningful way. Except, as I said, Kong is never anything more than an animal in this film, so, really, they just stare at each other a lot. While planes fly round them, occaisionally shotting at Kong. He's big, so it takes a lot of bullets to bring him down. Lots and lots and lots and lots and....zzzz....sorry, drifted off again.

The biggest problem is that, rather than thinking the people are being terribly mean by hounding Kong to his destruction, you're really left thinking that,a ctually, it's probably quite a good idea. Jackson has Kong wantonly and violently killing people throughout the movie. At one point Kong bites off someones head and then throws the body away, and at the theatre at the end he picks up Ann's stand in and, seeing that it's not her, just throws her away. Beauty has not tamed the savage beast, Kong is not clamed by his love for Ann, if anything it drives him to even more violent and bestial acts. You can't even argue that he would have been ok if Denham had left him on Skull Island. The people of Skull Island lived in fear of Kong and were obviously making regular human sacrifices to him. Kong is a monster and, ironically, if Jackson had just given into that, rather then trying to show him as a simple animal, we might have felt more for him at his death.

This review is threatening to become as long as the movie so I'll start to wrap it up now. Ultimately, this is not a bad movie, there's an awful lot to enjoy here. There's a good one and a half to two hours of great entertainment here, more than enough for a thrilling blockbuster movie. I feel the true problem is that after the vast success of LOTR, no one at the studio was prepared to sit Jackson down and say "This film is too long, you need to make some cuts." Jackson proved with LOTR that you can make a movie that lasts three or eevn four hours without boring people, but he's also proved with King Kong that not every movie needs to be that long.

Rating: 7/10

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