The 1933 original of King Kong was famous not only for its ground breaking special effects but also for the multitude of subtexts that critics read into it. The monster in monster movies always represents something: it is a fear made flesh (of course, that fear is more likely to be literally made of latex), so that the films creators can consciously or subconsciously explore that fear. The original King Kong was rich in such symbolism. A feminist reading of the film reveals the way in which the depiction of the heroine portrays women as passive sexual objects. An analysis of the film sensitive to issues of race might suggest that the threat of King Kong symbolised white America’s fear of black people. Alternatively the ape’s rampage through New York might be seen as a metaphor for the damage done to people’s lives by the great depression. These are complex issues and, despite the now dated special effects; hint at the reason behind the films enduring appeal. Old movies are worth watching not just for their inherent value as entertainment (whether they are light-hearted or thought-provoking), but also because they can offer us an insight into the social context in which they were created.
The director of the 2005 remake, Peter Jackson, established his politically correct credentials in his multi-Oscar winning lord of the rings trilogy, where he beefed up the roles of a number of the women characters (women being most notable for their absence in the books), and so it is no surprise that he has made a number of changes to the story. There have not been too many changes though. Throughout the film it is evident that Jackson’s remake is very much a labour of love, with a number of direct homages to the original (although at times this verges on pastiche), and like the original, Jackson’s King Kong is all about the big ape and the special effects wizardry behind it. Kong is brought to life by Andy Serkis (who also played Gollum in The lord of the rings using the same technique of performance capture, where his gestures and facial expressions are mapped onto a computer generated character). It is his performance that makes certain that Kong dominates the film. Serkis’ expressiveness enhances the audience’s sympathy for Kong as he is captured, exploited and ultimately killed. Arguably Kong has become much more of a conscious and overt metaphor for the exploitation of the natural world/noble savage by the greedy and destructive white man. Naomi Watts’ version of Ann Darrow is similarly updated from that played by Fay Wray in the original. She is no longer a mere sex object that alternately pouts or screams; instead she sooths the savage beast through an impromptu vaudeville routine (no, seriously), and at a number of points, chooses to be with Kong.
However despite, or perhaps because, of these revisions which bring the film into line with a more contemporary morality, I found much of the film curiously unmoving. Even Jackson’s opening montage of scenes from the great depression failed to tug at the heart strings (certainly when compared with the moving way that Cinderella Man (2005) depicted the same period). A cinemagoer that is not aware of the great depression (and no doubt this includes many Americans) may be forgiven for remaining oblivious as to what is being portrayed on the screen. Where the film excels is in the wordless sequences between Ann and Kong as their relationship develops. Ann is introduced as a despondent, even nihilistic character, while Kong is a raging, savage beast, and yet through a series of deeply touching scenes, both find a kind of serenity through their relationship with one another. To my mind this retelling of the story of beauty and the beast is the heart of the film, and the film would have been much improved had Jackson spent more screen time exploring this relationship. The story of why a woman chooses the savage beast and reject the civilised man is fascinating and has generated a rich wealth of reimagined versions (even, for example, the animated Shrek films (2001 and 2004) where the princess falls in love with an ogre and embraces the ogress within herself). Jackson fails to develop this story arc to my satisfaction, and frankly cops out a bit where Ann ends up in the arms of her (human) boyfriend.
Still, Jackson clearly knows what will attract audiences to his film; breathtaking cutting-edge special effects fill up a goodly part of the films epic 3 hour 7 minutes duration. There is a stampede of apatosauruses, battles with giant bats and lots of giant creepy crawlies, and where in the original Kong battles a tyrannosaurus rex, Jackson trumps that with Kong taking on three of the brutes at once. It is all very impressive, and if you like that sort of thing then you will love King Kong. Personally, while at times I was caught up in the excitement, I found a lot of the sequences a little repetitive and at times somewhat tedious. Once you have seen one fantastic computer generated sequence the rest begin to lose their appeal in my opinion. Perhaps it is because I have become jaded by overexposure to special effects, or perhaps I am alienated from the human interest by the intervening barrier of technological wizardry, but I found myself yearning for good old fashioned films where you have to use a bit of imagination!
Ultimately a monster movie should be about something other than special effects; the monster should mean something. For example, Frankenstein is an exploration of the potential dangers of uncontrolled scientific advances; the zombies in George A Romero’s Dead films represent the oppressed underclass and so on. In his remake of King Kong I feel that Jackson has neglected the heart of the story in favour of cutting edge special effects and the end result is somewhat lacking. Frankly I think this film was made because Jackson was effectively given a blank cheque after the success of The lord of the rings which allowed him to recreate a film that he loved using the most advanced special effects available. I am not sure that is a good enough reason to make a film unfortunately.
An edited version of this review can also be read in the communist party of great britain's paper, the weekly worker at: http://www.cpgb.org.uk/worker/606/King%20Kong.htm