Monday, January 5, 2009

"King Kong"

Last night, I caught parts of Peter Jackson's 2005 "King Kong," his followup to the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movies. Jackson's style is now as unmistakable as Spielberg's: "King Kong" featured the same sort of lighting as the LOTR films did, and many of the same visual tropes were there. Giant vampire bats looked like orcs; large creatures tossed humans around like toys (think: Sauron in "Fellowship of the Ring" and the Ringwraiths' dragon-like flying steeds), and Jackson went nuts with all the insects and spiders-- Shelob writ large. Kong was played by Andy Serkis, the actor who provided the soul for the CGI mocap* Gollum, and there were many moments where Kong, his mouth drawn long and thin in a perpetual frown, strongly resembled a Gollum about to blow his top.

One major difference between "King Kong" and the LOTR films is that the latter films had a complex plot. "Kong" boils down to two elements: (1) gorilla loves woman, and (2) gorilla rampages and everyone else runs.

Actress Naomi Watts was a good sport. Her character, Ann Darrow, gets variously poked, prodded, stroked, flung, thrashed, tossed, dropped, roared at, and breathed on by the massive Kong. On top of this, Watts spent a lot of screen time running, breathing hard, and weeping. Not an easy role.

Not a very realistic one, either. Ann Darrow survives more physical traumas than Bruce Willis's John McClane in any of the Die Hard films. The most painful** scenes to watch were the ones in which Kong grabbed Darrow in his fist, then ran through the jungle, repeatedly smashing both his fists into the ground and levering his body along as he moved forward. If an actual human being had been in such a situation, wrapped inside a huge fist and repeatedly slammed into the ground, his or her spine would have been liquefied. I know "King Kong" is a baroque fantasy, and that we're not supposed to think about such matters, but the abuse Darrow took was distracting to the story; I began to worry more about her health than about the unfolding plot.

I was, ultimately, more interested in how Jackson would handle Kong's arrival in New York than in how he would handle the jungle scenes. Jackson's LOTR movies showed us very little in the way of urban settings (unless you count the white fortress-city of Minas Tirith); I wanted to see how he'd tackle the city scenes. As it turns out, he handled them well enough, but there was an underlying sameness between Kong's jungle rampages and his car-flinging urban tantrums. I guess you can expect people and large objects to be tossed great distances in a Peter Jackson film; we can look forward to more of this whenever "The Hobbit" comes out.***

The actors in "King Kong" were all playing second fiddle to the effects. Adrien Brody's nose-- quel pif, Adrien!-- dominates every scene in which it appears; I assume it has its own agent. Jack Black tried to do a serious version of his usual D&D geek schtick, and I'm not sure it worked. His delivery of the movie's final line left something to be desired. Watts was an able successor to Fay Wray; as far as I'm concerned, she carried the movie. Finally, Serkis's Kong was expressively done-- the sort of work we expect of Serkis, who looks physically unprepossessing in real life, but who is an extremely physical actor (watch the special features on any of the LOTR DVDs to see what I mean; the poor guy went through hell to portray Gollum).

But what exactly is the message of "King Kong"? Is Kong a caricature of the male id, tameable only by Woman? The movie's final line seems to suggest such a reading, though it does so in a way that makes the filmmakers' attitude toward womanhood unclear: "It was Beauty killed the beast" seems to imply that Woman is the downfall of Man.

Or is the movie's message more Crichton-esque, a morality play about what happens when we assume we can control nature? In this interpretation, Kong represents nature in all its unpredictability. Humanity's only answer to uncontrollable natural forces is to destroy them, to reimpose human order over natural chaos, and then to walk away without having learned anything from the experience. Nature can triumph over Man (Kong scales the Empire State Building), but Man is ultimately the one who triumphs, and it's not a pretty sight. Here, with only the woman to weep for Kong's death, we again see a commentary about femininity, but unlike the "Kong-as-male-id" scenario, Woman here is no less than Sophia, i.e., wisdom. She understands the violence being done to nature by Man, and weeps at Man's vain insistence on separating himself from nature.

Did you see "King Kong"? What's your interpretation of the movie's message? And did you like the movie? I enjoyed the visuals (what's not to like about Kong versus three tyrannosaurs?), but I don't feel compelled to see the film again anytime soon.

*Mocap = motion capture, a digital technique by which a fantasy creature's movements and/or expressions are made natural and fluid by mapping them onto the movements of a live actor wearing a special suit with markings.

**By "painful," I don't mean "embarrassing": I mean "making me wince in empathy for what the character is going through."

***Adapting Tolkien's The Hobbit strikes me as a less interesting project than putting The Silmarillion on film, especially that epic creation story at the beginning, which is practically a movie in itself.



Charles said...

Wow. I did see KK (in the cinema, actually, which is where a film like that really needs to be seen), but I don't think I thought nearly as deeply about the themes or message. If anything, I would say I probably lean toward a Crichton-esque interpretation, but I'm not sure I agree with this line: "Nature can triumph over Man, but Man is ultimately the one who triumphs, and it's not a pretty sight." I would probably take a different tack: Man's attempts to control Nature for his own purposes will only end in tragedy, but this tragedy is not a triumph for Man. It's a failure, because Man's goal was to contain Nature. Kong dies because that's the only way that the film can end once he is brought to New York, and his death is actually evidence of Man's inability to control Nature.

Perhaps this is what you were saying, but I just wouldn't use the word "triumph" here.

As for The Hobbit, I think we might see something a little different from LOTR, as Jackson won't actually be directing the films (unless something has changed--last I heard it was going to be the guy who did Pan's Labyrinth). Jackson will still be involved, of course, but it will be interesting to see how another director handles the story.

Elisson said...

I'll take a different tack, having seen the Peter Jackson KK and being a long-time fan of the original-and-never-equalled Merian Cooper- Ernest Schoedsack 1933 version.

Jackson's KK was a huge improvement over the dismal 1976 remake, but in the end, it doesn't have a fraction of the soul of the 1933 version, with its atmospheric B&W photography and its stirring Max Steiner score (the latter of which which received a hat tip in Jackson's film).

As far as Deep Analysis goes, I think Charles nails it. Man's attempts to control Nature for his own purposes will end in tragedy, a tragedy that is not a triumph for Man, but rather, an indictment.

Kevin said...


Interesting comment. I'd agree with the idea that the film might be saying that Man's attempt to control nature ends in tragedy/failure for Man, but I'm not sure that KK expresses this idea, simply because the city is still standing while Kong is dead.

I mean, I don't know how deeply we should be reading meaning into an obvious popcorn flick, but if the message of KK has anything to do with the whole "people versus nature" theme, I'd venture that KK's makers might have been saying that man's incremental conquest of nature-- one sign of human progress-- will continue, but at the expense of beauty (and other notions springing from a romantic view of nature).


Charles said...


Right, I see what you're saying. I guess we can think of it in terms of another popular trope: in his hubris, Man creates a deadly monster (disease, virus, etc.) that wreaks havoc on the population. The hero of the story, however, manages to ultimately defeat this self-wrought threat. Can this be considered a triumph for humanity, or is it just a case of humanity once again narrowly avoiding destroying itself?

True, the city is still standing at the end, and Kong really didn't destroy all that much property, but this isn't a war of attrition. Man set out to control Nature--to be more specific, Man set out to wrench Nature from its environment and use it for its own selfish purposes, but ultimately this plan goes awry. Nature cannot be controlled; it is not simply a resource for us to exploit.

For me, at least, it's more about Man's failure to understand what it means to be a steward of Nature. Whether or not Jackson's film warrants such deep analysis is another story. The analysis may say more about the analyzer than it does about the subject of analysis.

gordsellar said...

Huh. Well, I don't know how one can escape a racial anxiety subtext in the original film: big black... er, ape kidnaps skinny pretty white chick and carries her off for himself; thus he must be destroyed. The proximity to the film Birth of a Nation (with its blackface scene so similar in theme) just hit me when I first watched King Kong. I mean, the savage beast is captured in the wild, where it is a king (many slave tales written by whites feature claims of kingship in the slave's homeland, Aphra Behn's Oronooko being the one most prominent in my mind). He arrives in America -- New York! in a hall where blackface minstrel shows almost certainly would have been performed! -- and is shown off in subdued, chained misery. Kong breaks his chains, goes on a rampage, and steals a white woman as his lovely hostage, at which point the security of the city and the nation is defended by the full force of the state, and the norm is reinstated by the killing of the big black... ape.

I don't think Jackson's really trying to invoke that subtext, but it remained for me (and some people I know) because it was so strong and clear in the original.

Kevin said...


Yeah, I thought about tackling the racial angle, but you've done a better job of it than I could have.

Peter Jackson's move did depict a minstrel show, didn't it?