The face of the 25-foot-tall ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong isn’t what we’ve come to expect from computer-generated creations. A network of scars crisscrosses his brows; one canine tooth appears to have been broken off. Even his jaw seems to slope to one side, perhaps another remnant of some long-ago battle. In the past, it has been enough for special effects to convince us that something exists. Jackson has something more complicated in mind--he wants us to believe that Kong has lived.
It’s not an easy task, and that’s why King Kong follows Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy as another minor miracle of contemporary blockbuster filmmaking. The New Zealand director has, it’s true, raised the bar for action set pieces, but that’s not why his movies are terrific. He wants to couple modern technological wonder with genuine emotion, and he wants to do it by making us feel for things--like the tortured Gollum in Rings--that aren’t really there. Like E.T., King Kong works primarily because it’s an unconventional love story--one where the fate of a special effect can generate a lump in your throat.
There’s a lot of build-up before we can get there. Nearly a third of Jackson’s 187-minute epic involves the preparation and voyage of a small boat from Depression-era New York to mysterious Skull Island. Jack Black plays film director Carl Denham, and Jackson plays with the idea of a wild-eyed, Herzog-esque visionary whose quest to shoot his latest picture in mythical environs takes down those around him. Mostly, though, Jackson wants to set up a romantic angle between Denham’s last-minute leading lady replacement, starving actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), and his screenwriter, respected playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). It’s one of those movie loves that seems to emerge out of thin air--and considering how much time Jackson is given to tell his tale, it’s initially hard to understand why it feels rushed.
But all else begins to feel like quibbling once Denham and company reach the mist-shrouded island. Jackson hits the throttle and almost never lets up, beginning with the boat’s treacherous navigation of the rocky approach and leading up to the first appearance of the massive Kong. The crew finds itself caught in a stampede of the dinosaurs that also populate the island; insects the size of pit bulls assault them from every angle. And in one of the most wildly rousing monster battles since Godzilla took on Ghidrah, Kong rescues Ann from an attack by a Tyrannosaurus rex trio, including midair warfare in a webbing of vines.
If King Kong were nothing more than its stellar action sequences, it would still be a joy to behold. But the most remarkable moments come between Ann and Kong, as what is intended initially as a sacrifice by the island’s natives turns into an actual relationship. It begins with a series of pratfalls born out of Ann’s desperation, and gradually--through a series of astonishingly nuanced close-ups--we watch Kong’s fascination with this strange creature evolve. Once again, Jackson owes a debt to his motion-capture muse Andy Serkis--who portrayed Gollum, and here modeled Kong’s movements--but he creates a relationship here through brilliantly efficient nonverbal storytelling. Every chuffing snort and wounded shrug conveys feeling. We get to see a machine of destruction understand amusement, natural beauty and respect for Ann’s spirit.
Eventually--as anyone who knows the 1933 original knows--the story moves back to New York City, with the captured Kong ultimately escaping and finding his way to the top of the Empire State Building. Jackson crafts another slam-bang sequence out of his Times Square rampage, but the improbable centerpiece of the Gotham-set third act finds Kong--after rediscovering Ann--playfully slipping across a frozen pond. It never for a moment feels ridiculous, because the fact that Kong has a soul is never in question.
Jackson also duplicates the original’s famous last line about beauty and the beast, but in the mouth of Denham--who only understands spectacle--there’s a magnificent irony to it. Even the relative shallowness of the Ann/Jack relationship begins to seem like something carefully planned as a counterpoint. We understand that Kong’s feelings for Ann involve far more than her beauty. And we understand too that this wondrous thing--more tragically, wonderfully human than most of the flesh-and-bone beings around him--was much more than a beast.