In the film’s extended first act, hucksterish movie man Carl Denham (Jack Black, nicely blending cynical connivance and the vision thing) corrals struggling vaudevillian Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) into joining slumming playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and sundry others on a tramp steamer into the unknown. Where Cooper made this a pacy overture to the island-adventure, Jackson offers an hour-long diversion comprising often superfluous backstory and a surfeit of minor characters. With shiny CG funnels belching bitty CG smoke against orange CG sunsets, he’s sailing perilously close to soupy ‘Titanic’ waters; there’s even an Irish jig before the rough landing.
Once on land, however, things take off, with a rollercoaster of bravura action sequences in an ecosystem to die from, including stampeding brontosaurs, scrawny raptors, Komodo dragons, giant insects, devil bats and incessant T-Rex assaults. There’s a real nightmare feel to some of this – attacks by obscene man-sized leeches like teethed genitalia or vicious natives (the only word for such exoticised and barbarous characters), shot in drowsy slo-mo with a dirge-like score, could well terrify younger children. Indeed, the unending chain of attacks begins to seem more like a vividly executed dream ordeal than a narrative.
Where the picture triumphs is in Kong himself. As with Gollum in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films, the CG character is far more complex, rounded and engaging than any of the humans, developing from a villainous grotesque into a tragic, semi-heroic figure. Visually Kong is plausibly gorilla-like, with his screwed-up face, scarred torso and low, broad rump rendered in astonishing detail at rest and in action. But Jackson is able to outstrip his predecessors by a quantum leap in making Kong equally credible in behavioural and emotional terms, without anthropomorphising him too much.
A computer-enhanced performance by Andy Serkis (who also ‘played’ Gollum) shows us a character at first angry and on guard, whose lonely, violent life is changed by the arrival of the mysterious blonde; Laughton’s Quasimodo is cited as a model. Kong and Ann’s mutual fascination and affection offers considerable emotional impact; though the sexual undertones of this Beauty and the Beast pairing remain implicit, they’re clear enough to render Driscoll an also-ran in the romantic stakes.
The return to New York in chains also takes on more pathos: Kong’s on-stage debasement and evident fear and confusion at civilisation make it harder than ever to sympathise with the fighter planes. His rampage through the city is another tour de force of animation, though this too has its share of detours, as if Jackson can’t resist showcasing the 90,358 buildings of his digital set, all authentically dressed down to the period doorknobs.
It’s all very big and very clever, but somewhat at odds with a story that obviously operates on a level of surreal myth rather than naturalistic plausibility. Instead of slavishly attempting to reanimate the city as it really looked, why not make ‘King Kong’s’ New York as heightened and fantastical an environment as Skull Island, reimagined in tune with Kong’s own perceptions as a hyper-oppressive prison of straight lines and right angles? The power of the story’s climax lies in the clash of Kong’s disorderly, uncontrollable self-expression with the rigid, regimented geometry of modernist Manhattan: untrammelled desire against ultra-rationality; id against the grid.
In the end, Kong is bested by the ranged forces of technology: architecture, aviation and photography. Jackson has delivered a moving spectacle of which Carl Denham would be proud; if he were a little less besotted with his own amazing tools and a little more willing to walk on the wild side, he might have made a film with a tighter grip on the soul.