SERKIS MAXIMUS : Peter Jackson’s ‘King Kong’ [9/10]

The Lovely Bones or The Anzacs: this is the answer to the question which will be going through many viewers' minds as they stumble into the street having experienced the wonder that is King Kong. Said question being "How on earth is Jackson going to follow that?!" Whichever way the newly-slimline New Zealander jumps*, he shouldn't hang about: it's now a decade since Titanic, whose director James Cameron hasn't made another feature film since. And regardless of whether or not King Kong emulates Titanic or Jackson's last picture at the Oscars, in moviemaking terms he's pretty much "King of the World" at the moment. In fact, it's hard not to think of Jackson's vertigo-inducing Hollywood status when watching his Kong balancing atop the windswept Empire State Building in the film's jawdropping final sequence: the only way from here is, surely, down.

Because King Kong, regardless of how it does with the Academy, with the critics, and at the box-office really is a great movie: 'movie' rather than 'film', because it is so unashamedly old-fashioned in its desire to dazzle, entertain, and wow its audience – and all for what the script itself calls "the price of an admission ticket."  But has there ever been a great movie that's had so much wrong with it? Undeveloped characters and loose ends abound and, like Return of the King, it's far too long. This time the longueurs are to be found in the first hour rather than at the climax (the source material springing from the mind of Edgar Wallace rather than John Tolkien, Kong only has the one ending.)

And what a bizarre first hour it is, setting the scene in early-30s, Depression-hit New York and introducing us to the main characters in sloppy, choppy fashion: maverick director Carl Denham (Jack Black), his socially-conscious scriptwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and his vaudeville-trained leading-lady Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). The relationships between the trio are only sketchily established, and never really come into proper focus.

As the company set sail for the uncharted Skull Island – where Denham is determined to shoot his latest epic – things don't get any better: Jackson and his co-writers (Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh) chuck in a slew of half-baked characterisations, along with some groan-inducingly pretentious references to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. You really do start to fear the worst: Jackson famously spent decades planning his Kong (which was originally set to be made ten years ago in the wake of The Frighteners, only to be shelved when that picture flopped), and movie history shows that directors' dream projects all too often end up as nightmares for all concerned.

But about an hour in, everything falls into place and the picture proper finally begins: Skull Island is (implausibly) stumbled across; Ann is kidnapped by the hostile islanders and delivered as a sacrifice to their god, who turns out – as all audiences will surely already know – to be a 40-foot-high gorilla. For the next two hours King Kong is one spectacularly breathtaking set-piece after another, any one of which would provide a fitting, rousing climax to almost any other film. Having been palpably uncomfortable with all that cumbersome Manhattan scene-setting and the ensuing boat-bound shenanigans, Jackson now plays to his strengths and lets his imagination run riot – while never straying too far from the template of Cooper & Schoedsack's 1933 original.

You suspect part of the reason Jackson dared to tackle this material was that he'd be able to recreate all the lost or deleted scenes which have so intrigued the movie's admirers down the decades: the most tantalising being the 'too-horrific' sequence where sailors fall into a deep ravine and are attacked by giant insects. This scene has achieved legendary status over the years, setting the bar very high for anyone brave enough to actually film it: Jackson rises to the challenge in dazzling, pulsating, stomach-churning style (those giant carnivorous worms just one of several touches unexpectedly reminiscent of Stephen Sommers' Deep Rising) while adhering closely to the 1933 version's existing stills and sketches. He also 'restores' a key (poetic/tragic) shot from the finale, in which Kong and Ann – having by now established a quasi-romantic attachment to each other – end up at the top of Manhattan's highest skyscraper.

It's testament to Jackson's skill that what is, objectively, such a very odd relationship should work so very well on film – giving King Kong an emotional resonance in addition and counterpoint to all that rather macho slam-bang action-adventure stuff. In her most taxing role since Mulholland Dr, Watts is physically hurled around more than any actress in recent cinema history, and Ann's emotional journey is really no less extreme: such a pity she has to divide her attentions between the majestic Kong and the rather sappy Driscoll (the former bond much more convincing than the latter).

Kong himself is easily the most believable and sympathetic CGI character yet created, this process involving the same technological wizardry which allowed Andy Serkis to 'play' Gollum in the Lord of the Rings pictures. Kong represents a quantum leap even beyond Gollum – he makes Aslan in the current Narnia picture look like a pantomime lion – and Serkis once again delivers a remarkably expressive "performance": Kong's eyes alone conveying a range of emotions from ferocity and tenderness, and all points in between. Jackson has said that when he saw King Kong aged 9 it was what made him want to be a film-maker; it's a testament to his achievement that his Kong will probably have the same effect on generations to come. Roll on, 2077.

Neil Young
18th December, 2005

KING KONG : [9/10] : USA (US/NZ) 2005 : Peter JACKSON : 187 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Cineworld cinema, Sunderland (UK), 17th December 2005 – public show

In January it was announced that the Jackson had bought the rights to Alice Sebold's bestselling (and Heavenly Creatures-ish) novel The Lovely Bones, with a view to directing the film himself. More recently he's been linked with a "World War I epic" about the 'Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs for short) – the latter perhaps slightly more likely, given Jackson's long-held passion for the subject: earlier this year he personally supervised the restoration of the only existing footage of the ANZACs' disastrous Gallipoli landing of 1915.