Thursday, December 22, 2005

Some notes on the new King Kong

How does it compare with the original?

Meaningless comparison. Cinema is a young form that has seen enormous changes occur in a relatively short period of time (just a little over a century). In literary terms, the difference between the creaky 1933 King Kong and this new, CGI-fuelled one by Peter Jackson is as vast as that between the works of Chaucer and the modern-day novel, probably vaster.

But compare we must, for it is in our nature. So here goes.

Length quotient
My vote goes to the original, which was an hour and 45 minutes long, and used that time well. By contrast, in the new film, Peter Jackson presents the back-story in such painstaking detail that it becomes an end in itself. I can appreciate a beautiful, accurate recreation of the Depression Era as much as the next chap, but that wasn’t how I had planned to spend the first hour of this film. Yes, first hour! That’s when they land on Skull Island, and the big monkey only makes his appearance around 73 minutes into the movie (I timed it).

It’s all very well to say that talented actors like Adrien Brody and Naomi Watts should be given time to develop their characters, but many of the early scenes are unnecessarily stretched out. I’m beginning to worry about Peter Jackson. Much as I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings films (especially the first one), I never got completely involved in his Grand Vision; this need to be constantly larger than life. I wonder if he’s plain forgotten how to make a movie that’s less than 3 hours long?

Emotional quotient
The new version is far superior in this respect, deriving much of its power from the development of the relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow. There are scenes of great beauty between them - including the lovely one towards the end where they glide on the ice together before their world, literally, caves in (Jackson himself skates close to oversentimentality here, but he makes the scene work).

Problem is, this three-hour film needed more such moments. Instead of providing those, Jackson wastes precious reels on the exposition - and later, on pointlessly protracted scenes of dinosaurs bounding after humans. We’ve seen all that before.

Cockroach quotient
I’m a cockroach-phobe, so this is personally a very important criterion. Even if you love the wondrous things that can be achieved with modern computer technology, you might reluctantly agree with me that the ability to replicate a completely realistic two-foot-long cockroach is a not entirely desirable one. For the first time I can remember, I had to keep my eyes off the screen (or hold it in my peripheral vision) for a full five minutes, while the bug attack in the swamp was underway. I still can’t believe the censors allowed that sequence through (along with the shot of a man being devoured, head first, by a giant plant) given that so many kids will be seeing this film.

Special effects quotient
This has to be a one-monkey race, right? What chance could the primitive "technology" used in 1933 possibly have against the sophisticated computer-generated effects, the perfect pixellation, that’s possible today?

Well, yes and no. The new Kong is undoubtedly more impressive in all the obvious ways. The creatures are completely believable, their movements realistic, each nuance captured in astonishing detail. But as either James Berardinelli or Roger Ebert pointed out once (and I’m sure - I hope - others have too), there’s still something to be said for the visceral appeal of pre-computer era special effects: where, for instance, a miniature toy gorilla was arranged and photographed in different walking positions and the footage then run together to simulate the effect of Kong walking. In some ways the jerkiness, the cardboard-creakiness, that resulted was more effective because it felt otherworldly. Modern computer effects by their very nature don’t have that quality: they make everything crystal-clear, make the image of a giant gorilla fighting a giant dinosaur completely plausible. Which isn’t an unequivocally good thing. (This partly relates to what I’ve written earlier about the best horror movies seeming to come from an entirely different world.)

But sentimentalist though I am, I have to admit that all these thoughts vanished when I saw the magnificent climax on the Empire State Building; that sequence is so breathtaking it’s easy to forget everything that came before it. For that, and for a couple of other beautiful visuals, the new Kong just pips the original. Given of course that comparisons are meaningless...


  1. Similar sentiments here -
    The first bit seemed, more or less, like Apocalypse Now - Into the heart of darkness. I hated the Jurassic Park -kingkong vs dinosaurs and assorted creatures bit and then came Kingkong and Ann Darrow.

    Overall, Peter Jackson's all this and dinosaurs too seemed to take away from the kingkong story which he had set out to potray. Perhaps my opinion is coloured by the fact that I saw Kongkong as a tragic love story(and PJ worked that angle well - if only he had worked just that angle!) between the blonde beauty and a brute so ugly that the audience wouldnt have found a even kiss from the object of his affections unacceptable.

  2. nice categorization in the review..and the best is the cockroach quotient..yuck..hate those things

  3. I'm thinking twice about watching the movie now- I absolutely abhor roaches. Just thinking about the climax of Men in Black makes me queasy. And the part in The Moor's Last Sigh where Moor is put into a cockroach infested prison cell strikes me with terror.

  4. I'll agree with most of what you said about this movie (and it was too long).......but also disagree with most of what you said about the 1933 "classic".

    the 33 version really was a rather C grade effort (even given limitations of the technology those days), and there wasn't really any emotional angle that came out. It was more creepy than any thing else.

    Given that, I decided to see this as a "new" movie, and enjoyed every moment of it. I went back home, thought about the old one, and then felt Jackson went where the old creators didn't even dream of going.

    Looks like Jackson's the new Spielburg....can't go wrong with what he does right now.

  5. Have to mention here that the first foray into Skull Island (the great wall and the tribals) so reminded me of Mordor and the Orcs.
    Seems like Peter Jackson would forget in between that it was a remake of King Kong that he was filming and not Lord Of The Rings or even The Lost World for that matter ;-)

  6. Hi Jabberwock, I read your movie reviews frequently, being an avid movie buff myself. I wrote somethings about King Kong too, here.
    One of the small things I liked in the movie, in the pre-Kong sequences, is the quick tracking shot of the water glass, from the table to being emptied in the flower pot, to it being used to listen into the producers' conversation.

    Also, yeah, the skull island walls look AMAZINGLY similar to LOTR!

    By the way, the bug sequence - I liked ! The poignant music just emphasised the tragedy I felt....

  7. Traveller: ya, but I think Peter Jackson was nudge-nudge-wink-winking at Conrad anyway, what with the kid on the ship reading Heart of Darkness. Maybe they should have ended the film with Jack Black deadpanning the line “Mistah Kong - he dead” instead of the earnest “It was beauty killed the beast”.

    Sunil: you have to tell me the secret of seeing something “as a new movie” even when you know everything that’s going to happen, and you’ve read a lot about the film. I’ve never been able to manage that. There was this couple sitting next to me and they were clearly clueless about the story - and I could tell that as a result they were enjoying it as a completely fresh experience. Envied that.

    Richa: dead right. I forgot to mention how much the island natives resembled the Orcs. Jackson hasn’t recovered from the LOTR hangover. Hope he does soon.

    Soham: know what you mean about the poignant music, tragedy etc - but I have to say that if I was ever being devoured by a giant bug or plant I would feel more silly than tragic. Plus, most of the ship crew aren’t particularly likeable people anyway.
    Ashamed to say I missed the tracking shot of the glass. Maybe my eyes were glazing over at that point.

    Comic Review, Nina: indeed, roaches are abhorrent, yuckish and lots of other strange-looking words. But don’t miss the film just because of that scene - keeping your eyes closed is always an option.

  8. I must agree with Sunil too. And I'm also not sure that the reviews talking about the "visceral" effects of the pre-digital era aren't simply blind nostalgia, the usual "good-old-days" stuff. Could King Kong have been such an active character, with such a defined personality, without the details that digital effects bring?

  9. Samanth: I think that’s a bit harsh. No one is disputing the proficiency of modern effects in creating well-defined creatures (the only reason this debate is happening in the first place is because it’s widely accepted that modern effects are superior) - but honestly, have you never experienced that very particular, very unique thrill that comes with seeing Fritz Lang’s Siegfried running his sword through a clumsily constructed papier-mache dragon? Or the skeletons in that macabre nightmare sequence in Metropolis. Or even many B-grade films made by less accomplished directors who had the courage of their convictions, and managed to get at least some of that onto the screen.
    (And of course, this is a purely personal opinion - as everything is - but many of the most spectacular scenes in The Lord of the Rings films just got spectacularly boring after some time.)
    Sure, the phenomenon of golden-ageism exists in all spheres - but that doesn’t mean all nostalgia is blind.

  10. The difference with the skeletons in "Metropolis" is that they were not required to have an emotional connection with any of the principal characters. They were there for effect, and I will be the first to admit that they were effective. But when you're looking at "King Kong", where King Kong himself needs to be as emotionally resonant as Ann Darrow, it works much more powerfully when a digital effect can create eyes that reflect emotion, when Andy Serks' body language can be so much more eloquent than any stop-motion animation.

    Of course I agree that all nostalgia is not blind; I'm pretty nostalgic, good-old-days-y myself as far as film goes. :-) But you said it yourself in your review - that the new version was far superior as far as the emotional quotient goes. I would argue it was far superior *because* the digital effects made King Kong as a character so real and palpable, so easy to empathise with.

    Which is not to say that Jackson didn't go overboard with his effects; I thought all the numerous critters on the island were hardly needed, as riveting as it was to watch as spectacle. But that isn't a criticism of digital effects vis-a-vis older-school effects; that's a criticism of Jackson's judgement as a filmmaker.

  11. Jabberwock - what really clinched the movie for me, (and why the roaches, the length, the Mordor-esque artwork and the rather lengthy exposition at the start became unimportant) was the characters.

    I've gone on at length about it here: but the gist is that Kong, Ann Darrow, and Denham were such compelling characters they kept me hooked. (If anything, I felt Adrien Brody's character was unnecessary)

    And there was this sense of glee - like that of a kid in a candy store - that you could sense in the way PJ handled the material... And that, to me is what movie-making is all about.

  12. I haven't seen the movie yet. So I dunno whether I should be commenting at all. I'm sure Jackson has done a good job.
    But the B/W Kong's effects really deserves kudos because they were done so painstakingly & with so much of innovative thought. Also let's not forget the grand camera work.
    They kind of showed the way, taught cinema to think BIG and then go all out to achieve it.

  13. I thought the ape made too much noise and the CGI team were competing to find out who cud come up with more bugs. The dinosaurs were old hat and the entire tribal sequence was done in true b-grade movie fashion.
    Also, i think Jack Black does the same stuff in all his movies (this is inspite of the fact that he was super in School of Rock, but he almost played the same guy here).

    I could go on, but i'll have to admit that the story of an ape's fascination for a moviestar does not work for me at all. Insipid i'd say. But i'm definitely biased. [As an aside the only interesting story abt an ape and a woman is the one about me and my wife]

  14. I absolutely hated teh movie.

    First 80 minutes were a bore till the king kong came - and then the kingkong vs dinosaurs killed it. I have always maintained that peter jackson is a mediocre film-maker who was helped by author backed brilliant books for LOTR, and I think I am right. He is mediocre and it showed so greatly in king kong.

    He could have made an excellent movie if for his luxurious use of time and those horrific dinosaurs and cockroaches, which added nothing to the story.

    Good comparision!!



  15. "I still can’t believe the censors allowed that sequence through (along with the shot of a man being devoured, head first, by a giant plant) given that so many kids will be seeing this film."

    Perhaps worse is being shown thru cartoons.

  16. I just love how Peter Jackson and his wife are the same team behind the completely whacky puppet-porn extravaganza Meet the Feebles and the LOTR phenomenon. Mindboggling!

  17. I found the stereotypical race-roles quite funny; Kong has to be told that women are not to be fooled around with by a WHITE woman of course. Presumably, the native girls before Ann just yielded.

  18. The movie felt like the LOTR director's cut. Some unnecessary scenes, while most sequences dragged on. Jackson ignored the fact that people are now used to fast-cut edited blockbusters. Apparently he's become obsessed with making "epics". Very boring indeed.

  19. You are my man! For many years now, I have been looking for someone who shares my fear (as you rightly emphasised in your roach post, fear is the right word, not disgust or loathing) of roaches. The only other roach-phobic person I know is my brother, and he doesn't count (it runs in the family, so it's not fun). I read with great interest the comparison of your fear of roaches with that of spiders. I too am hardly an insect lover, but the sight of a full-grown cockroach, particularly the kind that gives fancy to wings, fills me with an indescribable raw terror. Second only to when the damn thing actually starts flying, and I'm nowhere near the door of the room.