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.
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?
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.
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...