I don’t want to ruffle any feathers, but American film is inextricably linked to auteurism. I certainly don’t mean any disrespect to any Paulettes out there; in fact, I’m one of you, though I also own a well-thumbed copy of Sarris’ The American Cinema, so I guess you could say I’ve got a foot in both streams. It’s often entertaining to watch commentators or classic film pundits introduce a movie on some channel like Turner Classic Movies, during which they will extol the work of everyone from the screenwriter to the d.p., then turn around and introduce the film by using the director’s name, as in “Now sit back and relax as we bring you Hal Warren’s Manos: The Hands of Fate.” Now, I’m certainly not one to argue too strongly for the theory. The script, editing, lighting, and a hundred other choices made by a thousand other below-the-line names go into the millions of details that make up a finished film. But it’s ultimately the director’s hand that guides the project, and the best directors have made names for themselves by leaving recognizable thumbprints on their works. Spielberg leans toward boyish wonder and the social ramifications of World War II; Malick favors heavy use of nature and silence to juxtapose the “traditional” narrative. There are dozens of other examples, but I picked those two because they’ve each got a new film out this season, both of which will be competing for audiences with Peter Jackson’s latest, King Kong. And I have no trouble using the possessive of Jackson’s name when talking about this movie, because he’s made it his own as surely as he stamped his name on the feature adaptations of The Lord of the Rings.
Jackson’s fantasy trilogy took a firm grasp of the pop-culture subconscious in the country and didn’t let go for three years, 11 Oscars and enough box-office and DVD revenue to let Jackson buy his own planet. A fantasy film series hasn’t blitzkrieged the public like that since the original Star Wars films, but whereas George Lucas was peddling original fables (or as original as Western/samurai mash-ups can be), Jackson was spreading the gospel according to J.R.R. Tolkien. The Rings films’ few strong glories are all lifted from the novels, and its many weaknesses are most prevalent when the original source was abandoned and Jackson took over, either to streamline the story or give more screen time to Liv Tyler. It’s a dangerous error to praise Jackson the technician as Jackson the storyteller; while he excels at the former, he has an innate lack of skill for the latter. If not for the grace of Tolkien, Jackson would probably still be in New Zealand making borderline snuff-grade horror. It’s fitting, then, that his follow-up to his career-making series is another adaptation, this time a remake of 1933’s King Kong.
B-grade filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) is having a tough time convincing his studio to boost his budgets. He dreams of exotic location shoots, but his bosses force him to use backlots, and even threaten to fire him and sell his films for scrap footage. The Great Depression’s on, and Denham’s one of the few people doing well. In need of a starlet to complete his masterpiece, he hires Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) off the street and persuades her to join his film crew, including pampered mimbo Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) and screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), on board a chartered tramp steamer for ocean filming. Ann’s got an intellectual crush on Jack, so she jumps at the chance to be a star and put some food in her belly. Yada yada yada, it turns out Denham is really leading them to Skull Island, an uncharted land mass in the South Pacific. Even though we know that the ship will eventually reach the island and meet up with Kong, Jackson plays every scene that advances the narrative as if we know exactly what’s going to happen, as if it’s something he’s got to wade through in order to get to the good stuff. True to the form he started establishing in 2001, the dialogue is often clunky and bluntly expository; without the inherent saving graces of Tolkien’s spare prose as guide, the screenplay, written by Jackson with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, starts to creak whenever the action stops and two people actually have to talk to each other without sounding like morons.
Once arriving on Skull Island, however, Jackson’s skills as an action director begin to shine. The local islanders, photographed with heavy close-ups and jarring edits like the fighting Uruk-Hai, kidnap Ann and offer her up for Kong, who apparently eats people as well as whatever vegetation he can score. The CG Kong, acted out by Andy Serkis (the physical actor/model for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings), is a stunning achievement in effects, and watching him rampage through the jungle goes from breathtaking to jaw-dropping when he tangles with three T. rexes. Oh yeah: the island, in addition to housing Kong and a frightening tribe of locals, also features dinosaurs, giant spiders, and some unnamed multi-fanged worms that aren’t just scary, they’re genuinely disturbing.
Skull Island is Kong’s universe. He’s got dinosaurs to fight, a tribe of people that worship him, and a steady supply of food and sacrificial virgins. He’s pretty much got it made, living it up in what passes for nirvana for violently oversized, mildly sociopathic primates. And it’s this hubris that ultimately proves to be his undoing, or at least the source of it, because by thinking he couldn’t be hurt, he welcomed the wrathful hand of fate, which, as it’s prone to do when it acts, appeared in Kong’s life in the form of a beautiful woman with baggage. Sure, he occasionally eats people, but he really wanted to make it work with Ann, or at least make it a clean break. And really, can you blame him? Kong is just a much hairier version of Lloyd Dobler; he gave Ann his heart, only instead of a pen, all he got in return was a trip to New York in chains and the firepower of the U.S. Army.
Watts is the standout among the cast, doing a convincing job of emoting against a green screen to make us believe she really feels something for Kong. Brody does well, also, though most of the time there’s not much for either of them to do but go along for the ride. But it’s Jack Black that’s the hardest to get a handle on. Casting him as Denham may have seemed like an inspired choice, and indeed, the few jokes Black delivers are done perfectly. But any moment meant to be touching or dramatic or anything along those lines is hindered by Black’s presence. Jack Black is great at playing the character of Jack Black, whether it’s toned-down School of Rock Jack or amped-up High Fidelity Jack. But he’s always himself, wide-eyed and unintentionally sarcastic. He has, at this point, joined Will Ferrell in the ranks of comedians who have hit what I like to call “peak humor”; he can never be viewed as funnier, his reputation will inevitably decline, and the mere sight of him onscreen is enough to make people start laughing. In some cases, this benefit of the doubt works in the star’s favor, since there’s no way anyone would find Anchorman funny unless they desperately, passionately, blindly wanted it to be funny. However, because of our predisposition to laugh at Black and his inability to do anything but play himself, his role comes across as farce. Denham even delivers the film’s final words, but it turns the moment into an accidental punch line.
The rest of the story isn’t worth recapping, but not because it’s boring; in fact, it’s often heart-stopping, always gripping, and at moments sadder and more poignant than you’d expect. But you know the story, which Jackson’s banking on, and this is ultimately what hurts the film. The epic tale of King Kong has been worn into a groove in our collective memory; not many people have ever seen him fend off the biplanes atop the Empire State Building, much less sat through the original. These images are ingrained in us almost from birth. Hence, everything in Jackson’s here is rote, automatic; every penny of the $200 million-plus budget shows up in the fantastic production design, effects, sets, you name it, but it’s all a put-on. The suits and dresses aren’t based on period American clothing, but what Jackson imagines the characters would wear if he ever made a movie about them. Even the opening credits, designed in a style meant to recall the 1930s, are as hollow as they are impressive. Everything here is wonderful to look at and completely devoid of substance. It’s a glistening thrill ride, and an impressive feat of technical achievement; now if only Jackson had a story of his own to tell.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.King Kong / Daniel Carlson
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()