APE-RIL Hails the Eighth Wonder of the World as Two Cents Revisits KING KONG (2005)

The team revisits Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation to determine if there’s still Beauty to this Beast nearly two decades later

Two Cents is a Cinapse original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team curates the series and contribute their “two cents” using a maximum of 200-400 words. Guest contributors and comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future picks. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion. Would you like to be a guest contributor or programmer for an upcoming Two Cents entry? Simply watch along with us and/or send your pitches or 200-400 word reviews to [email protected].

The Pick: King Kong (2005)

In honor of Kong’s return in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, this month the Two Cents Film Club is going ape for APE-RIL, checking out a lineup of ape-themed movies with some surprises in the mix. Our fourth entry is 2005’s King Kong. Peter Jackson’s epic follow-up to his Lord of the Rings trilogy seemed as enormous of an undertaking on its first release. Jackson, once known for his grisly gorefests, was now a newly-minted Oscar-winning director whose last film tied Ben-Hur and Titanic for the most Academy Awards won by a single film. With a blank check and all of Hollywood at his disposal, he tackled a new adaptation of one of Universal’s OG creature features. Would he be able to pull off such a spectacle again with decades of VFX evolution at his disposal?

As with previous adaptations, Kong ’05 follows aspiring starlet Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and showman filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) as they set sail for a mysterious island to finish Denham’s latest adventure picture–this time with screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and narcissistic lead actor Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) in tow. Arriving at the sinking Skull Island, the crew discovers far more than crumbling ruins: the last of a thriving island civilization, who kidnap Ann as a sacrifice for their deity…the mighty Kong (Andy Serkis). As Denham and Jack brave the murderous wilds of Skull Island to rescue Ann, she forms an unexpected–and ultimately star-crossed–bond with the lonely creature.

The Team

Julian Singleton

While the Lord of the Rings is an unbeatable creative gambit that Jackson executed to perfection, his immediate follow-up feels like his real blank check, using all of the skills he’d honed over those 3 epic films to flesh out an already-classic property into something truly epic and timeless. 

I’m always curious to map out how long it takes for each adaptation of the same story to hit their shared plot points–it tends to reveal something about the unique passions of the creatives behind them. In this case, I deeply love the first act of Jackson’s Kong–not just the meticulous recreation of the highs and lows of Depression-era America, but how the shared desperation of Ann, Denham, and Jack (top-tier performances from Watts, Black, and Brody) informs the overarching narrative of people searching for deeper emotional fulfillment amid their everyday struggles to survive. It’s 20 minutes before we even reach the first scene of Cooper’s original Kong, and even longer before we finally reach Skull Island–but that patience pays off in spades as Jackson’s signature massive-scale action sequences are rooted in an unshakable emotional core for the characters. 

Crucially, Kong himself is treated as something human rather than just spectacle. Turning in one of the best mo-cap performances period, Andy Serkis imbues the Eighth Wonder of the World with such primal complexity. Kong’s a lonely asshole, King of an island slowly sinking into the sea, one full of creatures that either target or fear him. Like the rest of the humans invading his turf, Kong’s also hungry for something more beyond just sheer survival. Which is why, against all logic, Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens manage to eke out a moving emotional romance between Kong and captive Ann, and smartly use that to fuel every moment of SFX wizardry they pull off with aplomb. Sure, the final act in New York City feels like a lengthy film all its own after the first 2+ hours–but the equal patience applied to turn Cooper’s jaw-dropping climax into something unbelievably tragic is essential to this take on Kong. The Empire State Building isn’t just the location of a thrilling finale–it achingly feels like the only instinctual place for these lovers to go for refuge, even if it means certain death. While it’s a thrilling adventure film in its own right, Jackson’s King Kong feels like one of the last true epics, a miracle blend of compelling characters, practical/visual effects, and awe-inspiring action that all feel larger than life.

(@Gambit1138 on Xitter)

Ed Travis

Having seen Peter Jackson’s King Kong three times in theaters (a true rarity for me), one might think that I would have approached this revisit as an opportunity to rediscover a dear favorite. But somehow the film had kind of fallen off my radar in the subsequent years. It has been almost 20 years, after all. But I did sense this was a great opportunity to introduce my nine year old daughter to one of the greatest stories cinema ever told, not to mention one of her first tragedies. And oh what a special viewing this was. I personally felt like I rediscovered a deeply moving masterwork that I had allowed time and distance to diminish. I’m profoundly moved by Kong as a force of nature, a lonely protector, a king, and a creature stripped of home, only to find a friend to be with at the end of all things. But what a wonder to experience the grand adventure and sweeping tragedy of King Kong with my child, who absolutely fell in love with Kong, and was devastated by his loss, and who spoke to me about what it must feel like to be Kong. 

Jackson’s film honestly succeeds for me on all levels. Decades removed, I adored the cast. Jack Black is the culmination of determined, detached, opportunistic filmmaking zealot, doomed to destroy what he loves most. Adrian Brody is this dashing writer, but I love that he’s simply smitten by Naomi Watts’ Ann Darrow and his bravery and self-sacrifice drive much of the narrative forward once he’s desperately in love. Watts is timeless and transcendent, frankly, as Ann Darrow, an uncompromising dreamer with a heart so pure it’ll conquer the great depression and comfort the king of the jungle. Hell I even love the side characters of Mr. Hayes (Evan Parke) and Jimmy (Jamie Bell), adoptive father and son doomed by Black’s Carl Denham to explore the wilds of Skull Island. Jackson is perhaps indulgent with the length, but I’ll take every minute of hard scrabble Depression-era New York, every set piece of prehistoric battles, and every transcendent moment of bonding between a still perfect digitally created Kong and Naomi Watts. As fully realized as any CGI character before or since, Andy Serkis and the VFX team created a masterful Kong who makes my heart swell and shatter in a way many human characters never will.

(@Ed_Travis on Xitter)

Brendan Agnew

What I appreciate most about Peter Jackson’s King Kong is its generosity. This is a film that is excited, desperate even, to give the viewer as much as possible of its pulp adventure world and the characters (monstrous and otherwise) who inhabit it. From the offbeat depression-era NYC opening (luxuriating in both the gleaming new art deco skyline and the street-level ravages of The Great Depression) to the claustrophobic sea voyage to Skull Island, Jackson wants to show off every corner of what he and the creative team created.

While this can be to its occasional detriment in terms of story economics and pacing – there are simply too many gotdamn characters in this thing – the combination of schoolboy enthusiasm and massive post-Oscar budget and creative freedom gives some of the most indelible moments in modern blockbuster filmmaking. Not only are Jackson’s horror roots on full display in segments like Anne’s kidnapping or the infamous Insect Pit, but his bone-deep empathy creates a new take on Kong that you can see echoing forward to the most recent incarnation in this year’s Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. With motion capture performance by Andy Serkis and Weta Digital, this take on Skull Island’s monarch still holds up as a CGI creation almost 20 years later, but is also every bit as communicative as the same actor’s work as Caesar in the modern Planet of the Apes films. This is the first film where we see Kong attempting to use sign language to communicate, establishes him as not an aberration but the last survivor of his kind, and gives genuine room for him and Anne to establish rapport and affection as well as respect and fascination.

And we also get to see him fight three T-rexes at once and wreck buses in Times Square and all the cool big monkey shit that you go to a King Kong movie to see. The classic complaint against this film is that it’s just too long, and it is. It takes too long to get to the island and then they probably spend too long there given how much ground the film covers in New York, but also I don’t care. For every moment that feels unnecessary, there’s a half-dozen more that are showing you crazy shit you’ve never seen before. It’s the King Kong movie that your childhood brain remembers the original looking and feeling like, and it’s just too joyfully committed to showing you a hell of a good time to hold those long innings against it.

(@BLCAgnew on Xitter)

Austin Vashaw

Peter Jackson’s loving homage to the original 1933 creature feature feels like a best-case scenario, creating an epic that’s both reverent and spiritually aligned to the original but updated with all the modern tools and resources (and goodwill) at his disposal coming off the triumph of The Lord of the Rings.

Despite a long runtime (especially in its Extended version), the film remains an engaging mix of adventure, creature horror, and tragedy that never feels like a chore. When I think of this film, what tends to spring to mind first is all the creature sequences – giant bugs, bats, dinosaurs, and of course Kong himself. A character oft remade and rebooted, he’s at his most human here, thanks to an incredible performance by Andy Serkis.

In an experience common to many videophiles, this was my introductory HD-DVD (included with the Xbox drive) and an early showcase title for the format. It’s the film I most closely associate with the concept of “HD”, and it still looks amazing almost 20 years later.

Well… mostly. There’s one thing PJ can’t seem to pull off effectively, and not for lack of budget or trying – once the (virtual) camera goes under (virtual) water, any connection to something resembling reality goes out the virtual window.

(@VforVashaw on Xitter)

Upcoming Picks: APE-RIL! (In Celebration of Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire)

Upcoming picks:
Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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