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King Kong – the eyes have it

can't take my eyes off you

you're just not like all the other guys

King Kong – Peter Jackson

(BBC Prize Review)

The eyes have it. Of all the multi-million $ visual illusions created for King Kong, the most critical to the film are the prehistoric, 25 foot Gorilla’s eyes. However breathtaking the CGI generated action sequences, and they are superbly filmed and edited – it is the real sense of a primitive creature forming a meaningful attachment to a single human being around which this frankly preposterous story pivots. The importance of the eyes as a means of conveying ‘innerness’, thought, personal identity is a cliché of cinema acting. Quite how the eyes, even seen through the camera lens, communicate this sense of ‘another’ is a phenomenon as subtle as it is profound.

The Kong of the original 1933 movie and this faithful remake is essentially anthropomorphised, never more so than in the brilliantly exciting, CGI choreographed fight scenes with other pre-historic animals. The haymaker swings and punches are very exciting but hardly I would have thought gorilla-like. This isn’t a nerdy complaint: the dramatic effect of the breathless chases and titanic battles is all that matters – and it works. It is just that the achievement of a sense of individuality for Kong is conveyed with a subtlety that really puts the more crash bang wallop of CGI action in the shade. Without a sense of Kong as a kind of individual, protecting the human to whom he has formed a unique attachment – there is no movie. And with all these acutely observed anthropomorphised behavioural signals in place, we then ‘read’ genuine emotion, even pathos, into those great eyes. Before I go off on one – it is worth noting that the close-up in movies places us within the most private, intimate space of a character, gorilla or not, only achieved in real life in very special conditions of personal intimacy. Part of the unique power of the eyes in movies perhaps. And the basis of its inescapably voyeuristic quality.

Peter Jackson is a frustrating movie-maker. He can brilliantly set up a mis en scène of 1930’s New York in 5 minutes of economical editing and evocative cinematography, then drag out getting to Skull Island and the first appearance of Kong for another 40 minutes or so. Learning from Spielberg in Jaws, Jackson is right to build up tension before Kong appears, it’s just that the intervening 40 minutes is pretty dull and uninspired. However, while the unbearable, cumulative tension of Spielberg’s movie virtually evaporates as soon as we see the clunky metal reality of the phoney shark, Jackson’s Kong stands up to every scrutiny and never really disappoints. But Jackson’s movie-making sprawls across the screen, in this case taking 187 minutes to cover essentially the same story, in a sense the same film given its faithfulness to the original, which came in at 104.

Jackson’s editing willpower seems to desert him with CGI footage. Instead of being an immensely powerful means to achieve a dramatic effect, it simply becomes an end in itself. This tendency began with the Lord Of The Rings trilogy and persists here. At least Kong only has one ending. As Jackson piles impossible thrill upon impossible thrill in the second hour of the movie, one at times begins to suffer from astonishment fatigue. So many creatures, so many battles, so many shocks your brain jams with overload. And this lack of pacing makes an already pretty average script clunk even more than it should. LOTR and KK despite their amazing and highly entertaining strengths, share the same inherent weakness – a lack of dramatic cadence. Their narrative seems to have only two speeds – slow or flat out. Only late on with the scenes with Naomi Watts sharing the beauty of a sunset with a ‘contemplative’ Kong does the movie achieve a kind of stillness that allows the illusion of an impossible relationship to breathe a little credible life.

Casting is patchy. Naomi Watts is good in an impossible part and deserves an Oscar for the longest unbroken sequence of reaction shots in movie history. Jack Black just can’t seem to make off-the-wall entrepreneur-come-filmaker Carl Denham quite fit and despite a good crack at writer Jack Driscoll, Adrien Brody looks miscast. The rest do a good job with pretty cardboardy characters to work with including a confident Jamie Bell in an add-in part. But the heart and soul of the movie of course is Kong and the credibility Watts just about manages to convey of an affection and empathy between impossibly disparate species. (I’d leave any psychoanalytic concepts in the car for this one by the way). The third star of course is CGI. A star who many Directors are beginning to discover, is becoming far too big for his boots, prohibitively expensive and starting to suffer from the law of diminishing returns.

The end result is an at times breathlessly exciting movie whose subtext morality tale plays no better nor worse than the original – which is pretty marginally. And Kong reigns absolutely supreme as the most realistic cinematically generated creature in movies so far. In his faithfulness to the original it is a pity I think that Jackson leaves himself open to the same criticism levelled against the first film’s portrayal of the native people of Skull Island. Why oh why are aboriginal people always portrayed in such a crass, ignorant, farcically stereotypical way? Leering, filthy, witless, pitiless ‘savages’ just there as fear fodder. It may seem a bit precious to refer to this in a review of an old-fashioned adventure yarn movie and I’m not talking from political correctness, but this story could have been enhanced not harmed, by a more intelligent portrayal and use of this aspect of the story.

Well worth a visit. But be warned – the 12A certificate is yet again misleading. I would think twice about accompanying any child under 12 to this at times graphically scary movie. Like the latest Harry Potter, KK demonstrates that the 12A certification needs serious re-thinking as it is misleading parents into taking too many too young kids to too many too scary movies.

(December 2005)

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