film

WE LOVE YOU YA BIG APE

BRIAN D. JOHNSON December 12 2005
film

WE LOVE YOU YA BIG APE

BRIAN D. JOHNSON December 12 2005

WE LOVE YOU YA BIG APE

film

THE BACK PAGES

She’s from New York. He’s from out of town. Their relationship is doomed before it begins, but it’s one of the most iconic romances in the history of cinema, beginning with that bizarre bit of foreplay. A giant gorilla holds a screaming blond in the palm of his hand and strips off items of her clothing, peeling her like a banana, then pauses to sniff his fingers with bemused curiosity. When King Kong premiered in 1933, it thrilled audiences with things they’d never seen before. That frisson of ape rape, featuring Canadian actress Fay Wray, was one of them. But when the film was re-released in 1938, under the pall of Hollywood’s newly enforced production code, censors cut out the heavy petting—along with graphic scenes of natives being eaten alive and squished into the mud.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

The original Kong was the mother of all monster movies. Sure, humans in costume had played supernatural villains like Dracula and Frankenstein, but this was the first blockbuster with a ferocious special-effects predator—the ancestor of Godzilla, Jaws and Jurassic Park. Now, after a string of dubious clones and sequels, Kong has been resurrected in grand style. And the 25-foot, 8,000-lb. gorilla has never been scarier, sadder or more convincing.

Peter Jackson, the Oscar-winning director of The Lord of the Rings, has pulled out all the stops with his $200-million-plus Kong remake, a three-hour tour de force. It’s his Titanic, a dizzying spectacle of special effects inflated by operatic tragedy. But Jackson is more of an artist than Titanic's James Cameron. With an elaborate mix of matte painting, sculptured miniatures and digital animation, he has raised the bar for blockbuster action. It’s hard to think of another effects movie crafted with such

Peter Jackson’s King Kong is a monumental homage to the original, so where’s all the monkey business?

baroque detail, rich character development and fine-tooled performances. And never before has a computer-animated creature expressed such a profound range of emotional expression.

Seeing the original movie is what made Jackson want to be a filmmaker. He watched it on a black-and-white TV as a nine-year-old in New Zealand, and it was the start of a lifelong obsession. At 12, he attempted to shoot his own Kong with a Super 8 camera, cutting up his mother’s old fur stole to make a pelt for a wire-frame gorilla. Now 44, Jackson still considers the 1933 Kong his favourite film and has been trying to remake it for 10 years.

LANGE in the 1976 version of Kong

Although he had to move heaven and Middle Earth to do it, he has succeeded in creating a monumental homage, the king of Kongs.

But last week in New York, after Jackson showed his movie to an audience for the first time, a few male critics were disappointed that in his version Kong doesn’t undress Naomi Watts, who’s cast in the Fay Wray role as Ann Darrow. Watts is sexy enough. She spends most of the movie slithering around the jungle in an ivory slip, and eventually gets quite

comfortable curling up in Kong’s firm grip. But the thing is, he never takes advantage of her. ^ As fierce as he is, this noble savage is a gentleman at heart. A chivalrous gorilla.

When asked why he omitted the hankypanky, Jackson said, “It’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in the big gorilla and the lost island and the emotional connection.” Perhaps just as well. Inter-species affairs never end happily. Someone always gets hurt, if not crushed. Besides, this new and improved Kong is an older primate. A scarred and battered silverback gorilla. Having lived alone on Skull Island too long, fending off dinosaurs, he’s not horny so much as ornery. A May-December girl-gorilla fling might be more than a little creepy, even for the broad-minded folks in Woody Allen’s New York. And with the level of zoological realism that Jackson has invested in his protagonist, a flurry of fingerravishing would seem out of character.

There’s one thing the director wants to stress about Kong: “He’s a gorilla; he’s not a monster.” In a post-Dian Fossey world where apes are regular guests on the Discovery Channel, audiences would recognize a fake. Unlike previous incarnations, the new Kong is a quadruped who looks, moves and sounds like a genuine gorilla. And the realization of this complex animal character is the movie’s greatest achievement. “I wanted him to be sympathetic but I didn’t want to make him cute,” says Jackson. “I wanted to keep that wild, unpredictable brutish creature.” Kong is a computer-animated creation whose movements are harnessed to an actor’s performance via motion-capture scanning technology. The brilliant actor inside the effect is Andy Serkis, who brought Gollum to life with similar techniques in The Lord of the Rings. Serkis spent two months studying wild gorillas in Rwanda. “I realized they’re extremely social animals,” he says. That insight helped illuminate Kong’s character, an orphan who has been “isolated, haunted, and lonely since birth.” The “unconditional love” he develops for Ann, he adds, “goes back to a gorilla’s primal desire for companionship.” Every era gets the Kong it deserves. Hollywood’s current generation of action directors often seem to be in the business of making movies about movies—referencing the pictures that first ignited their boyhood imaginations. Most are film geeks, from Steven Spielberg, who worshipped Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, to Quentin Tarantino, who

It’s one of the most iconic romances in the history of cinema-beginning with that bizarre bit of foreplay

doted on Asian martial arts movies. Jackson has explored the original Kong like an archaeologist, poring over photos, collecting memorabilia and resurrecting old models. Now it’s as if he’s disinterred Kong’s skeleton, given it new flesh, and brought it roaring back to life with a defibrillating zap of digital technology.

While Jackson behaves like an obsessed fan reinterpreting Hollywood gospel—a case of art aping art—the original Kong was more about art aping life. Its co-directors, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, made action movies inspired by their own exploits as real-life action heroes. Cooper was a legendary flying ace during the First World War. And in Poland, where he met Schoedsack, he spent nine months as a prisoner of war after being shot down as a member of a U.S. volunteer squadron. An Indiana Jones of his day, Cooper later conducted expeditions to farflung corners of the world. He shot a series of

Naomi Watts spends most of the movie slithering around the jungle in a slinky ivory slip

spectacular action “documentaries” in exotic locations, such as Chang, a Thai adventure that featured a massive elephant stampede, and Grass, which followed barefoot Iranian nomads over snowy mountain passes.

The first Kong was, in a way, autobiographical. Carl Denham, the intrepid filmmaker sailing for Skull Island, is a thinly veiled version of Cooper. Debonair adventurer Jack Driscoll, who falls for Ann Darrow, is modelled on Schoedsack. As for the ape, he was an 18inch model shot in the revolutionary new technique of stop-frame animation—which was invented for the film and is still used in much the same way.

In the ’30s, gorillas were still relatively unknown and often demonized. And the original Kong was a cannibal stockpot of race and gender stereotypes—a blond damsel is kidnapped by central casting natives who offer her as a human sacrifice to a big, black rapacious ape. Over the years, more than a few film scholars have interpreted the story as a metaphor for slavery, as the fable of a noble savage who’s snatched from the jungle, slapped in chains and shipped to America to serve as amusement.

In 1976, Dino De Laurentiis produced a blockbuster King Kong remake that attempted a politically correct makeover in a contemporary setting. It marked the screen debut of Jessica Lange, as a babe in blue-jean cut-offs who sets Kong straight by calling him a “male chauvinist pig ape.” Denham was remodelled as a greedy capitalist exploiting Skull Island for a giant oil company—played by a campy Charles Grodin, who seemed determined to out-gnash Kong with his scenery-chewing antics. A bearded Jeff Bridges played the Driscoll character as a hippie environmentalist. In this version, Kong falls from the top of the World Trade Center, only to emerge from a coma a decade later in a sequel, King Kong Lives—in which he receives an artificial heart and finds a mate. Gorilla meets gorilla. How boring.

The new Kong uses the original movie as its starting point, but grows a whole new culture from its DNA—a wildly imagined universe of flora, fauna and civilization. There are more digital effects in this one movie than in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson’s New Zealand team created scores of prehistoric creatures, many of them imaginary—a raucous menagerie of dinosaurs, birds, lizards, and giant bats and insects. The filmmakers also

created a jungle of digital images and miniatures, a tangle of vegetation that included 4M 104,000 pieces of artificial foliage.

Jackson decided to set his movie in 1933, when it was still conceivable that there were lost corners of the world left to discover. Instead of shooting on location, his team built a digital city, an entire facsimile of’30s New York they “grew” from the ground up with fanatical precision, basing it on aerial photographs and blueprints.

Appropriately, the man leading the expe-

As fierce and ornery as he is, Jackson’s Kong is a gentleman at heart. He’s a chivalrous gorilla.

dition in Jackson’s Kong is an obsessive filmmaker. The maniacal Jack Black (The School of Rock) plays Denham as a B-grade Orson Welles. After a bad meeting with some crude studio execs, who want a movie with “boobies,” Denham steals the reels of his unfinished film and recruits Ann, a starving vaudeville actress, to be his new leading lady. Clutching a map of Skull Island, Denham hustles his crew onto a tramp steamer, a ship of fools captained by a German trafficker in exotic animals.

Jack Driscoll, who will vie with the ape for Ann’s love, is recast as a sensitive playwright, portrayed by Adrien Brody (The Pianist), counterpoint to Kong’s alpha male. Jackson magnifies the love triangle into the drama’s main event, climaxing with the biplane shootout around the top of the Empire State Building. It’s a spectacular sequence, but as Kong plummets to his death, it’s difficult to get excited about this pale writer guy, Ann’s original suitor, running into her arms at the finale. A romantic tragedy can’t have it both ways.

Jackson has an awful lot going on this movie, which goes out of its way to underscore its ambitions. Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) plays a cabin boy who is seen reading Heart of Darkness perhaps once too often. The natives on Skull Island are a macabre, corrupted tribe that would be right at home at the infernal end of Conrad’s river, or in Kurtz’s compound in Apocalypse Now. Meanwhile,

Evan Parke, the African-American cast as the first mate—and the wisest character in the movie, aside from the ape—seems to have the single-handed job of redressing King Kong's legacy of racist and colonial stereotypes.

But despite the profusion of references, painterly sets and teeming iconography, this Kong is not exactly an art film. It’s a big honking midway ride with relentless action, daisychained cliffhanger crescendos, and moments of genuine terror. Watts finds 100 ways to express wide-eyed shock. She’s got a fine scream. And even the audience finds itself shrieking in one scene—Jackson’s answer to the legendary “lost spider pit” sequence, which was cut from the 1933 version before its release. After some of the expeditionaries tumble into a deep ravine, they are attacked by giant insects and man-eating slugs. This is horror worthy of Cronenberg. The highlight involves a man being swallowed headfirst by a slimy creature that the actor involved later gleefully describes as a “Freudian penis monster.”

With all this erupting from the Skull Island ofjackson’s over-fertile imagination, the gorilla becomes an almost comforting figure. At a press conference, Watts confessed, giggling, that she thought Kong was “the ultimate man—he has everything you need.” He’s an impossible mate. But in a post-9/ll world of elusive monsters, he’s just an old-fashioned guy, for the kind of girl who wants a man to hold her tight, and never let go. M

WE’RE STALKING...

KATIE HOLMES AND TOM CRUISE’S BABY

The American College of Radiology expressed concern for baby Cruise after dad said he’d be performing home sonograms—which is unsafe and possibly a violation of federal law. Holmes is free to be vocal during labour, said Cruise, despite the fact that Scientologists believe in a “silent birth.” And the baby will be born out of wedlock as the couple will marry in October 2006.