An unrelenting period piece set in depression-era New York City and a mysterious uncharted island, Peter Jackson delivers the re-invention of the modern monster movie that Godzilla failed to achieve.
Facing unemployment if he fails to complete an as-yet unmade film, director/producer and all-around megalomaniacal Carl Denham (Jack Black) lures a struggling actress named Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) onto a ship bound for an uncharted island. Practically kidnapping his writer, an established playwright named Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), Denham manages to find the island, re-doubling his determination to make his epic film there in spite of warnings. Everything changes, however, when Ann is captured and offered as a living sacrifice to something that dwells beyond the island’s great wall, a thing the natives only call “Kong.”
In much the same way that James Cameron insisted on exact authenticity for Titanic to use as a backdrop for his fictional story, Peter Jackson re-creates life in 1933 to show what lengths his characters will go to secure their fame and fortune. Unfortunately, this takes up the first hour of a three-hour film, and the threat of a movie studio closing down a stalled and expensive production (life imitating art?) just doesn’t compare for what happens once everyone gets to the forbidden island. If there is any place that director Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong fails, it is this, the kind of thing better saved for a director’s cut; the ending doesn’t justify the time spent getting to know depression-era New York City so well.
Once we get to the island, however, Jackson and his team are in familiar territory, combining models, computer-imagery, and live action from an exceptional cast to make you believe true beauty can tame the incredibly savage beast. Of course, Kong isn’t the only thing on the island, and survivors of the experience can truly count themselves among the lucky. This second act (aka the second hour) is the meat and potatoes of the film, leading up to the tragedy of the third act (wonderfully foreshadowed by Naomi Watts while being recruited by Jack Black at the beginning). In fact, the cast shines in the small moments between action sequences and Kong-sized special effects.
As a whole, the film is exhausting but worth the effort. There are plenty of opportunities to cut the running down, but Jackson sought exposition with this interpretation, and his love for the material shines through. With the success of The Lord of the Rings (and the awards to prove it), Jackson was given the leniency to do something he’d always wanted to do, and the result is worth the price of admission. Just remember to schedule your breaks effectively if you buy the large soda; you’ve got a few minutes at the end of the first act when the ship leaves New York harbor (after Jack Black’s line “If you really loved the theater, you would have jumped”) and at the end of the second act when Kong falls unconscious in the water (you can thank us later).
(a three skull recommendation out of four)