words Jonathan Bell
The oversized ape’s real co-star in this lengthy blockbuster is the recreation of 1933 New York.
Like many modern films, Jackson’s 21st century re-imagining of King Kong owes its existence to technology. The story of a giant gorilla, captured on the mysterious, uncharted Skull Island, by a megalomaniac film director who believes that parading his discovery before the civilised world will bring him his fortune, King Kong established one of the basic plots of science fiction; introduce a rogue element into an environment, and it will invariably wreak havoc.
Jackson sticks faithfully to the plot (and era) of the 1933 original, leaving the denouement unchanged. In doing so, he invites audiences to marvel at his ability to conjure up the impossible, a world away from the jerky stop-motion of the original giant ape. On this level, the film broadly succeeds, and the character of Kong himself, portrayed by a sensor-studded Andy Serkis, demonstrates fluid, believable movements, fleshed out with a virtuoso computer model. The virtual recreation of 1930s New York also impresses, far more so than the lumbering digital beasts the film offers up as it revisits the hoary FX terrain of marauding dinosaurs and swarming bugs.
Kong was heralded by many critics as a return to the popcorn-popping blockbusters of cinema lore, before DVDs and the internet sucked life out of the silver screen. Although Kong’s sheer lack of originality is mooted as a virtue, the film is still overloud, unnecessarily frantic and, at three hours plus, more than overlong. This is a symptomatic problem with modern, effects-laden cinema, where the vast investment and effort required to brings things to the screen results in long, lingering CGI shots, endless scene-setting that over-stimulates the visual cortex at the expense of plot. On Skull Island, scene after scene of frantic inter-species battering in verdant video-game landscapes soon palls, but once Kong swaps primordial swamps for sunlit skyscrapers, the solid visual footings afforded by architecture help bolster both the virtual character and the film’s momentum. Jackson’s reconstruction of New York was an exercise in reverse town planning, removing post-1933 structures from a digital model of the existing city and then “rebuilding” some 90,000 original buildings. For all that, it’s a recreation of a city that exists largely in the imagination; a New York of shining modernity, the physical manifestation of the elevated dreams of the European modernists (who were just beginning their trans-Atlantic exodus).
The ape climbs slowly up to his doom atop the Empire State Building, finally dwarfed by man’s ambition. One of the fundamental themes of Kong is the chaotic collision of old and new, modernity and tradition: Kong is confused by emotion, dazzled by the bright lights and then slain by the impersonal, mechanistic city. The panning shots and first-person viewpoints in the climactic dogfight are the film’s most successful sequence, truly vertiginous with a real sense of the raw, empty air at the top of the city. These scenes reminded me of Italian Futurist Aeropainting, a genre roughly contemporary with the 1933 film – unsurprising, given that Merian C Cooper, its writer and director, was a keen aviator. Both Cooper and the Aeropainters seemed fixated with machinery’s malevolent side, the latter depicting the visual thrill of nosediving down into the city, while Cooper sends his ape, riddled with bullets, plummeting into the streets below. Unfortunately, this tragic demise comes not a moment too soon; imaginary New York might burn a little brighter than before, but even Jackson’s magic touch cannot overcome the overfed cinema-goer’s bloated feeling.
King Kong, directed by Peter Jackson, on general release