Best. Monster. Ever.
Every geek on the planet has spent at least some time during the past year frantic with desire to see Peter Jackson's new monster epic, King Kong.
Why? It's about a 25-foot-tall gorilla -- created with Jackson's secret-sauce CGI -- who lives on Skull Island and fights dinosaurs. What else do you want? I'll tell you: head-swallowing giant maggots, vengeful natives, and Jack Black as Carl Denham, a Hollywood-style Ahab who will sacrifice anything for a good reel of film.
I saw King Kong during its opening week, one night after rewatching the 1933 original. Although the nerds I saw it with were unimpressed -- something about dialogue or whatever -- I was blown away. Kong fights three T.rexes! There's a brontosaurus stampede followed by a bronto pileup that verges on giant monster slapstick.
Sure, we could have used a lot less of Naomi Watts staring slack-jawed at everything. And Jackson needs to learn to edit his flicks down to two hours. But Kong fights three T. rexes! Three! Did I mention that? Holy fuck, I love this movie.
The 1933 Kong is so antique that it's as if Jackson's bringing a Jane Austen novel to film -- there's a weird seriousness to it, a literary reverence. (In fact, the movie goes a little heavy-handed with multiple references to Heart of Darkness, but a little allegory never hurt anyone.)
King Kong is also unabashedly a genre pic, and as such it adheres to all four basic laws of monster-killing. Those laws, as any monster-movie fiend knows, are as follows:
1. The monster is misunderstood and isn't really monstrous when you get to know it.
2. The monster is actually inside us, so we defeat it by conquering ourselves.
3. The monster dies when we no longer fear it. 4. The monster disappears when some crime is avenged or justice is done.
Of course, monsters are usually killed with oxygen destroyers or ice shooters or tanks, but only after one or more of the above rules have been followed. Same goes for Kong, who is first revealed to be a sweetie deep inside (law one) and is murdered by a bunch of white guys in New York who don't fear giant gorillas the same way Skull Islanders do (law three).
In the middle of all that, we discover that Kong's flaws -- excessive violence and an obsession with skinny blonds -- are the flaws of all Americans (law two). And ultimately, Kong dies only after he has avenged the crime of his kidnapping by destroying his captor, Denham, as well as the theater where he is put on display in chains (law four).
Monster stories are morality tales, and Jackson's King Kong is no different. While the original Kong offered a barely concealed racist myth about a giant black creature from a primitive island whose goal in life is to steal nice white ladies, the new Kong is a kind of mournful postcolonial meditation on how the West ruins noble savages. So Kong is still a stand-in for natives of developing countries, but instead of being menacing, he's just angry and sad. He's also sort of sexy, which puts a blaxploitation twist on the whole noble savage thing that's going on here. As Ann Darrow, Watts falls in love with Kong after he defends her from the dino nasties -- she spends so much time stroking his nose that even I was grossed out. It's as if Kong is acting out a stereotype that's the bastard child of Rousseau and Shaft.
Perhaps that's why Jackson's Kong isn't slain by manly brute force but by the entertainment industry. The image everyone remembers from the 1933 Kong flick is the claymation ape atop the Empire State Building, slapping biplanes out of the air. That's here too, but the image from the new movie that's likely to stick is of Kong in chains, a high-toned audience watching him with awe and repulsion -- here we see that Denham has proved his point that "mystery" can be "sold for the price of an admission ticket."
Implicitly, the greatest threat to Kong's unspoiled naturalness is a society that will pay to turn him into a windup monkey. Which incidentally, is what Jackson has done with this movie. I hate to go all meta on you, but there it is.