For whatever reason, the modernized, comic redo of King Kong released exactly 29 years ago has become less the "pop classic" that Pauline Kael insisted it was at the time than a dimly remembered punch line. It barely registers with modern-day moviegoers, who remember it as a campy, eco-aware update starring a shaggy Jeff Bridges, a screaming Jessica Lange and a smirking Charles Grodin as the petrochemical putz who goes to Skull Island to steal oil and winds up swiping the giant ape instead. Perhaps the movie never earned a better reputation because of its intentionally dopey dialogue; Bridges, as a groovy paleontologist with a monkey fetish, says things like "There is a girl out there who might be running for her life from some gigantic, turned-on ape!" It was an impressive, deeply funny and deeply felt remake nonetheless -- and spectacle enough to win a visual-effects Academy Award, the kind Peter Jackson movies now win in their (and the audience's) sleep.
Jackson, maker of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, wastes not a cent on his own $200 million King Kong remake; it is, at various moments, a lively, frantic, noisy and touching spectacle, which is to be expected from a man who claims the 1933 Kong as one of his favorite films. Yet it's turgid and soulless, too -- a nearly note-for-note remake of the Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack original that spares no expense in order to run nearly twice the original's length. He offers us a gluttonous marathon in which no scene can last too long; Jackson is a showman and show-off who stockpiles his movie with thousands of bugs and dinosaurs and spiders and bats who live on Skull Island, but exist solely on a computer's hard drive. He wants to make sure you ogle every one of his inventions -- and if one of them happens to be a gigantic, turned-on ape, so much the better.
Jackson, and writers Fran Walsh (a Jackson collaborator ever since his brilliantly deviant 1989 puppet pic Meet the Feebles) and Philippa Boyens (the Rings movies), adhere so closely to Cooper and Edgar Wallace's 72-year-old tale that the latter deserves top billing. Whole scenes have been copied, whole speeches lifted. Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is once again a starving New York actress, rescued from the streets by jungle-picture director Carl Denham (Jack Black, in way over his eyebrows) after he spies her stealing an apple from a curbside grocer. The hero is still named Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), but no longer is he the captain of the ship delivering Denham's crew to Skull Island; now he's a spindly writer of plays about and for "the common man" who, despite his profession, is still awfully nimble with a machine gun when need be.
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There's not much plot to Jackson's faithful remake; King Kong remains, as Kael put it, "a tale of two islands," Manhattan and Skull Island. Jackson begins on the former -- dawdles, actually, waiting a full hour before even landing at Skull Island, which is populated not only by dark-skinned savages who apparently sacrifice every blond hottie who stumbles ashore but also by the dino-stars of the Jurassic Park franchise and other swollen creepy-crawly refugees from exploitation pics dating back to the Atomic Age. (The running time had to be three-plus hours in order for Jackson to cram in his tributes not only to Kong but to the oeuvres of Ray Harryhausen, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and even Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, from which the giant bugs appear to have survived.)
Oddly, it's the first Manhattan sequence that has the most life: Jackson's computer-generated New York of the 1930s is a radiant, towering citadel obscuring a grim, grimy reality. As Jackson moves to street level, he shows us haggard soup-line beggars and vaudevillian showboaters struggling to eke out a meager existence; we're even given a glimpse of Hooverville, the squalid, forbidden homeless camp in Central Park also depicted in Ron Howard's Cinderella Man. It's a fakeout, of course -- to Jackson, people are mere props, talking heads shown in such extreme close-up that he's damn near on the other side of them -- but also a hint of what he could do should he ever again exhibit an interest in telling tales made of flesh and blood and bone.
When at last he drops anchor on Skull Island, King Kong becomes precisely what you expect: a too-deafening video game in which the characters overcome one squishy, sharp-toothed peril after another. Some of the sequences absolutely thrill -- the stampeding dinosaurs, especially -- while still others are stretched till they snap, like twigs in the clench of the giant ape. And Watts is saddled with the unfortunate task of trying to make us love a Kong that looks real only until he shares a shot with her; alas, you never quite forget you're watching an actress feigning tears against a green screen.
Jackson can easily afford to make a love letter to his favorite movie and cram it with in-jokes and garish special effects. Surely he loves the film because he sees something of Carl Denham in himself; we giggle when his studio bosses dismiss him as a maker of extravagant, expensive pictures that have made Carl only a "near-success." But Jackson is merely indulging himself here, too, doing a thing not because he should, but because he can. And maybe that's a good reason, but not good enough. The girl still cries, the ape still dies, and all you're left with is a ringing in your ears.