I never saw the original King Kong, nor the 1976 remake, so all I knew of the big monkey was from parodies and film clips. Still, I liked Peter Jackson’s work on Lord Of The Rings, and I’m a fan of the principal actors involved in his version of King Kong, so I thought I’d give it a try. Verdict: mixed.
More than anything, the movie is spectacular. By which I mean, it is one eye-popping spectacle after another, at least after the first 45 minutes or so anyway. As it reaches its climax, these amazing visuals are a great asset, since the film is trying to reinterpret images that have become deeply iconic in our culture and therefore needs all the cinematic fireworks it can muster in order to justify such an exercise. However, for too much of the movie, especially the second act, the visuals seemed to exist for their own sake, resulting in a story which set off my “silly” meter way too often.
I lost count of the times I rolled my eyes at King Kong’s ridiculously improbable situations. I don’t mean the island full of dinosaurs, freaky natives, and a giant gorilla. That kind of improbability I can accept without blinking. However, if twenty brontosaurs are stampeding down a narrow canyon for three minutes with a bunch of humans dodging between their legs the entire time, and more than a few of those humans survive the experience, I say, “Oh, come on.” I can accept a nest of arthropods, each of which are the size of a man’s torso, and I can believe that they’d jump on a guy and start crawling all over him. I can even believe that they might not have a sting or other such device to immobilize prey. However, I simply cannot believe that a kid who has never used a gun before could fire fifty rounds from an automatic weapon, point blank, at these arthropods as they’re crawling on the guy and that not one bullet would hit the guy. Come on!
When Kong first finds Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), she’s tied to a couple of stakes with ropes she can’t manage to break. He grabs her and yanks, snapping the ropes without injuring her arms. Okay, a little farfetched, but I could swallow it. Then, he runs four-limbed through the jungle with her in his grasp, for miles, rattling her mercilessly the whole time. From that experience, she should be dead, or at least suffering from (as my mom put it) Shaken Lady Syndrome. Instead, she’s well enough to literally do cartwheels a few minutes later. One more: in the final scenes, Darrow sprints down the Manhattan streets to find Kong, and later climbs a series of metal-rung ladders to join the big monkey at the top of the Empire State Building. Lots of this action happens in close-ups, for example of a hand grasping a rung. In fact, much of her appearance in the last scene happens in close-ups on her face. According to me, Watts is one of the most achingly beautiful movie stars working today, and a fine actress to boot, so close-ups on her face work great. However, when we see her full body, she’s wearing glittery gold shoes with unbelievably high heels. She hit the streets at a dead run and scaled the outside of a skyscraper in those? Come on!
The crazy thing about this stuff is that it’s so unnecessary. The film would be plenty gripping without all these silly, over-the-top moments. In fact, it would be much more so. The acting is solid (Jack Black is especially good), the characters are well-written, and the main story arc is loaded with both excitement and pathos. So why does the movie need to go too far? It’s an oft-discussed point among science fiction and fantasy writers that even in worlds where magic (of either the arcane or high-tech variety) is possible, clear rules must apply to the use of such powers in order to retain narrative tension and construct a believable world. Is this dictum less true in cinema? Certainly the inconsistencies didn’t bother Roger Ebert, who holds that “Jackson trades a little realism for a lot of impact and momentum.” For me, the lack of realism drained those scenes of their impact and momentum, but maybe I’m in the minority?
I’m left wondering if my reaction is somehow conditioned by my long association with interactive fiction, specifically by my belief in the value of mimesis. Mimesis in IF, for both of you non-IF types who might be reading this blog, basically means a simulated world whose behavior is internally coherent and logically predictable. (More detailed descriptions are available here and here.) The notion within a computer game is that stronger mimesis means stronger immersion — the player may explore the virtual world without bumping into quirks of the interface or gaps in the simulation. For me, the overly actiony moments in the middle of King Kong were crimes against mimesis, moments that made me remember I was sitting in a theatre watching a Hollywood action movie. Maybe I’ve become sensitized to such crimes by their abundance in amateur IF, but I still think the movie would have been better off without them.