Ape and Essence


King KongKing Kong. The critics are loony for it, audiences love it, and it’s certain to make the kind of money most often seen these days by the top shelf superhero franchises. No wonder, really, since there’s a double barrel branding at work, Kong, the big ape, himself, and the other 8000-lb. gorilla, director Peter Jackson.

The fact is, Kong is an astonishing achievement and authentically spectacular—no CGI creation has ever seemed this real—and the film cries out for huge screens and state-of-the-art sound systems. This is not a movie for the DVD footdraggers.

But those imagining this might be a revisionist look at the original Kong are going to miss the fact that while the 1933 version was a simple story, the new version is equally simple, with a similar amount of clunky undertow. The difference is that the Jackson Kong is less about sex between subhuman and showgirl and more about daddy love and the disenfranchised.

We meet Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), an athletic vaudevillian with artistic aspirations, and Carl Denham (Frank Black), who is part carny barker, part filmmaker, and a shyster version of the young Orson Welles, and who lacks even the dubious dignity of the 1933 Denham (Robert Armstrong).

The hero, as such, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), is a “tweedy type” based a bit on Eugene O'Neill. He’s a successful NYC playwright, responsible for plays with titles like Isolation, who’s been shanghaied aboard the fateful tramp steamer, forced to write Denham’s adventure script in his quarters down among the empty animal cages.

The natives of Skull Island are creepy, feral, and scrubbed of any racial context, and when we finally meet the new Kong, we see that he’s an ape for the new millennium, a by-the-book National Geographic middle-aged male gorilla, only huge. In fact, Kong has gotten a bit curmudgeonly in his dotage, and when Ann Darrow shows up and does a few cartwheels and some juggling tricks, she warms the heart of the surly sovereign, who adopts and protects her as he might a child.

And when Kong protects her from the attentions of the marauding thunder lizards, who seem a little over eager to swallow the girl, never mind that she amounts to little more than a meager canapé, a bond is created that will endure through to the bitter end. When she falls asleep in the monster’s mitt, she might as well be in a princess' paradise.

It’s Beauty and the Beast by the book, really, where Kong’s sad heart is lifted and Darrow’s need for a supermasculine father is fulfilled to the extent that even though she and Driscoll have a tryst on their way to the adventure, and in spite of his having rescued her from the island, once we leave the jungle their relationship is as good as over.

How this happens is not written in to the story, nor are there any episodes that describe Kong’s captivity or the lengthy trip back to Manhattan—it’s a decision the writers have made to eliminate a quarter hour of exposition at this point—after all, why develop your characters when the time can be better spent dodging dinosaur stampedes and fighting the deadly penis-leeches?

Jackson has taken his audience back to a time when cutting to the chase was all that really mattered, and in the final analysis it was probably a smart move on Jackson’s part because, like Ann Darrow, once the audience has had Kong, there’s not much point in giving them anything else.

Back in NYC, the show is up and the tragedy at the heart of Kong’s imprisonment, something that audiences have projected onto the original story over the years, is now simply taken for granted.

Meanwhile, removed from Denham’s sorry spectacle, Driscoll is rehearsing drawing room comedies for drag queens and Darrow is three dancers removed from the spotlight in a low-rent chorus line. The two are more isolated than ever because it’s only Kong that makes either of them special at this point, and once he’s taken his mighty fall, the two of them might as well retire. They do exit the picture together, but there’s no reason to think they’ll really reconnect, unless Jackson makes his own Son of Kong, of course.

There’s a cinematic footnote at work here, which is that like Citizen Kane, RKO’s second-biggest monster movie, the secondary characters fade into history, are diminished or elevated only by their proximity to the beast in the title and the role they played in the his life.

But that’s niggling. No one who sees the picture will mind any of this, because Kong is everything he, and the picture, needs to be, and the film-going public, like the Cole Porter swells who came to see Denham’s monkey show, will have the ride of their lives. - Henry Cabot Beck

Henry BeckMr. Beck straddles the coasts, contributing features on movies, music, books, comics and other cultural objects to the New York Daily News and many other publications.