(Photo by (c)Universal courtesy Everett Collection)
Remakes are double-edged swords. The best ones manage to recapture the sense of discovery we felt with the original films while offering fresh new experiences; most remakes fail to accomplish one of those two goals, and the very worst ones miss the mark on both. Before it became trendy to refashion every beloved film as a tentpole blockbuster, Peter Jackson followed on the huge success of his Lord of the Rings trilogy with his own take on a childhood favorite, King Kong.
Jackson’s version is a gargantuan journey to a lost world using cutting-edge visual and special effects, with a story that imparts more weight to classic characters. This tale of hubris is not only a fantastic movie in its own right, but it also set a standard for blockbuster remakes that play with audiences’ familiarity with the source material and provide new perspectives on classic tales. To celebrate its 15th anniversary, we head to Skull Island explore how Peter Jackson successfully reintroduced a cinematic legend to a new generation by putting his own stamp on it.
(Photo by Universal Pictures)
After the 1976 King Kong brought its central character to a contemporary setting, Jackson took the story back to its roots as a period piece set in the 1930s. While director Merian Cooper’s original 1933 film mostly avoided portraying the Great Depression because audiences didn’t need a reminder of what was happening around them, Jackson dove into how that environment helped birth the Kong myth. The opening scene of his film introduces the grandeur of New York’s wealth and the birth of its skyline, while giving equal gravitas to the city’s squalor; people are being served eviction notices, and soup lines extend as far as the eye can see. Not only are people desperate for money — like protagonist Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), who accepts a job to shoot a film overseas with only the promise of maybe getting paid — but they are desperate to have some magic come back to the world.
Jackson grants added importance to the setting, not just in the cultural background, but also in the filmmaking landscape of the time. There are plenty of references to the original film, including a mention of original actress Fay Wray, and Jack Black’s character Carl Denham is also clearly meant to represent a more frustrated and unsuccessful version of Orson Welles. Jackson also takes a more old-fashioned approach to the pacing of his film, playing with audiences’ expectations and making them wait nearly an hour before finally, slowly and patiently, revealing the titular Kong.
Even if Peter Jackson honored the original and stuck to some old-school techniques, there’s no doubt King Kong takes full advantage of every advancement in filmmaking, especially visual effects. The moment the film arrives at Skull Island, Jackson shifts gears and fully brings King Kong into horror movie territory. Sure, some of the computer-generated dinosaurs haven’t aged particularly well, but the scene when the ship’s crew falls into an insect pit — a concept Merian Cooper abandoned because it scared test audiences back in the ’30s — is utterly terrifying, especially when Lumpy (played by a human Andy Serkis, who also provided the motion capture performance for Kong himself) is devoured by an army of leeches.
The wildlife of the island not only looks great and is utilized effectively to convey a sense of wonder and horror, but the actual location looks like nothing audiences had seen to that point (except maybe in the Lord of the Rings trilogy). Skull Island feels like a place that belongs in our world, but was lost to time. The giant walls that surround the island, the temple-like architecture, and the towering mountains that loom above miles-long pits filled with giant insects lend the location a real sense of geography, capturing the mystery and adventure Carl Denham is constantly boasting about.
How do you capture the shock and awe of seeing Kong climb up the Empire State Building when everyone on Earth has either witnessed the moment themselves or seen countless parodies and homages to it for over 70 years after the original film was released? You do it by showing it from a different point of view. Just as he extends the wait before we finally meet Kong, Jackson reframes the film’s most famous set piece as a melancholy tragedy. Rather than watch the action from the perspective of the heroic airplane pilots who attempt to rescue Ann, we watch the incident unfold from Kong and Ann’s perspective, as Jackson slowly builds up the human threat to Kong before revealing the planes as if they were the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
King Kong doesn’t invite the audience to be awed by the prowess of the pilots or the spectacle of a 25-foot gorilla. Instead, this scene continues long enough to make you feel the sense of dread and imminent doom descending upon the titular king. The death of Kong was sad even in the original film, but it was Peter Jackson’s King Kong that finally recognized the huge tragedy of the scene and its emotional weight, and it works because it knows you are already familiar with it.
(Photo by (c)Universal courtesy Everett Collection)
Though King Kong is full of imagery and references to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and plays on the ideas of savagery and civilization, the film can easily be read as an exploration of the magic of filmmaking.
Indeed, if the original film was all about mankind’s obsession with trying to tame and control nature, Jackson’s remake is about how a filmmaker shares that same false sense of control. Carl Denham spends the first act trying to sell the idea for his movie as a public service because he’s capturing the last piece of mystery left in the world. His journey to getting the film made is arduous and long — not unlike Jackson’s own journey with the film, which he had to partially finance after it became far longer and more expensive than anticipated. But Denham’s misplaced sense of duty results in the death of most of his crew, which he tries to downplay as a noble sacrifice he’ll honor by dedicating the finished production to them. This version of Denham is a far more complex antagonist than in previous versions of the film, one that mistakes his obsession with control with artistic integrity and a sense of duty towards an audience that needs escapism.
When Andy Serkis’ Gollum first showed up in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was a groundbreaking moment for motion-capture performance. If Gollum was Serkis’ opening statement, however, King Kong is his mic drop moment. This Kong is neither the savage brute of the original film nor the nearly no-show from the 1976 film, but a giant who looks to the horizon with big dreams in his mind and melancholy in his heart. Serkis’ Kong sold audiences on the idea that they could watch an animal behave and act with as many expressions and as much heart as its human co-stars.
A big reason why Kong’s death at the end of the film hits so hard is because of Serkis’ characterization of him not as a monster, but as someone with a soul who connects to Ann on a deeper level than just as a plaything. Even if by the end of the film we’re supposed to connect to Ann and Adrien Brody’s Jack, the real romance is between Ann and Kong; the two quickly connect as marginalized creatures who bond over the emptiness in their lives.
Serkis would, of course, go on to play Caesar, the chimpanzee leader of the newly evolved apes in the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise, in another remarkable motion-capture performance that cemented Serkis as the king of the form. But he is one of the biggest reasons Peter Jackson’s King Kong works as well as it does, and after 15 years, his work here may still be the most compelling reason among many to revisit the film.
King Kong was released in theaters on December 14, 2005.