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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Peter Jackson’s massive remake of King Kong is a cinematic universe unto itself

Illustration for article titled Peter Jackson’s massive remake of King Kong is a cinematic universe unto itself
Screenshot: King Kong (2005)

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: In honor of his upcoming title fight against Godzilla, we’re looking back on the most significant starring vehicles for the Eighth Wonder Of The World, the giant ape to rule them all, King Kong.

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King Kong (2005)

The original 1933 King Kong is a lean, monster-packed adventure movie that’s over and out in about 100 minutes. At the 100-minute mark of Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, the characters are still running around Skull Island, attempting to dodge stomping dinosaurs, gnashing teeth, and gigantic bugs, and there’s still well over 50 minutes left. The movie takes nearly an hour before Kong even shows up.

Typically, such much-ness is a byproduct of the hubris and sweaty desperation endemic to remaking a classic on a larger scale. In other words, a task for an ambitiously shameless huckster like Carl Denham, the filmmaker (played in the 2005 version by Jack Black) who all but forces his crew onto a ship bound for a mysterious island populated with prehistoric creatures that time forgot. As various ancillary characters are thrown to their deaths or eaten by various monsters, Denham keeps shooting footage; when the footage is destroyed, he suddenly becomes a producer of live events, and endeavors to bring a 50-foot ape back to New York City. (In 1933, the first incarnation of Denham returned to Skull Island for the quickie sequel Son Of Kong; today he would bring influencers to the island and found Fyre Festival.) Denham keeps pushing to capture more spectacle until dozens of people, plus his eighth wonder of the world, wind up dead.

Although Peter Jackson recognizes certain monstrous directorial tendencies in Denham, and brings them to the forefront for his version of King Kong, he’s too squishy a sentimentalist to become a Denham-style mercenary himself. To describe his Kong as a love letter to the original would be inadequate. It’s more like a thick sheath of love letters, individually addressed to every single aspect of the 1933 production. The setting, contemporary in ’33, becomes an elaborate, effects-laden re-creation of Depression-era New York. Kong’s fight with a T. rex becomes an eye-popping blow-out with two T. rexes. An old deleted scene involving a spider pit becomes a skin-crawling set piece. And a seminal monster movie becomes a Lord Of The Rings-sized epic.

Sometimes, though, more really is more. That’s not to say that the 2005 King Kong is better than the original; it’s hard-pressed to match its source material’s primal immediacy. But there are some areas where Jackson makes improvements, notably in the relationship between down-on-her-luck actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and the big ape himself. In this telling, Kong’s affection for Ann is less one-sided (and less sexualized), and they’re both allowed to express a greater range of emotions than their 1933 counterparts. Co-writers Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens let Watts play many of her scenes opposite Kong with minimal dialogue, trusting their expressive lead to bridge the gap between humans and this caricature of the natural world. (The film also achieves this through an expert combination of motion-captured performance—provided by Andy Serkis, who also plays a crew member given a memorably nasty demise—and computer animation.

Not every bit of added human dimension is welcome. The pre-Skull Island section really is amazingly protracted, in part to establish a canned subplot where first mate Ben Hayes (Evan Parke) imparts life lessons to a naïve teenager stowaway (Jamie Bell); half of Parke’s lines amount to a vague admonishment followed by “Jimmy.” (“It’s not about being brave, Jimmy,” and so on.) As ever, Jackson’s sappiness grapples with his instincts as a horror-movie showman. In this way, it’s Jackson at his most Spielbergian, albeit closer to Spielberg’s two Jurassic Park movies than the weightier likes of War Of The Worlds (another old-timey fantasy turned mega-budget 2005 blockbuster).

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The expected OG-Kong homages are here, too, sewn into the expanse of Jackson’s wild quilt. Denham briefly considers Fay Wray, the original Ann Darrow, for his picture, lamenting the project she’s busy doing with “Cooper”—referring to Merian C. Cooper, a director-producer on the 1933 film. Elsewhere, Denham’s own productions look a lot like the work of Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack: Dialogue in a scene shot in the boat and fake native costumes in his stage production are both taken from the earlier movie. (This does not mitigate the racism of the “real” natives in Jackson’s film, an embarrassing low point.) By making these connections, Jackson isn’t positioning his movie as a realistic counterpoint to 1933 fakeness so much as a vast world of Kong, an extended lucid dream formed around the original outline. No wonder there’s so much packed into three hours: Years before Kong’s entry into the MonsterVerse, Jackson created a single-shot cinematic universe.

Availability: King Kong ’05 is currently streaming on the TBS and TNT apps. It’s also available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, Apple, YouTube, Microsoft, Redbox, Fandango Now, AMC On Demand, and VUDU.

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Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!