Planet of the Ape


That 10-ton gorilla in the room this holiday season is literally a 10-ton—or maybe a 50-ton—gorilla. “It’s huge, it’s huge!” I heard a colleague exclaim as the dust cleared.

Peter Jackson’s three-hour King Kong remake is acutely self-conscious without being particularly self-reflective. Every kink in the 1933 original—a ballyhooed mélange of sex, carnage, sadism, racial weirdness, and special effects made by former expeditionary filmmakers Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper—is extravagantly normalized. Jackson’s broad, beautifully designed, knowingly hokey, and ultimately exhausting super-production treats the mad love of a monstrous jungle ape for a sylph-like white woman (Naomi Watts) as an episode of Sex and the City, just a fatherless girl’s search for the ultimate protector.

Destined for box-office glory, Jackson’s Kong can afford to revel in its tawdry Depression origins. The movie is set in the early ’30s. The magical opening montage puts a Hooverville in Central Park, conjures up streets limned by elevated trains and clogged with Model T’s, and evokes a sense of desperate vaudeville in the person of Watts’s gutsy hoofer. All period wonder is liquidated, however, with the introduction of Jack Black—the devious filmmaker who is bound for the mysterious Skull Island in search of the Eighth Wonder of the World.

It takes Black’s tramp steamer of mystery a full hour to even reach Skull Island—a mini Mordor replete with ruins, calcified skeletons, and prehistoric inhabitants deliquescing in the rain. Jackson doesn’t really solve King Kong’s “native” problem—nor can he. The original was as much a symptom as a movie—the most extravagant cinematic expression of white supremacy made in America since The Birth of a Nation and perhaps the most delirious imperialist fantasy ever. Lose the spectacle of the white woman at the mercy of a savage horde and you lose the movie, although in keeping with Skull Island’s decor, Jackson recasts the indigenous people as a mob of slavering aboriginal zombie orcs.

“In this film the Europeans show themselves, as usual, particularly repugnant,” Jean Levy wrote approvingly of the ’33 Kong in the surrealist journal Minotaur. For the surrealists, Kong achieved greatness in its second act—when the action moves beyond Skull Island’s barricade into the primeval jungle of pure instinct and unconscious desire. “Maybe American professors of palaeontology designed the models of the prehistoric monsters for Hollywood,” Levy noted. “Their spiritual father is none other than Max Ernst.”

The spiritual father for Jackson’s dinos is, of course, Steven Spielberg, and Skull Island’s interior is a second-rate, jumped-up Jurassic Park of unrelenting dinosaur stampedes and interminable trapeze acts. Holding the white woman in one paw, the great ape fights three dinos at once, even as her human lover (Adrien Brody) hacks his way through the creepy-crawlies. It’s bio-class warfare to the max—a free-for-all pitting reptiles against mammals (primates actually) against insects and their mollusk allies. Primates prevail—hoist high the opposable thumb, Roger!

Jackson’s camera lavishes attention on Watts dashing through the jungle in a state of greater and greater dishabille. The only thing stronger than the spaghetti straps of her chemise will be Kong’s love. (The striptease will never be consummated. There is nothing in the new Kong to compare with the censored moment in the original when the ape rips off Fay Wray’s flimsy wrapper and then, curiosity aroused, sniffs his fingers.) Andy Serkis’s Kong is positively noble in repose, captivated less by the white woman’s charms than her spunky vaudeville antics. Although Watts is always “acting,” her adventures among the Effects cannot compare to those of Tilda Swinton, who, treating the cosmos as her personal blue screen, plays the White Witch of Narnia with an Aryan hauteur worthy of Leni Riefenstahl.

Intermittently, Jackson attempts to dignify his material. But the repeated referencing of Heart of Darkness is pointless. (For highfalutin tone, King Kong is more a P.T. Barnum version of Moby-Dick.) The director is on surer ground when he re-creates the 1933 movie’s tom-tom savage dance routines for Kong’s stage debut—incorporating a chunk of the original the way a postmodern architect might appropriate the facade of a supplanted landmark. Speaking of which, midtown gets suitably trashed but Kong exerts an Aslanic effect on the big town. Hooverville is gone, Central Park filled with Christmas trees. In this enchanted landscape, KK and his petit w.w. take a magical spin on the ice and frisk in the snow.

She’s down with the ape, but not all the way. For King Kong is an accountant’s movie at heart. Given the excessive length and bombastic F/X, there’s too much action and precious little poetry.