“What’s your favorite film?” It is a question that can be easily answered or one that can put a person into an unsettled state. I struggle with this question because my opinion tends to change with the wind. This summer I thought it was Akira Kurowsawa’s 7 Samurai. But then in the fall, I was gobsmacked by Charlie Kauffman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. My latest favorite is the incredible 1994 film Once Were Warriors, by another New Zealand native, Lee Tamahori. I feel like a hopeless romantic who falls in love with every girl who smiles in my direction. In reality, that’s problematic; in regards to film, it's been a beautiful soul-searching journey that I can actually take in a post-COVID world. I bet if you asked Peter Jackson what his favorite movie is he would say the 1933 monster movie classic, King Kong. He has said that it was the film that got him “interested in filmmaking.” But Jackson’s love can be seen even more plainly in his 2005 remake of King Kong. The 2005 King Kong is a near faithful adaptation of the 1933 film. The 2005 King Kong was a prelude to the CGI blockbusters that Hollywood demands in modern cinema today. That being said, his remake is a rollercoaster ride that spends way too much time climbing, but once you get to the top, hold onto your butts!
The 1933 film King Kong, directed by Merican C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, was and still remains a groundbreaking film. Its use of stop-motion animation, matte painting, rear projection, and miniatures, was all new to movie goers at the time. These technologies helped immerse the audience into the world of Kong. It is safe to say that we all generally know the story of King Kong but here is a basic recap: filmmaker Carl Denham, known for wildlife films in remote locations, charters a ship to an unknown location for his next film. He finds a down-on-her luck “blondie” named Ann Darrow to play his leading role, and they set off on his voyage. They arrive on Skull Island, a place lost to time, full of prehistoric creatures, and home to a less than friendly native tribe and one very large angry Gorilla. The natives sacrifice their women to Kong to try and appease him, but once Denham and his film crew arrive the tribe becomes interested in Ann as their next tribute. The natives kidnap Ann and sacrifice her to Kong. Kong accepts Ann as his prize and guards her fiercely from the island’s other top tier predators, a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a giant snake. Denham and his crew use Kong’s blinding attachment to Ann as a way to ensnare him and it works. They capture Kong and bring him to New York City to be put in chains and on display for all to see. Kong is able to break free from his chains, kidnaps Ann, and heads to the Empire State building for his iconic last stand. He is shot multiple times by airplanes and falls to his death. Reporters and bystanders look in awe at the dead king. Carl Denham pushes his way to the front, staring at the remnants of the calamity that he has caused. A policeman remarks the planes got Kong. Carl Denham corrects him, “It was beauty killed the beast.”
Peter Jackson began his film career making horror comedies with films like Meet the Feebies and Braindead. He proved he could tell a compelling story with Heavenly Creatures, and he introduced us to the wonderful Kate Winslet. But without a doubt, his most impressive work that will stand the test of time is his epic adaptation of the Lord of the Rings books. The Lord of the Rings film trilogy changed the way that Hollywood made movies. Those films created a Hollywood where CGI was the name of the game, and stories had to be told across multiple films. It was done shamelessly with the final Harry Potter films: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2. King Kong was the first movie that Peter Jackson made after the LOTR trilogy, and he was ready to tell another epic tale.
Peter Jackson’s King Kong is like the original film but on steroids. His Carl Denham, played surprisingly well by Jack Black, is the same seedy filmmaker from the original, but even more so. This time around, we see Carl Denham trying desperately to win over the movie executives who have been financing his wildlife films but he fails. Knowing that they will not agree with his voyage to Skull Island, he charts the boat anyways and sails off before they can tell him no. Ann Darrow, played by Naomi Watts, is the same down and out actress from the original, but she has a bit more spunk. She almost walks out on Denham when she thinks that he is trying to seduce her into some type of nefarious dealing, which ultimately, he is. She ends up agreeing after the promise of adventure. This film is set in New York City during the Great Depression. Peter Jackson’s Depression era New York is done with historical accuracy. We see long lines of people at soup kitchens. There are large slums right outside of the city. This is also the time of Prohibition; barrels of booze are poured onto the sidewalk. Ann and her fellow creatives are instantly unemployed once the theater where they work shuts down due to the economic downturn. The production and costume design in this film are amazingly detailed. It's winter, so we see buildings with smoke stacks, and busy streets full of people in fabulous fur coats and three piece suits. As the SS Venture, the ship hired by Denham sets sail, Peter Jackson really wants to explore the boat's crew and happenings more than the original film did.
This is where he does make stark changes from the original story. Ann’s love interest in the film is Jack Driscol, (played by the reliable Adrien Brody) who, in this film, is a playwright hired by Denham to write his film. In the original movie, Jack Driscoll is the first mate of the SS Venture, and nothing more than a strong man who at first finds Ann to be a nuisance, but then quickly falls in love with her. Peter Jackson’s Ann and Jack have a bit more of a dynamic relationship. Ann knows of Jack’s work and is a fan. They both realize that they have some kind of unspoken connection and their romance begins to bloom. In the original film, the crew of the SS Venture was mostly in the background; in Peter Jackson’s film, they are part of the story. The Captain of the ship, Captain Englehorn, (Thomas Kretschmann) is suspicious of Denham and his plans. He makes his money trapping and selling wild animals. In the original, Denham has intentions of capturing Kong and brings “gas bombs” with him on the trip. In Peter’s film, the crew keep bottles of Chloroform around and it’s something Denham does not think about using until later on in the film. We are introduced to the father-like relationship between the captain’s first mate and a stowaway, played by a young Jamie Bell. Bruce Baxter, a new character not from the original, is played by Kyle Chandler. He portrays Denham’s male lead opposite Ann, and he really does a great job coming across as a shallow prick for most of the film. This character is sort of a rehash of the misogynistic arrogance found in the original Jack Driscoll. By the time Peter Jackson gets these characters to Skull Island, the viewer may feel a little exhausted.
The ship’s arrival to Skull Island is much more dramatic than the original as well. Captain Engelhorn begins to turn his ship around after getting a telegram from New York stating that Carl Denham has a warrant out for his arrest. It seems that the movie executives caught up with him. As soon as Denham is about to face this reality, a thick fog rolls in. The ship's compass begins to spin out of control. The ship gets stuck on some massive rocks. They are now in the clutches of Skull Island. Denham wastes zero time and whisks his film crew and actors onto a small boat heading for the shore. Their first meeting with the natives is much more violent than the original. The natives kill two of Denham’s crew, try to capture Ann, and are ready to kill the rest of them, until a last minute rescue from Captain Engelhorn. The island’s natives are as mindless as they are in the original film, and in this first meeting, we can unfortunately see some actors in blackface. There was blackface in the original as well, and Peter Jackson's decision to continue this particular tradition is unfortunate, but even 2005 was a different time. Captain Engelhorn orders everyone back to the ship. They get rid of everything that is not bolted down in order to get the boat unstuck. It works. But just like in the original, the natives board the boat and capture Ann. Captain Engelhorn gathers his crews and weapons for a rescue mission while Denham gathers his camera in order to not miss this opportunity for footage. As they race back to the island, the natives have already offered up Ann to Kong. By the time Engelhorn and his crew make it to the natives, Kong and Ann are gone. Carl Denham is the only one who gets the opportunity to see Kong leave with Ann. Jack Black’s performance as Carl Denham is accurate to the original in that he always sees everything as an opportunity to help him make his film. He is worried less about Ann and more about using this situation to his advantage.
Peter Jackson’s Kong is a much more fleshed-out character than his 1933 predecessor. When we first see Kong, he appears to be the same mindless monster of the original film. He runs into the forest with Ann, shakes her violently, and screams into the air. Ann looks down at the remains of past offerings. Skeletons of the dead are everywhere. She tries to make an attempt at escape but fails. Kong takes her to a quiet place in the forest where she tries to escape again. This time he’s angry. Not wanting Kong to rip her to shreds Ann starts using some of her vaudeville routines to keep him entertained. She juggles rocks, dances like an Egyptian and does backflips. This amuses Kong for a little bit, but he begins to get bored. He finds another way to stay amused by repeatedly pushing her to the ground. He does so, harder and harder, until Ann has had enough and swats his hand away. She yells at him “NO!” This enrages Kong. This might be the first time someone has told him no. He throws a fit. Stomping his hands on the ground and smashing the walls around him. In his rage, he topples over some boulders that hit him right over the head. He looks like he feels a little stupid and he wanders away. This scene is important because it highlights the technology that Peter Jackson uses that is just as revolutionary as the tech used in the original.
Kong is portrayed by Andy Serkis in motion capture. Andy Serkis worked with this same technology in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films portraying Gollum, the ill-fated hobbit whose obsession with the ring of power causes a lot of conflict. Andy Serkis’ work in the Lord of the Rings made him the perfect candidate to perform as Kong. Peter Jackson wanted to improve on the technology for King Kong and it shows. Andy Serkis’ performance as Kong is some of the best acting in the film. It is a preview of the incredible work he would do as the ape revolutionary Caesar in the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy years later. In King Kong, Serkis also plays the role of Lumpy, the ship's cook who provides light comedic moments. Peter Jackson’s Kong is really a tragic hero in this film. I think of Leon from Luc Besson’s The Professional. Leon is a hitman who has taken life but decides to protect this little girl to the death. Or Creon from greek mythology, whose excessive pride caused the death of his entire family. There is a scene in King Kong where we see the skeletons of other giant apes. This means that Kong is the last of his kind, maybe the only one of his kind, that was able to survive this long on the island. He is lonely. He brings Ann to his place after he fights an epic battle with other top predators on the island to keep her safe. Kong’s design is worth noting too. He looks like an actual silver-back gorilla and he has scars on his back and face. He looks war torn, as if he has spent years fighting his way to the top of the food chain. This is a character with depth, which the original Kong had none of, other than a real sense of obsession with Ann. Peter Jackson’s Kong has that sense as well, but it turns into something much warmer by the end of the film.
Every creature on Skull Island is massive. This island has been isolated from the rest of the world for so long that everything has grown bigger and stronger. This is similar to the original film, but Peter Jackson is able to use modern CGI technology to create very impressive dinosaurs, giant insects, giant bats, and giant iguana-like creatures. Like the original film, there is danger at every turn. Ann makes a third attempt to escape from Kong and she quickly realizes that he is the safest thing to be with on this island. She runs into, not one but two, Tyrannosaurus Rexes. It looks like Ann is done for until our hero, Kong, swoops in at the last moment to take them on. Peter Jackson had a lot of fun with the battle between Kong and the Rexes. A third T-Rex shows up for the ultimate triple team. Kong fights them off, one by one, with Ann in tow. He takes on the last T-Rex and easily defeats him. He crushes his jaw and then playfully opens and shuts it, almost to mock his dead opponent. He then stands on top of him beating his chest. This is why he is King. This scene is also in the 1933 original and feels like such a fanboy moment for Peter Jackson. In the original, Kong only takes on one T-Rex, in Peter Jackson’s there are three. It’s like Jackson is a kid playing with all of his toys in a sandbox, creating these epic battles. The rescue team looking for Ann also faces many threats. They are all nearly trampled to death by a herd of brachiosaurus in a stunning scene that really highlights the CGI technology used in the film. Bruce Baxter thinks it's a good idea to shoot at this oncoming herd, and in the process, causes the brachiosaurus to topple over each other. As the crew gets closer to reaching Kong and Ann, Kong stops them in their tracks and throws them all down a dark ridge similar to the original film. Some die, but Denham, the stowaway Jimmy, and Jack survive, but are then faced with giant insects all around them. Giant roaches, crabs and spiders attack them, and they seem doomed until Captain Engelhorn comes to their rescue once again. All of the time we spend on Skull Island is so much fun. It really feels like a rollercoaster ride with action happening from scene to scene never stopping. When Jack is finally able to rescue Ann from Kong, it is then where the story becomes a lot more tragic than the original film. As Ann and Jack run to the shore with Kong in tow, Denham is ready. He lost all of his footage running from the monsters on Skull island, and capturing Kong is his last chance at redeeming something from this trip. He convinces Captain Engelhorn to help him capture Kong, since it is his speciality. As Ann and Jack make it back to the shoreline, Peter Jackson slows down the action. We watch Ann walk by these men who are waiting for Kong. She notices all of the trapping equipment and chloroform. She looks at Denham and Captain Engelhorn, who are expressionless, focused on their prize. As Kong finally approaches, Ann begs them to stop but it is of no use. After some struggle, our tragic hero is taken down. Here again we see the amazing work done by Andy Serkis in his performance as Kong. There is so much pain in his eyes, he looks at Ann and reaches out to her but she can do nothing.
The film then jumps ahead. We are immediately taken back to New York City. It is premiere night for Denham. Kong will be put on display for the price of an admission ticket. We see a busy theater filled with people. The movie executives who wanted Denham’s head, now hug and congratulate him. Denham starts his show and begins to tell the tale. Peter Jackson does some fine editing here by showing scenes of Ann in a dressing room preparing for what seems like her part in Denham’s exploitive show. But the sacrifice we see offered to Kong is not Ann, but just another actress who looks like her. The real Ann is down the street in another theater, working as a backup dancer; she refuses to be a part of Denham’s show. Kong is angered by this imposter, and like the original, he becomes agitated with the flashing cameras of the reporters gathered. He breaks his chains; the king is free! Kong sees Jack Driscoll in the audience and remembers that he was the person who took Ann from him. He chases him outside. We see Kong rampaging through the city, hitting cars and seeming to be very confused. He starts grabbing every blonde-haired girl he can find in the hopes that it is Ann. The look of desperation on his face is tragic. Ann hears the commotion and she realizes that Denham’s show has gone terribly wrong. She knows that she is the only one who can stop Kong. Jack tries to get Kong away from the busy streets and is nearly killed in the process. Ann finally shows up and Kong calms all the way down. He picks her up and they spend a few quiet moments together. They make their way to Central Park where Kong experiences a frozen lake for the first time. He spins around with Ann, almost like they are dancing. She has an unspoken connection with Kong, just as she does with Jack. This moment does not last long before the military shows up ready to kill Kong. They pull no stops with artillery vehicles firing at Kong. There is nowhere else to go but up. Kong heads to the Empire State Building.
Kong and Ann make their way to the top of the Empire State Building and they get the chance to share another brief moment together. Earlier on Skull Island, Ann tried to teach Kong a sign for “beautiful” as they watched the sunset. Kong does not seem to pick this up on Skull Island, but as they sit on top of the Empire State Building and look out at the rising sun, he is able to do the sign of “beautiful” for Ann. It is a touching moment showing how much the relationship between these two characters has grown. This is completely different from the relationship that Kong had with Ann in the original 1933 film. In that film, Kong's obsession for Ann was just that. Ann was completely afraid of Kong and wanted nothing to do with him. I think that Peter Jackson has a lot more respect for Kong and wanted to make him the hero of this film. He wanted to show us that there was more to this character than just being a monster, and he succeeds. Kong and Ann’s touching moment ends quickly as fighter planes start to circle them. Kong begins to take them on as they shoot him continuously. He swats at them as they circle closer and closer and manages to grab one by the wing, swinging it around into another one of the planes - another scene taken right from the original film. Ann tries to signal to the pilots not to shoot as they get even closer but it is no use. They continue to light Kong up. Kong begins to lose strength. He picks up Ann and they gaze at each other one last time.
We see Kong’s eyes go dead as he slips to his death. Once again, Andy Serkis’s performance as Kong is tragic. Just like the original, a crowd gathers and wonders why Kong would corner himself like that. They say that the planes got him. Denham makes his way to the front of the crowd to offer his assessment, “It was beauty killed the beast.” Peter Jackson ends his film the same way the 1933 film ended. I don’t know of another remake where the filmmakers' love for the source material is more present than in this film. Universal decided to reboot the Kong franchise with the 2017 film, Kong: Skull Island. There is an upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong film coming out in May of 2021. We will continue to see Kong on the big screen, but I do not think it will ever be done with more care and love than Peter Jackson did with his 2005 version.
Sahil is a full-time student at Dutchess Community College and a part-time cinephile. He has been known to quote the film Step Brothers word for word, and he likes water to be at room temperature.