Any remake or reimagining of a classic text should come from a place of love and admiration. It isn't a case of fixing something that is broken - the best adaptations come from a desire to dig deeper within the source material and unearth something new, to reignite the fire that burns at their heart and create from them a new work of art. This principle has led to some remarkable remakes and adaptations that buck the trend that to remake anything is a foolish enterprise, but sometimes that love can also get in the way, with fidelity clouding one's judgement. I've long thought this to be the case with one of the grandest remakes ever attempted: Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of the iconic 1933 classic 'King Kong'. It's clear from every frame that so much love has gone into this film, but this also may have prevented it from becoming the masterpiece it is so achingly close to being.
Seeing Jackson's 'King Kong' in cinemas was an overwhelming experience. It was inconceivable to think he could make anything bigger in scope and impact than 'The Lord of the Rings', and yet 'King Kong' is a sensory assault, an elevation of his craft as an action filmmaker to almost impossible heights. It was as if the film was collapsing on top of you, sucking you into its visual vortex. And then, once you were inside, you were pummelled by a film of unexpected emotional gravity, a sincerity and humanity that culminates in its devastating climax. I remember leaving the cinema absolutely exhausted. One friend was so overwhelmed by it that we had to lift him out of his seat and carry him from the cinema.
It's easy to forget just how impactful a film 'King Kong' is. Discourse around popular culture is a cruel thing, and can fashion narratives that clouds the attributes of a work by focusing on its flaws. It still bemuses me, for example, that the general consensus around 'Titanic' is that it's a bad film, when the reality is far and away the opposite. This isn't to suggest that 'King Kong' is a forgotten master work. It's a film with many flaws, and flaws that almost overwhelm its attributes. Those moments that work though are cinema at its purest; furious and passionate bursts of genius that would be landmarks in any director's career, let alone that of the man who directed 'The Lord of the Rings'.
The original 'King Kong', despite its reputation, is really nothing more than an act of spectacle. Granted, the spectacle is jaw-dropping, even nearly 90 years later, but you come for the crazy stop-motion special effects, not for any depth of character or theme. It's a film that plays very much into the fetishisation of non-western cultures as "savage" and "debauched", revelling in a fake hedonism while dismissing it all as primitive. Even the very image of Kong, a giant dark-skinned figure, holding an unconscious Ann Darrow (the pearly-white Fay Wray) speaks to the western fear of men of colour snatching away their women while indulging in the sexual nature of that fantasy at the same time. 'King Kong' is a film whose craft makes it a film beyond its time, but whose content makes very much a product of its time, and yet the basic ingredients are tantalising. There's no denying that there's something going on below the surface, whether the filmmakers were aware of it or not. The magic of the film is that, when you look into the face of Willis O'Brien's magnificent Kong puppet, you feel unexpected pity and empathy for him. Perhaps this was something O'Brien snuck into the film of his own accord, but it has been the kernel of our love for Kong ever since.
It is also the kernel that Jackson clings to - the idea that Kong is not just a ferocious primeval monstrosity, but a living creature with a soul, carving a lonely and dangerous life without anything to connect to. This is what sets Kong apart from Godzilla - where one is the rage of the modern world made manifest, the other is the missing link between ape and man writ large. The beautiful, heartfelt centre of Jackson's film is that his Ann (played so beautifully by Naomi Watts) is able to see the soul behind the ancient eyes, read the intention behind his actions while battling multiple dinosaurs as they tumble down a cliff. Kong may possess Ann, see her as his property, but he also sees her protection as his responsibility, and even if that feeling is misplaced and he has no right to think he possesses Ann, the fact that he feels the need to protect her speaks to a humanity within him. That point of recognition - where these two animals look into one another's eyes and see a soul staring back - is the beginning, middle and end of what Jackson has to say with 'King Kong'; that the love they share is not based on affection or lust, but the simple act of being seen by another, recognised and acknowledged, and in that moment, the need to protect transfers from Kong to Ann. It becomes her mission to protect him, this beast that is so much more than a beast, especially when it becomes clear that no one else can see what she sees.
The moments between Ann and Kong are miraculous, where the vast emotional and visual scope of the film click into place. The problem is that the noise and bombast around them is so thunderous that they are almost drowned out. There is no need for 'King Kong' to be three hours long - there is not enough story to sustain it, and while every set piece in isolation is spectacular, many of them lose their power when pummelled against one another. It's a strange conflict within the film; a clarity of intent almost swallowed by an aimless need to go as big as possible. Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens expand on the original characters and thrown in a bunch more, but the problem with a large cast is that they all need to be served, and as a result, we end up with long, convoluted scenes that add very little to the film itself. Jackson is also throwing every idea imaginable at the film to see what sticks, desperate to take full advantage of the opportunity to realise his dream project, but before he has made sure an idea actually needs to be there, he moves on to another. None of this serves the excellent cast, with even Jack Black threatening you with an excellent performance if he wasn't fighting for character development or drowning in unnecessary business.
The final 15 minutes of 'King Kong' are staggering, a devastating finale of operatic proportions where the emotional heart of the film cracks wide open.
'King Kong' is a gluttony of lazy gags, flabby dialogue and endless action set pieces that overstay their welcome, exacerbated by the moments that actually do work by highlighting the ones that don't. The whole film is like a game of Jenga, and it's really a miracle that the final act is so magnificent. We all know that Kong will climb and inevitably fall from the Empire State Building, but Jackson uses that prior knowledge to his advantage. Before we come to that recreation of one of the most iconic moments in cinema, he will give us a moment of quiet for Kong and Ann, playing in the snow in Central Park, a respite to reconnect and celebrate in their shared humanity before our own inhumanity pummels him out of the sky. The final 15 minutes of 'King Kong' are staggering, a devastating finale of operatic proportions where the emotional heart of the film cracks wide open. There are images from that sequence that give me chills just thinking about them, whether it be the impossible shot of Kong swiping a plane out of the air as lens flare hits the camera, or the soul-shattering sight of the life disappearing from his eyes as he slips silently from the edge of the building. The end of 'King Kong' feels unfair, unjust, unacceptable, unfathomable, and that's exactly what Jackson wants you to feel. It is a testament to his direction, to the artists at WETA and to the insane brilliance of Andy Serkis that makes Kong one of the most powerful computer-generated characters we've ever seen, and the most affecting performance in this wild, preposterous film. After all the sound and fury of dinosaurs and giant bugs, of buildings collapsing and planes shooting from the sky, we are reduced to this quiet moment of devastation, where a living thing that just wanted companionship is wiped from the earth because we couldn't conceive of the idea that such a creature could have a soul.
That's the magic trick that Jackson's 'King Kong' pulls on the original. In the 1933 version, if you aren't white and American, you don't have a soul. The vague suggestion that Kong could even have one is in the subtle work of the puppeteer crafting him, certainly not in any other aspect of the film. His death is spectacular and just, because after all, he's a monster, as expendable as the savages who worship him. In the 2005 version, his soul is as enormous as his physical form, even more so than the men who pursue and capture him, and his death is not a victory but a murder. It also (almost) subverts the uncomfortable pro-colonialist sentiments of the original - they have disturbed the balance of the island and its inhabitants by coming there and taking what they want, brought death to its people and disturbed the balance of life with often disastrous effect for their own personal gain.
I would love nothing better than to have made the argument here that Peter Jackson's 'King Kong' is an unacknowledged masterpiece. It feels like it should be, and it's a tragedy that it isn't. Hidden within the flab and indulgence is a furious, thrilling, breathtaking and overwhelming experience, a worthy follow-up to 'The Lord of the Rings' and a passionate reimagining of a classic. If only it were shorter, if only it were leaner, and if only everything that went on screen did so for a purpose. What we have though is still a very special film - the kind that pushes cinema to its limits and embraces everything that it has the capacity to be. In that sense, it achieves its purpose. That's exactly what it would have been like in 1933, to see the impossible sight of a giant ape climbing the tallest building in the world, with cinema showing us something we could only ever imagine. Even fifteen years since it boomed onto our screens, Peter Jackson's 'King Kong' still feels like cinema of the impossible, like it should only ever be seen on a giant IMAX screen with thunderous sound. We may not be able to reassess it as a masterpiece, but it certainly deserves to be celebrated as a grand, magnificent film that almost was one.