King Kong (2005)
Over the past day or so I have watched 2 films that have caught my attention in terms of special effects. The first being Clash of the Titans (1981) which was primarily a revisit for myself, however I couldn’t compel myself on New Years Eve to write a review. I needed something more to get me writing today. That was King Kong (2005) itself a remake, released five years before Titans was pointlessly remade – I have still avoided it at all costs. For a few reasons, it’s a blatant cash-in for those who hold the rights to the original film and also the special effects which completely remove any charm or magic the film might have. Sure they are more slick and even bigger mythical creatures to slay, however it’s a lot more than how much money you can throw at something.
You could say I’ve made a rod for my own back, trying to compare two completely different films, one, an original and another, a remake of another classic film. However its the relationship they share between them which binds them closer than you think. Going back to the original King Kong (1933) it was the first of its kind, a disaster film that created spectacle for an audience who not yet been exposed to what both soundtrack and special effects could do. The puppet for King Kong was animated by Willis O’Brien who created a character that transcended film to become part of popular culture. It signified the depression, those who had been affected by it, made to live in the Hooverville’s, not unlike the jungle of Skull Island. Originally intended to be part of a fame hungry director Carl Denham’s (Robert Armstrong) next big film, a make it or break it for him, taking with him the unknown actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray,) one of cinema’s greatest screamers) on a boat into uncharted waters. Not really knowing what he was letting him or his film crew or that of the boat in for. The rest is history really. Taking back the giant ape back to New York, to be unveiled as the latest attraction to depression laden New York. The captured beast breaks free of his chains to go on a rampage, finding the one he fell in love with back on the island. Darrow then didn’t reciprocate those feelings, instead she carried on screaming as the beast treated her like his most prized possession. He loved her, even if she didn’t it.
All of that wouldn’t have been possible without O’Brien who in-turn inspired Ray Harryhausen who made the technique all of his own, known as Dynamation. First working for hire creating the stop-frame animation monsters for B-movie Science fiction, a genre that never fails to excite me. His creatures/creations really did come to life, on a bigger screen they would’ve the ability to wonder children, even inspiring a few including Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg. He had a clear language that worked from film to film, OK they are a few blips along the way – The Valley of Gwangi (1969), placing beasts, dinosaurs, monsters and aliens alongside humans, fighting off each one.
Admittedly you can see the seems in his work, animating against the film being rear projected, and capturing the action in his studio. As much as you see those lines you soon forget all of that which in other films could pull you out. Each creatures worked because they have a personality, the human touch of a man moving them for each frame. You can tell they are sharing the screen (as much as technology would allow) as they fight and kill the humans who are trying to get past them. They take you into another world, one that CGI is very accomplished at yet lacks the tactile nature of the puppets. Ultimately they have stood the test of time, Harryhausen’s last and most complex film Clash of the Titans called upon him to create mythical creatures that were filled with warmth, others that threatened Perseus (Harry Hamlin) and his young bride Andromeda (Judi Bowker) who he wants to be saved from the hands of the Cracken.
Bringing me back to King Kong a film that has a strong place in Hollywood history, it was a monster hit, pardon the pun. There was a remake (1976) which updated the idea with the help of Jeff Bridges and a change in locations. Not a film I’m in a rush to revisit. Jackson has decided to pay closer attention to the original, a longer running time, more money and more special effects. I admire the return to the era of the original and expanding it however there are more negatives than positives, which I’ll get to later on. First the casting is pretty decent, a strong performance by Jack Black using his comic timing to create a far darker Denham who will stop at nothing to get his film before plan B becomes more exciting. Naomi Watts as Darrow is a very modern take on the role, you could say inspired by King Homer – part of Treehouse of Horror III (1992) which sees Marge falling for her captor, well how could she not fall for an ape version of her husband. Watts sees the inner beauty in the beast that is Kong who is the result of motion capture AKA Andy Serkis who has given us a more human and emotive Kong. I have to give Jackson that one.
The look of the film is very stylised, in terms of the creating the 1930’s setting, the digital photography allowed for more obvious tonal changes, relying heavily on browns to create that depression era look. Then as soon as we reach Skull Island the CGI really comes into its own. Making Willis O’Brien’s effects looks like a practice run, there are far more dinosaurs and oversized creatures which show how much money and time was spent on this act of the film. For me it felt like “let’s make it bigger, have more of everything” losing sight of the plot at times. Yes we get it, it’s an island unaffected by time and evolution, an ecosystem all of its own. Seeing all those dinosaurs running away from Velociraptors I was no longer lost in the film that had made the past incarnations look tame.
It’s more cinematic yet at the times it’s bloated with effects, nothing or very little seems real in this film besides the actors and some of the sets. I know that Jackson does utilises model miniatures where he can, I felt none of that here, the computer has sucked a lot out of the is remake which is grand in terms of the plot, held together by the acting which saves it from being another blockbuster that is soon forgotten. I’m not writing the film off completely, I just wish there wasn’t such a reliance on C.G.I, something which is becoming more lifeless the more sophisticated it becomes, the easier it becomes to make these worlds a reality on the screen, the more we understand and switch off. They have lost the human touch at times. I long for films like Clash of the Titans the acting at times was nothing special, held together with a loose plot that made sense, the air of grandeur and a heap of fun, plus some interesting casting choices that make this a film a classic. It may have lost its seems but not the charm and strength of plot which is as fun as the special effects. Ultimately its a more balanced film, not trying to be more than it is.