Monday, February 12, 2007

"It was Beauty Killed the Beast."

All right, I’ve sat through King Kong one and a half times now, and I’ve got to say that, as movies go, this one didn’t annoy me anywhere near as much as others I’ve seen lately.

Maybe because the whole premise is so fantastic you have to at least partially suspend disbelief to even sit down to watch it. I don’t know if that’s the case though, because I thought that about Superman Returns and still had issues. Maybe it’s because the movie has had a soft spot in my heart since I was a child. Maybe it’s because the thing is a tragedy about a big gorilla misunderstood by the world. Or maybe it’s because the CGI of Kong was perhaps the greatest drawing I’ve ever seen, and it was magnificently animated.

Whatever the reason, the movie didn’t bug me … too much.

There were issues, of course. Why, on an island in the middle of nowhere, are there dinosaurs co-existing with gargantuan primates? What happened to the other primates? We see carcasses, but no evidence of what may have happened to them. We see huge sauropods, creatures that I assume were either Velociraptors or similar, and huge reptiles similar to komodo dragons. The bats are huge, the mosquitoes are huge, the millipedes are huge and the scavenger worms and insects are huge. Cockroaches and crickets and spiders, oh my! – all the size of small dogs. Can bats with a wing span of twelve feet even fly? Is that even possible physically? I know the fruit bat is big, but it’s not that big. This thing was like a hang glider.

Okay, so they’re big. And they’re in a completely isolated environment … on an island. Where things like FOOD SOURCES and SPACE are limited, and DROPPINGS from these extremely large animals are going to have to be broken down by something in a big hurry to prevent disease from running rampant. Maybe that explains why things that scavenge and come out in the dark are huge too. Huge and head-swallowing.

So, an isolated island yet to be discovered by western science in the early portion of the 20th century isn’t all that hard to buy. It’s the fact that the place seemed riddled with constructs of man. It’s the fact that somehow, someway, a mountain gorilla from Africa found its way there and then mutated into a 25-foot high monster that the natives worship. Okay, where’d the dinosaurs come from? Where did all these wonderful things come from? I guess they could migrate there from other places, and then over the course of millions and billions of eons as evolution requires they become the things they are. But there are problems with dinosaurs having survived on an island, and then mountain gorillas coming along in the same time line. Sort of a problem for the native life there too … or did they evolve from the mountain gorillas eventually? Did that occur before the gorillas became gargantuan? If so, what triggered that mutation? Africa is a large continent, and the mountain gorillas are only mountain gorilla sized there; on an island, is it the drinking water that makes them grow? If so, how come the native humans haven’t grown? And if they evolved from the primate life there, shouldn’t they be huge, too?

So I’m confused by the whole island thing. And the fog; what’s with the fog? In the previous incarnation of King Kong, the explanation for the fog was that it was produced by gases emanating from a vast oil store beneath the island. In this movie – there’s no explanation at all. (This movie, however, at least showed the audience that Kong was the last of his kind, a species on the verge of extinction for whatever reason. No one ever explained that in either of the other movies before.) That’s fine; ultimately, the fog bank is necessary to obscure the island and make it more mysterious, but there has to be some reason why ocean winds and tides don’t sweep the fog bank away. I lived in Daly City, for Pete’s sake – it’s foggy about 300 days a year, but even there they get a day or two of sunshine a month. A permanent fog bank? Please.

Jack Black, however, was great. He played about as slimy a character as I’ve ever seen him portray. This clever shyster was a performance equaled only by his portrayal of a nerdy arms construction technician in The Jackal, in which his arm is blown off by Bruce Willis while testing the device he’s constructed. He was good; very good. In the end, we don’t know if his character is the antihero or the villain, but he got away with everything he did. His character closes the movie with an attempt at a poignant line that only accentuates his own foolishness and P.T. Barnum-style spin on reality. (That is to say, he never accepted responsibility for the deaths of the movie crew, the ship’s crew, the citizens of New York, or Kong. He blamed Naomi Watts for Kong’s death, in fact.)

Some scenes in the movie were actually so well portrayed, they creeped me out a bit. When the movie crew is being accosted by the native population, I was able to actually sense the fear and confusion of the actors in the scene. It was kind of scary to see the islander pole-vaulting over breaks in the rock to reach the ship in order to abduct Naomi Watts. There was some really creepy undertones to the ceremony in which she’s offered to Kong. All of those things were very well done, and I think Peter Jackson really captured something so completely foreign to those of us that haven’t experienced tribal cultures that it frightens us. The language is alien, the religion is alien, the culture is alien, the entire setting makes us feel unable to protect ourselves and confused. We have no way to connect and relate to what the natives think, feel and believe, and there is no way to communicate with them to try to arrive at understanding.

They also don’t seem very interested in communicating. They attack with what seemed little provocation and with nothing in mind but slaughter. As an audience member, I was a bit horrified that the westerners had no way to say they had come in peace and didn’t mean any harm … and that the natives didn’t seem to care. Their dogged persistence in taking Naomi Watts was disconcerting too; the westerners weren’t even safe back in their own ship. Knowing they held superior fire power and technology did not deter the natives from taking what they wanted … we just never got to see or understand (and, there probably wouldn’t be any way to understand) why they so wanted her. She’s a pretty girl, but come on.

The plot’s a familiar one, so I won’t go into that. There were some clever things they did, though, that I really liked. They showed the desperation of the people in the depression, and they contrasted that nicely with the money and opulence of those that were successful during that time. The dichotomy was almost laughable, and that’s very accurate. There was almost a classe-style difference in the US at that time, and the brief look at the differences the movie gave was well-done. Also, the actress Jack Black’s character was trying to hire for the female lead in his movie backed out, so he was rattling off a list of actresses that he thought would make suitable substitutes. When he said “Fay”, the young “Preston” to whom he spoke said, “She’s doing a movie with RKO and isn’t available.” That was brilliant. (The only movie that Faye [Wray] would have been doing at that time would have been the original King Kong, in case you’re not aware. She passed away in 2004 at the age of 96, and her only real claim to fame was still being clutched in Kong’s hairy paw.)

The unveiling of Kong for the movie could have been done better, but the animation of the lead character was nothing short of spectacular. The way he moved, the way his fur reacted to his movements, the play of the light and shadow on his fur (each little tuft lit and shadowed and moving), the imperfections in his face (his head was a bit lopsided, one of his lower canines was larger and protruded more than the other, the wrinkles on his face and the folds of his skin weren’t symmetrical, his eyes were two different sizes … I could go on and on about the detail of the CGI), the way he did gorilla-like things – Kong was practically impossible to distinguish from a living ape. That is, until he interacted with Naomi Watts, at which time he became clearly an ape in love. Oh well … it is what the movie’s about, after all.

I haven’t seen anything as visually beautiful as Kong in CGI animation since Jurassic Park. Say what you will about that movie, its creatures were among the best drawn in history. It was really hard to recall that they weren’t actually dinosaurs in the movie. There have been lots of animated characters throughout the history of movies, and each time I see one they get better, but Kong was fantastic beyond my ability to express. Even Spider-Man (Spiderman) in Spiderman (Spider-Man) 2 wasn't as well-animated as Kong. If the producers and animators of Hulk by Ang Lee had done as good a job with him as this crew did with Kong, that movie would have been much more successful, I’m sure.

Okay, maybe not.

The movie was weak in places. Naomi Watts was a bit hollow and wooden, and she didn’t have a lot of speaking lines, considering. She also left me wondering with whom she was actually attracted, Kong or the male lead (whatever his name was … I honestly don’t know, but the character was referred to as “Driscoll”). But, that is by design, since the real story is not guy and girl, but girl and gorilla. The scene on the ice is the tell-tale for that, but the scene where she’s doing her vaudeville act for Kong is the one that tells us that they won each other over. They even watch the sunset together and express “beautiful” together, each in their own way. I thought the ending, for all the spectacular CGI involved, could’ve had more punch. Kong kept gettting larger and smaller throughout the movie. The other CGIs in the movie didn't seem anywhere near as realistic, in particular the stampeding sauropods. There is no explanation of how Kong was fed or his droppings handled on the voyage back to New York in a vessel that clearly wasn't large enough to house him. How did they keep him sedated? That much chloroform released on a small ship, especially in the hold, will probably kill the passengers and crew. The scene with Kong atop the Empire State Building was actually a bit anticlimactic for me, but overall, the movie did what it was supposed to do – entertain.

And for me, that’s really unusual. I liked it.