As I child, I would stay up late on Saturday nights and watch "Shock Theater." It was a local show hosted by Paul Bearer, who screened old horror films. Yet one of those horror films was no horror at all: It was "King Kong," which told the story of a large ape that fell, literally, for a blonde.
Naomi Watts in the grasp of "King Kong." The movie is in theaters. (Universal)
The original "King Kong" moved a young boy named Peter Jackson to become a filmmaker, and now Jackson brings that love of the film to his own remake of "King Kong," now playing.
An earlier remake was done in 1976, but it made the mistake of trying to tell the story in contemporary times. Jackson does it right by setting the film in the same year as the original.
It's 1933 and the world is in the clutches of the Great Depression. Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is a vaudeville performer who gets pushed onto unkind streets when bankruptcy shuts down her theater. Ann is caught stealing an apple but is rescued by Carl Denham (Jack Black), a movie director who needs a girl her size to be in his picture. She joins the enterprise and sets off for Singapore with the crew.
But Denham really isn't headed for Singapore. He has an ancient map leading to Skull Island, a place of danger and discovery for those who make landfall there. It's not on any sailing charts or known maps. On board is Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody), the screenwriter, who gets shanghaied by Denham and ends up without a cabin. He winds up in the ship's hold, where all manner of cages—and chloroform—indicate the ship deals in animal smuggling.
On Skull Island, natives attack the landing party. Ann is captured and placed as a sacrifice to some unknown deity or being. That deity turns out to be Kong. Kong doesn't kill Ann, but instead takes her deep into the heart of island. As Jack pursues, we see a place where time has stood still, allowing huge insects, dinosaurs and various other dangerous creatures some screen time.
Kong, however, won't let Ann go easily, and those who know the story of King Kong know what happens next.
Peter Jackson creates one of the finest motion pictures of this year. He weaves human nature into the familiar fabrics of this story. Carl Denham is a man who will do anything for his own glory. He doesn't act for art or others, but only for himself—which mirrors the current state of our culture, where much of what we do is for self and all the glory that comes with it.
A cabin boy on the ship has a copy of Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, which offers some subtext for the film. The book's presence speaks to not only the heart of darkness that is Skull Island, but also the heart of darkness that lives within the desire to capture, and exploit, something as primal as Kong.
There is also the love between Ann and Kong. It is not some hyped-up erotic desire or forbidden love that seems to be part of the cinematic times. This love is more about care and concern, more about longing for company as opposed to physical desire. Naomi Watts looks up to Kong, and it is easy to see her just want to be with him. That's all she wants: just to be with him.
"Kong" will not be mentioned in terms of awards for this year, but Peter Jackson has moved into elite company, becoming this era's Steven Spielberg—which partially means that the establishment will want to dismiss him.
But don't dismiss this film. It's one of the finest you will see in 2005.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for frightening adventure violence and some disturbing images. Reviewer's Note: This film's upsetting images are not for children under the age of 8.
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson
Cast: Carl Denham: Jack Black; Ann Darrow: Naomi Watts; Jack Driscoll: Adrien Brody; Preston: Colin Hanks; Capt. Englehorn: Thomas Kretschmann; Lumpy/Kong: Andy Serkis.
The movie's official Web site is here.