There are three versions of King Kong, the legendary story of a film crew’s fateful visit to the primordial Skull Island, where it would encounter various prehistoric beasts, including the giant gorilla, Kong. The first version, in 1933, stunned audiences with its scope and ambition, making extensive use of stop-motion animation—provided by special effects maestro Willis O’Brien—to bring Kong to life in a groundbreaking display of special effects. The second version, in 1976, tried to update the story as a mopey environmental fable, and is better left forgotten. The third version, in 2005, by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, is a faithful remake of the 1933 original. It is also my favorite. I do not say this lightly; I watched the 1933 version countless times as I grew up. Even by modern standards, what they pulled off in that movie is outstanding, and as far as pure adventure storytelling goes, 1933 Kong is very hard to beat. But Jackson’s version did just that.
The story in 2005 is much the same as it was in 1933. Movie producer Carl Denham heads an expedition to Skull Island in the hopes of filming a movie there. He knows little of the place, other than it has never been filmed before, and it is the kind of exotic location audiences go nuts for. He brings along penniless actress Ann Darrow and screenwriter Jack Driscoll (under false pretenses), and very soon after landing on the island, things go sideways. Hostile natives kidnap Ann and offer her as sacrifice to a 25-foot-tall gorilla named Kong. Realizing they have to save Ann, Denham and Driscoll lead a rescue party that gets more than a few people killed along the way as they battle various prehistoric creatures, as well as Kong himself. Meanwhile, Kong and Ann form an unlikely bond as she recognizes that there is a soul buried deep within the creature. Ann still seeks to escape Kong’s clutches, but she doesn’t want to see Kong hurt, either. Denham agrees, but for different reasons, as he captures Kong alive and brings him back to New York to put on display. Kong escapes, rampages across Manhattan, grabs Ann, climbs to the top of the Empire State Building, and meets his tragic fate there under the machineguns of U.S. Army biplanes. In 2005, as in 1933, Denham views the dead form of Kong and as somebody notes that the planes finally brought Kong down, Denham says that no, it wasn’t the planes. It was Kong’s protectiveness of Ann that got it killed. It was beauty that killed the beast. That’s some convenient blame-shifting from Denham, who should probably answer for all the damage his escaped creature caused to the city. It wasn’t like it was Ann’s idea to bring Kong off Skull Island. A part of her probably wishes that rescue party never found them.
In many respects, Jackson’s King Kong is a pure remake of the original, using modern effects to up the visual ante across the board. There is more of everything here: bigger vistas, more beautifully rendered creatures, longer and more numerous action sequences. And while a lot of this piles on in a typical example of Jacksonian excess (the movie tops out at nearly three hours long, and even then had to cut a bunch of big scenes), there is one crucial area where the advanced techniques used to make the film truly improve upon the original. Kong himself.
In this version, Kong isn’t just an animated model. He is played by creature actor Andy Serkis through the magic of motion capture. And this time, we don’t just see Kong as a huge monster with a dopey crush on Ann. We see a wide range of emotion in an individual who truly lives up to a passage quoted in the movie from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “…there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.” Kong is Skull Island’s apex predator, capable of taking on not one, not two, but three of its T-rexes in a wild melee and still come out victorious. He is covered in scars from many such conflicts. But when he retires to his cave to recover, we see the skeletons of the other apes who once lived here, too. Whether they are his ancestors or the lost members of his troop, the reality is that Kong is alone, and he knows it. Ann knows it, too, and in a touching scene, she and Kong sit together after the T-rex battle. Ann realizes that for the first time, somebody really stuck up for her. And Kong realizes that he doesn’t want to own Ann; he wants her to choose to stay with him. This is the movie’s moment of truth, for Ann knows she must get away from this monster, but part of her is loathe to leave behind the spark of lonely humanity within it. We can hardly blame her, even though Denham will do so anyway.
This movie triumphs because we can look into Kong’s eyes and sense that Kong is looking back. We see in Kong what Ann sees. We see it when he struggles to understand why Ann won’t do whatever he wants her to do. We see it when he throws a tantrum and accidentally humiliates himself. We see it when he puts his life on the line to save her. We see it when he goes berserk when she is taken from him. We see it when he stands defeated in chains. We see it when he vents his wrath on Manhattan. We see it when he is reunited with Ann. And we see it when he holds her hand one last time. All of these things happened in the original version of King Kong. But none of them mattered. This time, they do.