Best. Monster. Ever.
By Annalee Newitz
EVERY GEEK on the planet has spent at least some time during the last year frantic with desire to see Peter Jackson's new monster epic, King Kong. Why? It's about a 25-foot-tall gorillacreated with Jackson's secret-sauce CGIwho lives on Skull Island and fights dinosaurs. What else do you want? I'll tell you: head-swallowing giant maggots, vengeful natives and Jack Black as Carl Denham, a Hollywood-style Ahab who will sacrifice anything for a good reel of film.
I saw King Kong during its opening week, one night after rewatching the 1933 original. Although the nerds I saw it with were unimpressedsomething about dialogue or whateverI was blown away. Kong fights three T-rexes! There's a brontosaurus stampede followed by a bronto pileup that verges on giant-monster slapstick. Sure, we could have used a lot less of Naomi Watts staring slack-jawed at everything. And Jackson needs to learn to edit his flicks down to two hours. But Kong fights three T-rexes! Three! Did I mention that? Damn, I love this movie.
The 1933 Kong is so antique that Jackson's remake doesn't have the cheese-appreciation feel, or the crappiness, of Lost in Space or Godzilla. It's as if he's bringing a Jane Austen novel to filmthere's a weird seriousness to it, a literary reverence. (In fact, the movie goes a little heavy-handed with multiple references to Heart of Darkness, but a little allegory never hurt anyone.)
King Kong is also unabashedly a genre pic, and as such it adheres to all four basic laws of monster killing. Those laws, as any monster movie fiend knows, are as follows:
1.) The monster is misunderstood and isn't really monstrous when you get to know it.
2.) The monster is actually inside us, so we defeat it by conquering ourselves.
3.) The monster dies when we no longer fear it.
4.) The monster disappears when some crime is avenged or justice is done.
Of course, monsters are usually killed with oxygen destroyers or ice shooters or tanks, but only after one of the above rules has been followed. What's cool is that the same goes for Kong, who is first revealed to be a sweetie deep inside (Law 1) and is then murdered by a bunch of white guys in New York who don't fear giant gorillas the same way Skull Islanders do (Law 3).
In the middle of all that, we discover that Kong's flawsexcessive violence and an obsession with skinny blondesare the flaws of all Americans (Law 2). And ultimately, Kong dies only after he has avenged the crime of his kidnapping by destroying his captor Denham, as well as the theater where Kong is put on display in chains (Law 4).
Monster stories are morality tales, and Jackson's King Kong is no different. While the original Kong offered a barely concealed racist myth about a giant black creature from a primitive island whose goal in life is to steal nice white ladies, the new Kong is a kind of mournful post-colonial meditation on how the West ruins noble savages.
So Kong is still a stand-in for natives of developing countries, but instead of being menacing he's just angry and sad. He is also sort of sexy, which puts a sort of "black buck" twist on the noble savage thing that's going on here.
As Ann Darrow, Watts falls in love with Kong after he defends her from the dino nastiesthere are so many scenes of her stroking his big wrinkly nose with tears in her eyes that even I was grossed out. It's as if Kong is acting out a stereotype that's the bastard child of Rousseau and Shaft.
Perhaps that's why Jackson's Kong isn't slain by manly brute force, but by the entertainment industry. The image everyone remembers from the 1933 Kong flick is the ape atop the Empire State Building, slapping biwing airplanes out of the air. That's here too, but the image from the new movie that's likely to stick is of Kong in chains, a high-toned audience watching him with awe and repulsionhere we see that Denham has proved his point that "mystery" can be "sold for the price of an admission ticket."
Implicitly, the greatest threat to Kong's unspoiled naturalness is a society that will pay to turn him into a wind-up monkey. Which, incidentally, is what Jackson has done with this movie.
Annalee Newitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a surly media nerd who can't wait to watch 'GodzillaFinal Wars.'
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