King Kong

Last night I caught a bit of Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong and it brought up a long-running discussion I’ve had about the film. Many of my friends think that the film exposed Jackson’s worst tendencies as a film maker; distracting technical effects, an emphasis on spectacle at the expense of story, and his preoccupation with the creepy-crawly possibilities of the story he’s telling.

And really I agree with some of the complaints. A lot of them hold water. And yet, I liked the movie. It’s a great example of how a filmmaker’s strengths are also his weaknesses. The story doesn’t really work (at least not so well as Lord of the Rings or the original King Kong); it looks like a series of well constructed set pieces that indulge in Jackson’s predilection for horror (this worked for LOTR, which had a strong supernatural undercurrent). And in nearly every scene I had the sense that this was a Peter Jackson film, that his personal stamp was all over it.

This would seem to open Jackson up to accusations of egomania, of ruining a great story by trying to make it his own, but I don’t see it that way. I can hardly think that he expected to come to such a Big Movie and steal it away from the previous versions. He’s honoring it, not by making a bloodless remake (Gus van Sant’s Psycho), but by giving it all he has, and if he’s come up wanting, well, so have many others (Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein). I think that his film continues the tradition of Big Themes and Big Roles that we usually associate with the theater. No one expects a definitive portrayal of Hamlet; the idea that one performance can be definitive has only come about as a result of recording devices. And by making the film as a Peter Jackson film he’s honoring the story of King Kong, not taking away from it.

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