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Peter Jackson’s 'King Kong' Remains an Underrated Wonder of the World

“There's still some mystery left in this world, and we can all have a piece of it… for the price of an admission ticket.”

By Brian Silliman
King Kong (2005)

In 2005, Peter Jackson finally realized his dream of remaking King Kong. He had attempted to do so earlier, after The Frighteners, but the effort fell through. The Lord of the Rings trilogy happened instead, and to say that those three movies were a success would be an understatement. After cleaning house at the Academy Awards with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003, Jackson and company were free to tell a Kong story any way that they liked. The result is anything but simple; it is an epic that asks deep questions about humanity.

Currently streaming on Peacock, Jackson’s movie (adapted with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, and made with a lot of the same team as Rings) is the longest version of the tale. It’s not short and simple like the 1933 original, but it stays true to its spirit. It doesn’t make drastic oil-based changes like the 1976 remake, nor does it look to have fun with John C. Reilly while adding seeds to a franchise like Kong: Skull Island would years later. This Kong has no need for a giant magical axe. The 2005 film enlarges and expands everything from 1933, including many storylines that may seem unnecessary at first glance. Audiences in 2005 weren't expecting the mysteries of this movie, but nothing is in it by chance.

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Jackson never saw Kong as a monster. Having Ann Darrow (the always brilliant Naomi Watts) develop warm feelings for Kong (the always brilliant Andy Serkis) is one of the few things that the movie has in common with the 1976 version. Ann and Kong, beauty and beast, are both caught up in a no-win cycle of human (and dinosaur) hunger.

Check out Universal Pictures' new extended look at Peter Jackson's King Kong:

The original movie was set in what was then the modern day. In 2005, Jackson still set it in 1933, making it a period piece. The Great Depression is in full effect. Humans are more desperate than ever, as the opening montage shows us. Everyone is scrapping for pennies, just as every dinosaur and toothy worm on Skull Island is scrapping for something to eat.

Desperation, hunger, and loneliness can make anyone cold. Kong himself is not immune; when we first meet him, he’s a crazed maiden-ripper. Humanity has found other ways to deal with things— the wondrous cycle of scientific discovery rolls out as the movie progresses, showcasing all of the inventions that humans have created.

Starting with an unfinished Empire State Building (a 1933 Tower of Babel), the movie goes on to show mankind having created steamships that can traverse the seas. They have cameras that can capture images. They have rifles and pistols, and Tommy guns. The movie saves the biggest leap forward for the end; at no point in the movie do you see an airplane until the final sequence. Humans have taken to the air, and when they need to blow Kong off of their completed tower, big steel birds fly in to light him up.

Humans have some respect for their own genius, but they have no respect at all when it comes to nature. The movie opens with shots of animals, gradually revealing that they are in cages. It’s a zoo, and a very depressing zoo at that. This is what humans do with the natural world; they put parts of it in cages and sell tickets.

King Kong (2005)

They do that to each other as well, though there’s much more of a choice involved. The line between a zoo and a theatre is slim, with poverty driving Ann to perform on stages where she normally wouldn’t. She’s not digging ditches, but she’s constantly hungry and doesn’t have a warm enough coat.

In order to get ahead, many of the film’s human characters do morally horrible things. Members of Carl Denham's (Jack Black) film crew are killed off one by one, and he gets over these losses very quickly. All that matters to him is getting shots of wonder and laying the mysteries of nature bare for all to see. He does this to prove his own glory, because he will then sell these mysteries to the masses. As he says, “There's still some mystery left in this world, and we can all have a piece of it… for the price of an admission ticket.”

When his camera gets destroyed, Carl decides to trade in film for theatre. He’s gonna do this despite telling Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) earlier in the movie that there was no money in theatre. Not for nothing, Carl tells him this after he connives to trap Driscoll into going on the adventure, and the writer spends the trip to Skull Island in an animal cage. Carl traps something else for the return journey, because he convinces Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) to capture Kong. Denham can’t make his movie? He’ll turn a chained-up Kong into a live show.

Englehorn is not hard to sway in this instance, because we’ve already seen the lower decks of his ship full of empty cages. How did those animals wind up in that depressing zoo? Englehorn (and people like him) captured them and sold them. Presumably.

This is what humanity does with the mysterious wonders of nature. We exploit it. We put it on display and sell tickets. Even in 1933, humans prove that they’d do anything for clicks, followers, likes, and a bit of fame. Will it cause the death of a giant gorilla who is able to comprehend how beautiful the sun is? Yes, but who cares? These are desperate times. Some kind of “show” has to go on.

King Kong (2005)

Where the movie truly triumphs is that it never spells any of this out. The full force of the drama happens gradually. The first third of the movie is mostly spent in the company of the sailors. In getting to know them, we get to like them. The second third of the movie is spent with Kong, and we get to know and love him just as Ann does. The final third puts all of them up against each other, and we have no idea how to feel.

Jimmy (Jamie Bell) and Mr. Hayes (Evan Parke) are the keys to the whole movie. Hayes, who is mentoring Jimmy, tells Jack that he first found Jimmy in the animal cages, and that he was wilder than half the creatures in there. When the quest to save Ann begins, he refuses to give Jimmy a gun. He only grudgingly relents.

Eventually, Kong kills Hayes as Jimmy looks on, screaming in anguish. Cut to the scene where the sailors attempt to capture Kong, and suddenly the humans that we were rooting for are revealed to be the real monsters of the movie. Being desperate doesn’t mean that you get to toss giant hooks into incredible animals to hold them down.

Kong goes on a rampage, and Jimmy has traded a rifle in for a tommy gun. He goes berserk with hatred of the beast that killed his mentor, firing wildly at Kong. Jimmy has returned to his feral state, but this time he has a lovely human invention of death in his hands. Kong has also been driven back to his violent ways, so we have two out-of-control characters facing off. Who are we rooting for?

We saw Jimmy’s father figure die in front of him. We’ve grown with him. We also love Kong, and not just because we’ve watched him beat three T. rexes into the dirt while protecting Ann. Both Kong and Jimmy know what beauty is. Ann is being restrained from going to Kong, and Hayes is dead. Without their emotional anchors, both of them have a backslide.

What side are you on? Kong’s side, most likely, but the movie doesn’t make it easy. You’re not cheering for anything in this scene. You may want to see Kong smash Denham’s face, but you probably won’t want to see Jack or Jimmy get nailed. Both nature and humanity have lost. What does Kong do when he is put on mocking display in an urban jungle? He rampages… until Ann re-enters his life.

King Kong (2005)

In a world full of greed, hunger, and exploitation, the only momentary respite for both of them is to enjoy a playful ice dance in Central Park. It doesn’t last, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t beautiful.

In the end, the price of everything is much higher than that of an admission ticket. Denham starts to realize that, but it’s too late. He has destroyed the most spectacular being that he’ll ever lay eyes on. He was so preoccupied with getting those likes, with trying to turn Kong into clicks, that he never thought to just look and be amazed himself. He never thought to let "the eighth wonder of the world" simply exist.

That’s not what humanity does. Not in 1933, and not in 2022. King Kong hits harder now more than ever, and it’s all there for you to see. Peter Jackson didn’t make a simple smash-em-up monster movie. He made a masterpiece. The mysteries of that masterpiece can be yours… for the price of a streaming service subscription.

Peter Jackson's King Kong is now streaming on Peacock.