"We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there — there you could look at a thing monstrous and free."
The mighty city of London is about to smash its way into movie theaters with Mortal Engines. And while Christian Rivers is steering (or, rather, directing) that particular city on wheels, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson cranked more than a few gears in making it possible as an executive producer and co-screenwriter. The new movie, based on Philip Reeve's 2001 novel of the same name, is huge, incredibly weird, and not at all what you may be expecting.
So it goes with many Jackson projects, most especially with his misunderstood, underrated, and often maligned 2005 remake of King Kong. Jackson took every single bit of artistic currency that he’d built up after The Lord of the Rings trilogy stormed the box office (and the Oscars), and he created something incredibly unique. His Kong is not a simple monster movie or an adventure story, though it does have elements of both. What could have been a shallow, two-hour romp became a three-hour epic that defies categorization, aside from definitely being one thing: utterly brilliant.
At least in my eyes, that is. I love the original King Kong, and I enjoyed the more recent Kong: Skull Island well enough. However, the artistry of the action in Jackson’s version can’t be beaten — the Venture’s approach to Skull Island, Kong fighting three T-rexes at once, and Kong on the Empire State Building all stand out. On an effects level, it has stood the test of time, too, especially in regard to the creation of Kong (motion-captured by Andy Serkis) himself.
The true power in this retelling of the classic gargantuan tale, however, lies within its beating, thematically rich heart. Fascinating, dramatic ideas run rampant in this film, co-written by Jackson and Philippa Boyens. Join me in going further up the river.
CAGED ANIMALS AND THE HUMAN ZOO
King Kong lets you in on one of its main themes right in the opening shots, most of which feature captive animals in a zoo. The entire three-hour epic is a treatise on mankind’s treatment of animals, both domesticated and wild.
What does humanity do with the extraordinary? We put it on display. What do we do with humans who can do interesting things? We put them on display, too, which is shown right after the zoo footage in a vaudeville montage. What is the difference between animals in a zoo and human actors on a stage? What is the theater if not a "human zoo" of sorts?
This is all in the first five minutes, and it colors everything that comes after. The zoo that we see isn’t exactly thriving, and the vaudeville audiences are shrinking... it is the Great Depression, after all. These are conquered monsters, and audiences want something monstrous and free! They want to see more extraordinary things, and the animals that Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) transports aren’t really doing the job.
At the same time, theater- and movie-goers are also getting bored. Everyone is growing more and more desperate (again, it's Great Depression), so ethics are going out the window. Enter Carl Denham (Jack Black), the man who will never fail to exploit the fantastic to further his own goals. You want monstrous and free? He'll give it to you, for the bargain price of your soul.
HEARTS OF DARKNESS, OR THE JIMMY SITUATION
The movie isn’t exactly subtle drawing parallels to the book Heart of Darkness — Jimmy (Jamie Bell) is reading it and discusses it with his mentor, Mr. Hayes (Evan Parke). The further into the unknown these humans go, the darker they become, their true natures revealed. In pursuit of something that is not "the conquered form of a shackled monster," the humans of the movie become monsters themselves.
Denham exudes chicanery and lies from the moment we meet him, but it is on the island (mostly when his camera is destroyed) that he truly turns malevolent. His untainted assistant Preston (Colin Hanks) tries to do the right thing but receives a permanent scar for his trouble. Jimmy changes as well, from the jolly boy dancing on the deck who defaces movie posters for fun to the total opposite. We hear from Hayes that when he first found Jimmy in the cargo hold, he was wilder than half the animals in there — it is only Hayes’ mentorship (not giving him a gun, for example) that keeps this in check.
When Hayes is out of the picture? Then you get Jimmy screaming and wildly shooting a tommy gun at Kong. We feel for Jimmy because we love Hayes, and Kong killed him. The problem is that we've grown to love Kong by this point, so therein lies quite the dramatic conundrum. Who exactly are we rooting for?
Continuing on with the humans for a moment, the film is brilliant in how it slowly deals out the technological innovations of mankind. There is a very deliberate escalation here, with technology taking humanity places it really shouldn’t go.
We begin with the technological marvel of a city itself, a 1930s New York, brilliantly rendered by Weta. The Empire State Building — the towering achievement of what is possible — is not yet finished, and the top is shrouded in clouds. What we do have are cages and theaters, fairly elemental things. Then we get moving pictures, which is a step forward.
When the time is right, Jackson gives us the Venture, a tramp steamer that can take humans across the sea. Once we’re on Skull Island, how do humans survive? Pistols first, then rifles, and then, ultimately, Tommy Guns. Back in New York, things escalate with armored troop carriers and the finished glory of the Empire State Building. Once Kong scales it, there’s nothing the humans can do, right? If only that were so. They've saved their best trick for last — enter the airplanes, laden with the biggest machine guns seen in the film.
In each instance, Jackson shows quick cuts and flashes of exactly how these inventions work, from the coal-eating Venture to the loading of the Tommy Guns to the broken insides of Denham’s camera. We gaze in wonder when the airplanes fly onto the scene because Kong himself wonders at them as well. "How have they come so far?" he almost seems to think.
What makes a monster a monster? What makes us change our thinking of Kong as something monstrous to something benevolent and lonely? It is Kong’s ability to recognize beauty.
In fairness, Kong is not a glorious hero in his introductory scenes. It’s clear that he has been taking human sacrifices and ripping them apart, and he almost does the same to Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) after he’s done proving his alpha-dominance over her. Ann stands up to him on numerous occasions (and even makes him laugh), and this is not something that Kong is used to. Beauty stays his hand.
Following the incredible brawl with the T-Rexes, Kong brings Ann back to his lair. It is here that Ann’s perception of him changes, and ours does as well. He watches the sunset and wants Ann to watch it with him. When she responds that it is "beautiful" and makes an accompanying gesture, he almost gets it.
Cut to the end of the movie, where the two of them are sittin’ on top of the world on the Empire State Building. There is another sunset, and they bask in it. That’s when Kong makes the gesture that Ann made earlier on the island. This giant Gorilla beast knows what beauty is, and he can communicate it.
So much of this is brought home by the technical wizards who made the digital Kong possible, but it really comes down to the connection between Watts and Serkis. Behind his digital mask, Serkis makes us care. Watts is utterly transcendent (as she almost always is), and the result is an honest bond that breaks my heart.
In the famous closing line (of both this and the original film), Denham says that it was beauty that killed the beast. He’s almost right — beauty took away this creature’s beastly nature, just as Hayes' kind mentorship took away the beast in Jimmy. If Kong weren't so enamored of Ann, he may not have fallen into Denham’s trap on the island... but beauty and love won out.
Those are the same things that keep Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) going further and further into the jungle, and they are the same things that get Ann herself to climb a skyscraper. Love and beauty have a way of deterring our survival instincts, and when huge machine guns are involved, then we won’t fare very well.
MONSTROUS AND FREE
Honestly, so much of this is only scratching the surface of the questions and ideas that this movie brings up. I haven’t even touched on the "three show sequence" in the third act, when Ann, Carl, and Jack all have shows going on at the same time (none of them contain honesty), and that could easily be a whole article in itself. Watts and Serkis can never be celebrated enough, and yeah, I mentioned it briefly, but there’s also the scene where Kong tears three T-Rexes to ruins.
When we encounter something truly magical, something wondrous, humans either put it in a cage or put it on a stage. If it can be exploited, it will be — no matter how beautiful the wondrous thing thinks Naomi Watts is.
That is the tragedy this movie puts forth, and it begs us to treat these "monsters" with the respect they deserve. Let’s not shoot them out of the sky with our planes, let’s not even go and bother them with our ships. Let’s leave them in peace on their island, and let them watch the beautiful sunset. They may never get to slide around on a frozen pond in true happiness, but at least they’d be alive.
That's where the notion of survival comes in again. Kong, the monster, was a survivor. Jimmy is a survivor, especially after he gets his hands on a gun. Denham is the darkest monster of the film, and he survives just fine. For a creature as "monstrous and free" as Kong, is the trade-off of becoming "beautiful and shackled" worth it? I really don’t know, but I'll never stop wondering.
Such thoughts are not usually the product of watching cheap remakes. They are what happens when you experience a true masterpiece — a masterpiece that is, unlike every character and creature in this film, both beautiful and free at the same time.