Here's to the Big One

Motion captured: Beast (CG) and Beauty (Naomi Watts) in 'King Kong'
Universal Pictures

Three hours and seven minutes of Peter Jackson's gargantuan King Kong, and there's one thing that stays with me: the Empire State Building's flat, disturbingly small, rather chintzy-looking top. This, of course, is the title character's final destination (unless you count the pavement), a piece of unpolished metal that somehow deserves its placement at the height of human civilization for resembling a used hubcap.

I know it's perverse if not unpatriotic: Hollywood giant spends $200 million to make countless digital artifacts look real, and the buzz-kill critic in flyover country is fixated on the one relatively authentic thing in the film that looks cheap. In my defense I'll mention that the Eighth Wonder of the World himself is drawn to it as well--and for good reason. Yes, that hubcap in the sky is where the beast definitively surrenders to the indignities of motion-capture--but you can't say he doesn't use this little platform to command attention, Jackson's included.

At last the director's acute case of CGI-powered ADD is brought under control by Kong's climactic performance on a stage no more than a few feet wide. Only the elemental up here: nature and civilization, life and death, beauty and beast; never mind the stampeding dinosaurs, oozing insects, and other digital horrors that Jackson had used to distract us from the troubling heart of this tale. A very real Beauty (Naomi Watts), tragically separated from her beloved beast, stands atop this tiny perch with the courage or stupidity of passion (isn't it awfully windy up there?)--and, like Kong on his mountaintop, we're given a rare moment to collect our thoughts. The height of human civilization is a hubcap. That sunrise over Manhattan sheds harsh light on our new deal with nature in 1933: Tear it to ribbons. But love is eternal. And the true king is Beauty, impervious to fear and unshakable by wind--even on a hubcap a hundred stories high.

One takes such shards of meaning where one can get them in a blockbuster of this size--even silly shards of meaning at the bitter end of a long haul. But a few promo-screening attendees chose to leave just before that meager payoff, while Kong was still on an upward trajectory. This, particularly in the absence of anything more compelling than a heavenly hubcap in the film itself, strikes me as a bit interesting. Why leave a free screening of Hollywood's Big, Big One during the finale? We shouldn't assume that leaving early is the same as disapproval: After all, three hours is 180 minutes, and as any animal will tell you, nature calls. Another, more intriguing possibility: What if walking out early in this case is a way of expressing solidarity with the monster--a way to reedit the film, to leave him when he's still on top of the world? Indeed, if you see the king of Skull Island as another casualty of Western colonialism, snatched from his homeland and shipped abroad to serve the civilized bourgeois, the beast's terroristic rampage through New York is in many ways the more exciting climax.

Or so it is in the original King Kong, whose pioneering makers weren't afraid of their urban invader looking scary, unrestrained, out for blood. (I'm reminded that the creators of the 1933 version didn't have stuffed animals to sell.) You could say that the herky-jerky quality of early stop-motion animation made Kong appear to act erratically. Or that his scripters knew the limitations of stop-motion technology and wrote erratic behavior to match. Or that any creature snatched from his homeland and shipped abroad to serve the civilized bourgeois would behave erratically, and the entire crew of the film found a way to represent it. You could also say that, whatever the reason, the original beast's shocking, hilarious, ultimately poignant volatility--a perpetual manic-depression that appears to evolve at split-second intervals, frame by frame--is a huge part of what makes the first film so riveting. Having impulsively yanked an elevated commuter train off its track, the old Kong punches it three times quick, stops, hears the passengers' screams, punches again, turns around, looks to see if anyone is watching his hammy display of strength(!), then playfully slaps at the train the way a taunting boxer would pinch an opponent's cheeks. (Is that a smile on his face?) Then, after a moment's pause, he's on to the next anarchic act: scurrying up a tenement building with Beauty in his paw.

Alas, Jackson's Kong has none of this crazy energy: He's the perfect digital replica of a real gorilla (or so they say)--and, in monster-movie terms, perfectly boring. Apparently, unpredictability in the new ape would put at risk the film's moments of contrived emotion between beauty and beast--or complicate Kong's status as soulful poster boy for both PETA and Toys "R" Us. Even the much-maligned 1976 version, a proto-blockbuster of rather uncanny self-awareness (and considerable humor), had a better handle on the illicit pleasure of this material--the guilty kick that comes from seeing Kong cop a feel of his Beauty or squish an amoral oil man underfoot. With the animal neutered, the savage figures in Jackson's film are the dark-skinned, red-eyed, shrieking, spear-throwing Skull Island natives, whose sadistic torture of Watts's aspiring actress and her fellow filmmaking visitors from New York plays like a cheap attempt to goose a movie that hasn't quickened the pulse one time in an hour of punishingly belabored setup.

Hardly Kong's rival for love, Beauty's human suitor (Adrien Brody) is a nice-guy playwright who's content to wait patiently for his crush to get over her endearing animal phase. And if Jackson dares to catch a glimpse of himself in Carl Denham (Jack Black), the film director who'll exploit anything and everything for maximum profit, he strains to withhold such recognition from the movie--the better perhaps to distinguish his Production Diaries, a behind-the-scenes DVD that now looks like the main attraction.

Does every era get the King Kong it deserves? Both versions of the past include themselves among dangerous examples of progress run amok, of Western escapade without principle or conscience. Jackson, eager to deliver an escapist balm in brutal times, wants nothing to do with that sort of allegory. Like Denham and any number of contemporary adventurers, this director appears to believe his technology is powerful enough to smooth over the rough edges of an ancient, primal narrative--a misperception as blind and arrogant as the one that holds Beauty responsible for killing the beast.

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