Film Blitz goes ape…

Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong is perhaps 2005’s most eagerly-anticipated movie – after all, his last work merely won 11 Oscars. It’s a film he’s been wanting to make for a very long time, and was seen as finally erasing the bad taste left by the 1979 remake. But, the big studio production isn’t the only one to bring a large simian to the screen. Just as with War of the Worlds, sidling up in the same week are Asylum, who scored a surprise hit earlier in the year, with a parallel version of the Cruise/Spielberg blockbuster that worked far better than might be expected for a direct-to-video movie.

Emboldened by this, they’ve tried their hand at the same thing here. Unlike War of the Worlds, they’re slightly hamstrung, because Kong isn’t in the public domain, so opted for another story, Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. However, Asylum’s version adds a giant ape that is definitely not in the original novel: that, the video sleeve and “coincidental” release date make it very clear exactly what the aim is. [As another overlap, before making King Kong, stop-motion effects master Willis O’Brien also worked on the 1925 movie version of The Lost World, directed by Harry O. Hoyt] Have Asylum managed to go toe-to-toe with the blockbuster again this time? Or are they just monkeying around?

King Kong (2005)

Rating: B

Dir: Peter Jackson
Star: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Andy Serkis, Adrien Brody

This is the finest 2-hour film of the year. Pity it runs 187 minutes. If I had to sum up the problems in the rest, it would be thus: “Show me the monkey!” Because the first third, until Kong appears, is terrible: turgid storytelling and character development that numb the brain, as they sail to Skull Island in what seems like real time. The highlight is seeing a crate casually labelled “Sumatran Rat Monkey”, a delightful nod by Jackson to his earlier Brain Dead. Otherwise, how good is any film where the star skips the first hour?

But when Kong appears, the film kicks off, and when it’s good, it’s really good. While the effects are not as pixel-perfect as I’d hope, their usage is spectacularly well-executed: Jackson has learned from his LotR experience exactly how to use them to create whatever emotion is required, and does so here with masterly skill. The sequence where Kong takes on three T-Rex to save his dame, is as brilliant a piece of action film-making as you’ll see – yet is memorable as much for the emotional coda as the battle itself. And Jackson then follows that up, with a sequence in a gorge, where the rest of the humans face the ickiest set of creatures you’ll ever see. After Kong’s capture, boom, it’s opening night for The Kong Show back in New York – you only wish the journey out had been removed too – and you know exactly where this will end: atop the Empire State Building.

Serkis is excellent as the performance behind the simian. The rest of the actors are mostly solid: surprisingly so in Black’s case, who is better at capturing the obsessive nature of director Carl Denham than I expected. Watts does what she can as Ann Darrow, given she must have been alone when acting half her scenes; however, Brody’s wussy scriptwriter is utterly pointless and should have been hacked from the film at an early stage. You will need to suspend your disbelief an awful lot towards the end [the ice skating…Ann running through New York in the depths of winter wearing only a flimsy negligee and without the slightest shiver…a 25-foot ape falling from 1250 feet up, and not smashing like a ripe watermelon] but it’s certainly worth the effort.

King of the Lost World (2005)

Rating: C-

Dir: Leigh Scott
Star: Jeff Denton, Bruce Boxleitner, Sarah Lieving, Rhett Giles

You have to admire Asylum’s sheer gall, fearlessly riding the coat-tails of the year’s biggest movies. After taking on H.G.Wells War of the Worlds, they now turn their sights on another public-domain writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Best known as Sherlock Holmes’ creator, he also wrote The Lost World, a proto-Jurassic Park, in which an Amazonian plateau provided a refuge for dinosaurs up to the present day. In his story, an expedition led by Professor Challenger deliberately went there; here, a plane breaks apart and crashes, so the survivors try to find the cockpit so they can call for help.

A variety of giant bugs, creatures, local tribes and, of course, the oversized primate that features prominently on the cover (with the word KING particularly notable…) all interfere, as does the mysterious Lt. Challenger (Boxleitner), who seems to have a different agenda. Initially, this mixes Lost with The Land That Time Forgot well; unlike Jackson’s version, it wastes no time at all (the crash happens right away), and gallops on apace. However, after the best character dies and everyone else is captured by “natives”, both film & fun come to a grinding halt. Quotes used advisedly: these tribesmen come straight from central casting; the leader even has a beer-belly, f’heavens sake.

At first, I thought they might be survivors of a previous wreck – that’d explain the perfect teeth, for example – but no such intelligent justification ever appears. While the film finds great locations that really don’t look like Southern California, the CGI is ropey, especially the ape. And there’s no counterbalance: while War made up in heart and character (and no shrieking Dakota Fanning) for its lack of spectacle, King can’t pull off the same trick, and ends up feeling mostly like a shallow cash-in. If the execution comes up short, some credit is still due for having the Kong-sized balls necessary to try.