Now, new for the twenty-first century comes Peter Jackson's remake, rumoured to be the most expensive film ever made at $207 million. Jackson poured a chunk of his own money into it when it ran over-budget, such was his determination to realise a vision he claims to have been carrying since his first childhood encounter with the original.
Did the film need to be remade? Of course it didn't. But then did the world need a Doom movie, or another American Pie? With his vision of King Kong, Peter Jackson has transposed the sweeping majesty of his Lord of the Rings trilogy into a solitary behemoth of a film, a ripping adventure/horror/action/romance in the best traditions of Hollywood's mythical Golden Age. Set in the year of the original's release, it focuses on a number of disparate individuals attempting to make their way in Depression-era New York, including slippery film-maker Carl Denham (Jack Black playing himself again, one suspects), script-writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and laid off vaudeville actress Ann Darrow (the luminously fragile Naomi Watts). All those involved end up (some more willingly than others) on a tramp steamer heading for the fabled Skull Island, in an effort to complete Denham's latest masterpiece in the best possible location. And there, of course, lurks the Great Beast Kong, along with a staggering cast of associated CGI contemporaries, as well as the obligatory rather unfriendly natives.
Jackson's film is a three act epic, the first hour taking place in New York before the island and Mr Kong himself appear, then culminating back in Manhattan on Denham's triumphant return. Considering that at over three hours, King Kong is pushing double the length of its inspiration, it seems a curious choice to spend such a long time in the build-up. While there are some interesting diversions (not to mention breathtaking flashes of a fully-recreated 30's Big Apple), in comparison with the roller-coaster ride than constitutes the latter two hours one feels that there was room for pruning – especially the scenes involving Billy Elliot (Billy Elliot), who hints at an in-depth background story yet ultimately contributes very little. Perhaps Jackson merely wanted to get in some dialogue before the screaming began.
When Kong finally does appear, he is glorious. Andy Serkis (who embodied Gollum in the Rings films, and gets a small part this time using his own body) has done a terrific job of performing the monster gorilla, both facially and in body language. Kong is no anthropomorphised man-in-a-suit; when he leaps, roars and chest-thumps around the screen, there is no doubt as to his species. When you see him in action, you will see where most of that budget went, and that it was well-spent.
Indeed, the action begins in earnest after Kong's debut, and things really Kick Off. The next two hours constitute a series of increasingly exhilarating action set-pieces, each trying to outdo the last. Disappointingly, these sequences tend to over-run, and their impact suffers from protracted duration; once you've seen one 25-foot ape wrestle a Tyrannosaurus Rex, you've seen them all. There are also a few noticeably ropey special effects here and there, shown up only by the perfection of their surroundings. Punctuating the action are the scenes between Ann and the big man himself, where their initial bond of trust is formed (and ultimately doomed adoration). Jackson (and his Rings screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) handles this masterfully and touchingly, replacing the one-sided screaming relationship of the original with something a great deal more concrete and mutual. Watts and Serkis deserve full marks for their performances in making the whole thing believable.
We all know how it ends. It's a credit to the film-makers that when the long-awaited finale comes, it's both wondrous and agonising. The last 20 minutes of King Kong are some of the most memorable committed to celluloid, and the film (and its lead character) gets the send-off it deserves. Having spent three hours covering the full spectrum of emotional experience – scary, funny, gruesome (very), thrilling, and always visually arresting – it completes in heartbreak. Jackson's King Kong is a magnificent beast – massive, flawed, powerful and tragic.