THERE'S a moment about 45 minutes into Peter Jackson's "King Kong," as the "motion-picture ship" the Venture approaches the fog-shrouded shores of Skull Island, when Jimmy (Jamie Bell), the youngest member of the crew, looks up from his copy of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" with a troubled look and says, "It's not an adventure story, is it, Mr. Hayes?" To which the grave first-mate Hayes (Evan Parke) replies categorically, "No, Jimmy, it's not."
Of course, "King Kong" is too an adventure story, and a big, nerve-jangling, spectacular one at that, featuring an expressive 50-foot ape, packs of bloodthirsty dinosaurs and hordes of monster insects with super-viscous insides. Hayes is referring to Conrad's nightmarish novel about the brutality of white imperialism, but he's also signaling that Jackson has gently updated the movie's attitudes without crossing the line into revisionism or parody.
At more than three hours and $200 million, "King Kong" is an homage not just to the original but to the history of movies themselves. Like the 1933 version directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, a studio-saving box-office sensation that set out to out-movie every movie ever made, "King Kong" is designed to hit mostly below the brain. But the excellent script by Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens retains the plot, settings and spirit of the original while also engaging it in a lively debate.
A travelogue through popular movie genres, it passes from socially conscious drama to comedy, romance, horror, adventure, science-fiction fantasy and doomed love story, cleverly quoting the styles and tropes to which we've become accustomed along the way. A movie about the movies, and specifically an exploitation picture about exploitation pictures, Jackson's "Kong" is also a witty comment on the darkness at the heart of adventure stories, a bazillion-dollar spectacle that reserves the right to question the morality of spectacles, and, mostly, a tender love story about a melancholy girl and her tragically misunderstood monkey.
The movie may promise, as adventure filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) says to Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), the starving actress he lures aboard the ship as monster bait, "money, fame, adventure, a long sea voyage," but it delivers a tragedy. By returning to the 1933 version, a special-effects marvel that showcased everything movies could do that other media could not, Jackson translates Cooper and Schoedsack's awing crowd-pleaser into contemporary visual idiom, creating the experience anew for a much tougher, sensation-inured and bloodthirsty crowd.
The original starred Robert Armstrong as the blustery showman Denham, Fay Wray as the helpless blond Ann Darrow, Bruce Cabot as the unintentionally hilarious woman-hating (but Ann-loving) first mate Jack Driscoll, and Willis H. O'Brien's 18-inch, rabbit-fur-covered mechanical model with stuffed-animal eyes as Kong. Four decades later, John Guillermin transplanted the story to the Me Decade, casting Jeff Bridges as a hippie paleontologist named Jack, Charles Grodin as the evil head of an oil company, and Jessica Lange as a loopy actress who was not so much malnourished as she was just hungry for attention.
In different hands, the new version might have been subjected to another topical makeover. (Carl Denham as secretary of State? Jack Driscoll as HuffPo blogger? Ann Darrow as "Top Model" hopeful?) Instead, Jackson dramatizes the shift in attitudes of the intervening years by digging deeper into his characters. Some become so complex as to require spinoffs. Driscoll, for instance, becomes three characters: Hayes, the first mate and voice of dissent; Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), the preening actor who plays the first mate and Ann's love interest in Denham's movie and supplies the silly, B-movie dialogue for the film within the film; and Driscoll (Adrien Brody), the talented, ruminative and ineffectual playwright who sees through Denham but lacks the wile to curb him.
The most problematic aspects of the original (perpetually on tour throughout film-theory classes as the classic example of Hollywood racism) are also brilliantly incorporated as Denham's B-movie in progress and, later, as part of his Broadway show -- a spectacularly tasteless representation of "native" cultures, with ooga-booga music and coconut bras lifted directly from Cooper and Schoedsack. Ann, an archetypal screaming blond, has been fleshed out and reboned as a sensitive artist whose integrity and soulfulness have a way of keeping her hungry. And Watts plays her with such soul, intelligence and spirit that she effectively neutralizes the role of the helpless girl-victim forever.