On this week’s post, we’re jumping between an all-time classic, and a Hollywood franchise version. This week’s films are:
Merian C. Cooper & Ernest Schoedstack – King Kong (1933)
Jordan Vogt Roberts – Kong: Skull Island (2017)
The original King Kong is one of my favorite films of all time. And the recent summer blockbuster film about the same characters gives us a chance to do a comparison we haven’t done before. The current era of Hollywood films are largely reliant on existing material. Almost every film that comes out is based on a book, comic book, TV show, or previous film. I’ve often wondered myself if there’s any value in this. What do we get out of remaking these films? The studios get big profits, but what do we as film viewers get? Is it worth it to go see the new film, or should we just go watch the original?
Let’s get into it.
King Kong (1933)
King Kong is a film about a filmmaker, Carl Denham, making an expedition to an uncharted, unknown island to make his next film. He’s heard rumors and is hoping to find a creature called Kong. When they arrive at the island they find a native people there who are performing a ritual. The natives see Ann, the woman that Denham has brought with him to star in the film, and they kidnap her to offer to their god. When the crew returns to save Ann, they discover that the god is actually a giant ape, King Kong. Kong kidnaps Ann and takes her to his lair. The crew must try to save Ann while dealing with the many dangers of this island locked away from the world for centuries.
King Kong is a revolutionary film. Instead of rear projection footage of a real ape wandering around like many films would have attempted, the filmmakers here used stop motion animation. Stop motion is the process of taking a series of still images of a model, or scene. As you move the model, you take a new picture, and when played back, you have an entire animation. The filmmakers have a lot more control over what the audience sees.
Stop motion wasn’t invented for this movie, but this movie turned it into a major artform. The animator on this film was Willis H O’Brien. He was in charge of creating all the stop motion effects. And the major innovation here was the significant layering he was able to accomplish. The film mixes the live action and the stop motion, and it’s almost seamless. To the eyes of 1933, it must have seemed completely seamless. The way they did this was by shooting all the live action footage first. Then they would play it back frame by frame behind the stop motion stage in a very precise position. They would use glass plates painted with scenery to complete the effect. From the side, this looked incredibly complex. But from the view of the camera, it created an entire world.
Later on, Willis H O’Brien would make a film called Might Joe Young, and his assistant on the film was Ray Harryhausen, who would continue the tradition into the next era.
The film is fairly straightforward, plot-wise. Denham takes a crew to an unknown island, including Ann, the actress. We get some build up of a relationship between Ann and Driscoll, the first mate, which quickly turns into love the way it did in old movies. They arrive at the island and we see the standard ‘natives’ that were in every movie of the era. It’s an unfortunate stereotype, and one that persists into the present day.
Ann is kidnapped and given to Kong. He takes her and the chase begins. This is where we get the meat of the movie. The bulk of the action and stop motion effects are here. The adventurers encounter all sorts of prehistoric beasts, like a triceratops, a brontosaurus (or whatever the correct name is now), and a T-Rex. They also encounter some native creatures that don’t really look like anything we’ve seen before, but we’ll actually see some of them in the next movie.
Many of the men are killed chasing Kong, either by Kong himself, or by the dangers in the jungle. However, Denham and Driscoll survive, and Driscoll manages to save Ann. Kong chases them, and when getting back to the island, Denham manages to knock out Kong with a gas bomb, and they decide to take the giant ape back with them. When they get back to New York, Denham puts on a big opening night show, which essentially consists of Kong on a stage chained up. But when Kong sees Ann, he breaks free, kidnapping Ann again and rampaging through town, before eventually being shot off the Empire State Building in one of the most recognizable moments in film history.
This is one of my favorite movies of all time. It had a direct sequel, Son of Kong that wasn’t particularly memorable, and it’s been remade several times. Once in the 1970s, which was more of a reimagining and is widely considered to be terrible, and a version by Peter Jackson in 2005 that was a direct remake, just much more fleshed out. That version isn’t particularly well-loved, but I enjoy it. And then we have the version we’ll be looking at in the second half of the post today.
I always liked this movie, but I didn’t love it until I got a special edition DVD with a really stellar documentary on how the film was made. Seeing the technical craft that went into it at a time when movies were just barely out of silent era was really stunning. The team working on Peter Jackson’s King Kong were involved in this doc and they even reconstruct a missing scene from the film based on whatever stills storyboads and models they could find. I had never heard of this scene and it was amazing to hear all the history about it, and how they pieced together what they knew.
This film was revolutionary, and it still holds up today. It’s a great adventure movie, and the stop motion animation still works, better than almost any other film in history.
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
In this film, a pair of scientists ask the US government for permission to travel to an uncharted island before anyone else has a chance. They agree, and send a military escort. The scientists also invite along a soldier of fortune who is an expert in tracking, and a photojournalist to document the trip. But when the team is attacked by a giant ape upon mapping the trip, their survey mission becomes about survival. Some of them want to just get off the island alive, but others want revenge.
The film is a classic modern era Hollywood blockbuster. Take an existing property that people already are familiar with and possibly have good memories of, add a cast of A-list actors(John Goodman, Samuel L Jackson, Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson) mixed with up and coming talents, and hire a director who has one indie hit under his belt(Jordan Vogt Roberts, who did Kings of Summer). And cast at least one Chinese actress so China will buy more tickets(at least, that’s their logic). So already, I’m a bit cynical.
But I have to say, this movie surprised me a bit. Sure, there are way too many characters in the film. Keeping track of them in my notes was a nightmare. But this is to be expected from modern Hollywood. It’ almost like some executive has a note on a whiteboard in his office that says “MORE ACTORS = BETTER!”, except they wrote it in permanent marker and it won’t wash off.
The film does do some things that I appreciate though. First it manages to mix the legacy of both the original King Kong, and the 1970s remake, in a way that doesn’t seem forced, but to flow naturally. For example, the scenes on the boat where the crew are giving presentations about what to expect on the island is very reminiscent of the 1970’s version. The creatures we see on the island, including Kong, are straight out of the 1933 film. The main ‘villain’ in the film, which are giant lizard monsters, are the exact same monsters we see crawling out of a canyon in the 1933 version. Long bodies with two legs they use to drag themselves forward. In the 1933 version, we only get a glimpse, but in this film, they are cast as the major antagonist.
In general, the acting is ok. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson in particular. They end up being the stars of the film and they have some decent chemistry. Their story is the most interesting one we see in the film as Hiddleston is trying to calmly get everyone off the island alive, while Larson is trying to document all the strange sights she sees. The other big name actors in the film don’t work out quite so well. John Goodman is basically playing the role of exposition. His main job is to explain the plot and background of the film when anyone asks before he is unceremoniously killed.
Samuel L. Jackson has a great setup. He is a disillusioned soldier, leading men into a war he doesn’t understand. His crew is just about to go home from their tour in Vietnam, when he is asked to escort the science mission, he eagerly agrees, trying to find meaning in his life again. But when they get to the island, Kong attacks their helicopters, destroying many of them, and killing his men. He has a single purpose from then on: kill Kong. He’s prepared to sacrifice anything to achieve it.
As it turns out, this is bad because Kong isn’t a villain, he’s the only thing keeping the lizard monsters at bay. Without Kong, they could come up from their underground lair and take over the island, and maybe even spread further. So this turns Samuel L Jackson’s character into another antagonist. So we have the soldiers who are loyal to their commanding officer, and everyone else who’s just trying to survive.
The problem with the Samuel L. Jackson character is that he started off with a lot of depth and potential, but once they reach the island he turns into a standard villain. Reason and logic can’t reach him. Any depth is thrown out the window and replaced with “Monkey bad”.
This is a general problem with the film. The only character that has any real depth is the one played by John C. Reilly, a man who has been trapped on the island since WW2, and is able to communicate with the natives, and understands their culture. He dreams of going home and seeing if his wife still remembers him, and if he can still see his son. Everyone else is basically defined by their job. Scientist, survival and retrieval specialist, soldier, photographer. There’s not much else to these characters.
The special effects and creature design are excellent. Kong looks great and moves with weight and purpose. The cinematography really captures some unique angles of Kong and the other creatures. In fact, I’d say the two best things this film has going for it are the cinematography and the production design. The film is shot beautifully, and the jungle feels alive and dangerous. When the characters walk into a graveyard, you really feel the danger that they’re in.
This is not a bad film. The characters are pretty bland and one note, but the actors embodying those parts really elevate it. John C. Reilly was one of the best casting choices that they made. His goofy sense of humor really cut into the seriousness that a film like this could fall into. The film got a lot of humor out of his character asking questions about how the world had changed.
As I said before, the cinematography and production design really save this film. If it had taken a serious attempt at making a great movie instead of just trying to build a movie through a formula, they might have managed it. Cut out about half the characters, and focus on developing the other interesting ones, and this could be a great movie, not just a watchable one.
But it was watchable. I think it’s something I’ll turn on in the background occasionally while I do other things as background noise. Maybe not high praise, but the highest I can give it.
The Double Feature
It was really nice spending an evening with King Kong. The original film is amazing, and this reimagining is worthy of the name at least, but just barely. Everything around Kong in Kong: Skull Island, but Kong himself is pretty great. Usually films like this that attempt to reimagine existing films turn out to be terrible, but in this case, it just turned out pretty good. That’s not a bad result at all.
I just barely got last week’s post done, and it made me kind of look at what was going on in my life. Where was I losing all that time? I think I was just being lazy. But I’ve been re-energized, and I had a good week of getting work done and this post is done a couple of days early. So hopefully I can get ahead on this blog a little bit.
So what shall we do next week? I’m kind of in the mood for foreign films, but not too foreign. So I think I’ll go with British films. One that I love dearly, and one that I’ve never actually seen. Next week’s films will be:
Robert Hamer – Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Richard Lester – A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
I’ve never seen Kind Hearts and Coronets before, but I know that Alec Guiness plays multiple family members. An A Hard Day’s Night is one of my favorite films ever. So it should be a good time.
See you then.