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little big ape
long live king kong
by russ carr (@DocOrlando70)

In the past thirty years, special effects has evolved from trick photography and tiny models to elaborate motion-capture animation and computer-generated characters. And it seems as though the gap between technological innovations is shrinking; the next new technique is obsolete nearly as soon as it's revealed, as someone, somewhere, finds a better, faster, cheaper way to do it, dropping a once-rare effect into the hands of any would-be filmmaker.

(Seriously — watch "CSI" or one of its clones and you'll see where they've lifted half a dozen effects styles from the "Matrix" movies. It's staggering.)

The end result, though, is jaded audiences. Hollywood, you've got us hooked on the mind-blowing drug that is Really Cool Special Effects. But we're needing it in higher and higher doses now, because the same-old just doesn't give us that thrill anymore.

I saw evidence of this when I was skimming the Internet Movie Database for information on Peter Jackson's upcoming remake of the legendary adventure movie "King Kong." On some talk-back boards, a couple of would-be critics were already badmouthing the film, because Jackson's version of the giant ape was (according to them) too realistic. From their perspective, Kong should be a 100-foot-tall, semi-humanoid ape, who could walk upright like a man and go toe-to-toe with Godzilla.

That was enough to break me out of my jaded mentality. Mess with Kong? Are you kidding?!

King Kong — the giant gorilla, not the movie — is an icon. Unless you're a die-hard fan, it's unlikely you recall much about the original 1933 movie, other than it featured Fay Wray as the screaming starlet, and that Kong climbed the Empire State Building at the end. And that's a shame, because King Kong — the movie, not the giant gorilla — actually is more deserving of that iconic status. Kong is the forefather of all great action-adventure movies, with a larger-than-life story, an outstanding use of both special effects and music to drive the suspense, and a pace that seldom lets up.

King Kong pioneered the use of the Dunning Process — shooting actors on a set while shooting a separate background to create impossible vistas; this was the predecessor of today's "green screen" technology. Dunning's work made Star Wars — and just about every other big-budget effects-driven movie of the past 25 years — possible.

King Kong was also among the first movies to have an actual score composed to accompany the film. Most movies to that time only used pre-recorded classical music to fill gaps in the audio content. Composer Max Steiner made a point to have what the audience heard directly relate to what the audience saw, a novel approach to raise the tension and emotion of the picture. We take it for granted today, but audiences in 1933 were likely unaware of the subtle manipulation.

What Peter Jackson intends to do with his retelling of Kong's story is to pay homage to his favorite film, and its groundbreaking role in cinematic history. But unlike the flimsy, modernized 1976 remake (with Jessica Lange as the damsel, and the Twin Towers as a much-larger Kong's urban jungle gym) the new "King Kong" places the action right back in 1933, well before audiences — real or fictional — weren't jaded at the sight of a gorilla taller than a house.

Naomi Watts takes her turn as the naive Ann Darrow, a struggling actress looking for a break. She's persuaded by showboating (but equally struggling) filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) to accompany his film crew to the mysterious Skull Island, where legend suggests incredible creatures lurk in unexplored jungles. Denham intends to shoot a modern-day "beauty and the beast" tale — with a real beast. Denham's hare-brained scheme is going remarkably well...until his leading lady is kidnapped by natives and set upon a sacrificial altar. When Darrow is carried off — and after some persuasion from his screenwriter, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), Denham determines the movie goes where Darrow goes, so it's off through the jungle to save her.

Countless harrowing moments later, our film crew emerges (not unscathed!) from Skull Island's dark interior, weighed down considerably by an incarcerated gorilla that's as big as a bus. Denham is giddy with avarice; he can scrap his movie and just exhibit Kong back in the states. Driscoll is thrilled that he's got the attention of the beautiful starlet. But Darrow is nervous; the big ape stirred her empathy back in the jungle and she can't help but feel anxious for him. Her fears, of course, are not unfounded. Soon enough, the volatile combination of human hubris, simian rage and way too many flashbulbs exploding sets the "Eighth Wonder of the World" running amok in Manhattan, desperate to escape his tormentors.

Jackson's King Kong is a mere 25 feet tall. Larger than any real gorilla man has ever found, to be sure, but hardly a building-crushing behemoth. So when he finally climbs atop the Empire State Building, he appears small against the backdrop of man's sprawling construction, impotent against technology that buzzes and stings around him. It's a keen metaphor for modern movies. With big-budget studios routinely destroying the world (or at least a few major cities) a few times a year, the tragic fate of one oversized ape seems innocuous, a sideshow.

But then you remember him, undiminished in his own world, fighting tooth and claw against dinosaurs, pounding his chest and thundering his rage through the jungle, where he was King, and suddenly all those other films, with their galactic-scale menaces, seem passionless and empty.

It's enough to leave you feeling a bit jaded.


If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.

more about russ carr


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tracey kelley
11.28.05 @ 10:38a

Wow - so you're looking forward to it, then?

Andy Serkis is Kong. He's probably one of the best on-screen actors never really seen.

russ carr
11.28.05 @ 10:58a

I just read a pretty good article about KK, and it mentions that Serkis wanted to go to Rwanda to study gorillas in preparation. Jackson said he wouldn't send him, and that it was too dangerous, etc. Then, one day, Jackson got a phone call: Serkis. In Rwanda. Studying gorillas.

Hey, that's dedication.

I think it's gonna rock, truly.

mike julianelle
11.28.05 @ 11:18a

I think it looks pretty damn good too. I loved these kinds of movies as a kid. That shot in the preview of him punching at the biplane is really something. 3 hours!

brian anderson
11.28.05 @ 11:20a

I actually watched KK for the first time ever this weekend, and as someone who came late to it, I appreciated it a lot more for the technology advances than I did for the story, I think. (I was really struck by a scene where they get the actors creeping forward into the dollying camera shot *perfectly*.)

One thing that struck me was how small Kong was -- IMDB claims the scale changes from 25 to 50 feet tall, but still, Kong looks pretty small climbing up the side of the Empire State Building.

I also appreciated that the narration on the Jackson version was the epigraph from the original (something I hadn't realized until I saw it).

dan gonzalez
11.28.05 @ 5:35p

I can't wait for this. I wasn't sure if PJ was gonna blow it or not, but as the trailers and stuff started coming out, it just looks awesome.

As for the jaded theme of the column, I read that there have been four or so different tv pilots pitched dealing with the destruction of America, or set in post-apocalyptic America. I'm already yawning.

russ carr
11.28.05 @ 6:05p

How come we never get a TV series in which America has conquered the world? That'd be WAY too out of the box.

dan gonzalez
11.29.05 @ 10:30a

That would rule. Like some sort of capitalist bloc, start off with our long overdue invasions of Mexico and Canada and then keep rollin' straight down to Tierra Del Fuego, perhaps after a little scorched earth in Chile.
The United States of the Americas!

We then begin the subtle take-over of communist China, first planting the seeds of capitalist revolution in the form of soda machines, McDonald's, and inexpensive, flavor-neutral but very chuggable 'light' beers in the remote peasant provinces...

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