Even if you haven’t seen King Kong or its many remakes (like me, until yesterday), you probably know the story. A struggling filmmaker (Jack Black) leads a rag tag crew on a voyage to a forgotten island where he’s going to complete his movie against the studio’s wishes. While there, the filmmaker and his cast encounter a mess of overgrown B-movie creatures including dinosaurs, bugs, lizards, bats, and of course, the giant gorilla who rules them all.
In the course of this grand adventure (which ought to have killed everyone involved several times over), the gorilla falls in love with the lead actress (Naomi Watts), now the damsel in distress, who already has a thing for the screenwriter (Adrien Brody). That leads to a very awkward love triangle. Things get even more awkward when the filmmaker conspires with the ship’s captain to bring the gorilla back to New York City as a way to salvage the mission once his camera and footage (and film crew) are destroyed. Indeed, once back in NYC the situation gets so bad that Brody’s character even starts to feel sorry for Kong, as Kong is now trapped in the Empire City with nowhere to go but up (and then a long way down).
Peter Jackson helms this remake and it shows. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, it just means there’s a three-hour-plus runtime, a lot of CG rag dolls flying across the screen/into walls/off cliffs during action scenes, and a significant number of emotional orchestral swells combined with ethereal vocals and closeups of teary eyed actors to make sure we feel sad at the proper times. For better and for worse, he delivers a movie that feels like a throwback to classic Hollywood cinema.
But the “for worse” is really, really bad. Black “savages” feeding a white lady to a monster bad. It is possible that the issue of systemic racism is particularly fresh in my mind right now thanks to BlacKkKlansman (which, if Jay’s review wasn’t clear enough, you should see immediately), but a movie pitting backwards black natives against righteous white people only reinforces racist stereotypes that we need to eliminate from our society. One way to help eliminate those stereotypes would be using discretion and thoughtfulness when remaking old movies to ensure we don’t recycle harmful racial stereotypes. Jackson failed in that respect, and his failure gives power to those stereotypes instead of helping to put them to rest once and for all. It’s a glaring mistake.
That Kong contains such racially insensitive scenes is truly a shame, on at least two different fronts. First, it’s a shame because the Kong that Jackson and Andy Serkis created is absolutely amazing. Even though many of the other special effects in this movie have not aged well, Kong remains a marvel, an expressive and lifelike CG character who’s worthy of being the hero of this picture. Of course, hero status is Kong’s by default, since the humans in the film are consistently terrible, destroying everything they touch, acting entitled all the way through the carnage, and worst of all, blaming Kong’s unfortunate ending on beauty rather than the beasts who tried to exploit nature for personal profit.
Which brings me to the second disappointing aspect of the film: but for the racism, the film’s main message would have been as suitable for our times as it ever was, but the presence of racism or at least racial insensitivity makes this film one that is better left in the past.