King Kong (2005)

king_kong_2005Even 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.

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13 thoughts on “King Kong (2005)

  1. Liz A.

    It’s a bit much, isn’t it? I’ve seen bits of this. In the middle. It was actually the end-of-year movie for a class I was covering one day. They seemed to enjoy it, but there were some very cringe-worthy scenes in the hour I saw.

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    1. Sean Post author

      It’s so much. It’s the middle part that’s the problem so you were probably cringing at the same things I was. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised as I can find ten just-as-objectionable things in the past week’s headlines, but still. How did no one think during production that, hey, maybe they should leave out the racism?

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    1. Sean Post author

      I don’t remember the natives in Kong: Skull Island but I agree, that was a very bad movie. This one is in a different category but still not one I can recommend for the reasons I mentioned.

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      1. Jay

        In the recent one, the natives were very differently portrayed (as nearly saintly) and Kong as their protector. And of course they aren’t nearly as dark – they may be of Asian descent.

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  2. Jay

    This movie always had racist overtones – the mere notion of a bunch of armed white people going over to some third world, capturing a large, black being, and bringing him back on a boat, in chains, to live in captivity, doing their bidding, and hunted down and shot dead if he dared merely to escape. And perhaps worst of all: that the black being covets a white woman. And the fear and disgust. Perhaps that’s what’s meant by ‘beauty killed the beast’ – it was his relationship with her that damned him in the eyes of his masters.

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    1. Sean Post author

      You’re right, there are racist overtones on the whole that can’t be ignored, and that’s all the more reason why some care should have been taken in remaking this movie for the 21st century. The Kong-as-slave element in the remake must still be there as none of the basic ingredients have changed – black gorilla in chains who loves a white woman, but it didn’t stand out to me. It may be that one is just easier for me to dismiss than the portrayal of the island’s residents as unintelligible, red-eyed savages, because the former is more subtle (which if anything makes it more problematic).

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      1. Jay

        Yes, and as you know, black people have historically been compared to (or called) monkeys, so it’s very problematic.
        But yes, the portrayal of the natives in this is really rough, not just because of how dark and menacing they are, but because that’s all we know of them. There is no attempt to humanize them or understand them. They too have a story of survival on the island. In fact, we generally don’t believe humans could have lived at the same time as dinosaurs, let alone all these other giant creatures, yet these people have somehow survived. But their story is never told.

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  3. ninvoid99

    I saw this film in the theaters. It’s flawed but I still enjoyed it as I also felt Naomi Watts’ performance in that film was severely underrated. Still not as good as the original 1933 film.

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  4. Birgit

    I actually really enjoyed this film and, for whatever reason, I didn’t even think of the racial problems of this film but I see what you mean. Forgive me as I was a kid from the 70’s who grew up on a sawmill and my dad was an old timer born in 1913. Anyway, I was not a fan of Jack Black but I did like Kong a lot.

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  5. Wendell

    Believe it or not, the issue of the natives was actually brought up back in ’05. And as you so eloquently pointed out, the entire story is riddled with racist overtones. I still managed to enjoy it, odd as that may seem. I guess I focused more on Kong himself, how expressive he was, and the action scenes he was involved with. An error on my part, and Jackson’s.

    Fast forward a bunch of years and I went into Skull Island deliberately looking to see how the natives were treated. Perhaps the powers that be over-corrected (yes, saintly is a good description), but I was cool with that, mostly. It would’ve been nice had they been darker as a more direct counterpoint to the way they’ve been portrayed in other Kong movies. By the way, I had a blast watching it and didn’t think it was a bad movie at all. Not a great one, but a fun one.

    As for the ’05 version, I’m sure I’ll watch it again at some point since it’s sitting on my shelf but it might be tougher to get through this time around.

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