Being a movie reviewer can be dangerous work. You never know who is out there, reading what you've written, and waiting to take revenge. God forbid you spit on someone's favorite classic -- in my day, I've gotten my fair share of hate mail, from the mundane (one reader actually sent me a rotted pumpkin in the mail for failing to find 'Halloween III' an undiscovered masterpiece) to the near-psychotic (I had to change my email address -- twice -- after an irate veteran apparently didn't like my trashing of 'Pearl Harbor' and predicted I might suffer a premature demise). So it is with great trepidation I go into any review of a film that has a sizable and vocal fanbase.
So it goes with 'King Kong,' a film beloved before it even hit cinemas. Thanks to the 'Rings' phenomenon, Peter Jackson is Hollywood's new heir apparent to Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and James Cameron all rolled into one. So, to not like 'Kong' is almost heretical. Sure, the film wasn't quite the gargantuan box office hit predicted, but the faithful still bent over backwards trying to downplay the film's faults and over-inflate its positives. And nothing I can say will likely change anyone's mind. So if you like this movie, skip right on down to the technical portions of this review. Because I hated this heartfelt if woefully miscalculated would-be blockbuster. Painfully overlong, horribly structured, badly cast, and containing some of the worst CGI I've ever seen, I couldn't wait for Kong to finally fall off the top of that stupid building and crush Naomi Watts along with him, just so the whole dumb thing would be over with.
The story: Ann Darrow (Watts) is a struggling B-movie actress in 1920s America. Lovelorn and desperate for big-screen stardom, she hooks up with shady filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black), who whisks her and a makeshift crew off to a remote island, in the hopes of capturing "exotic" footage for a new potboiler. Along for the ride is Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), who is in love with Ann, but she has another, slightly more rotund suitor waiting for her on the island. After a bunch of interminable scenes on a boat involving instantly forgettable supporting characters, the crew is captured by a village of savages, with Ann being served as the main course for Kong. After even more interminable 'Jurassic Park'-lite scenes involving Kong fighting (and fighting, and fighting) with dinosaurs, and Gollum (Andy Serkis) being attacked by giant bugs, Kong and Ann fall in love. Of course, as with all tragic romances, fate intervenes -- Denham cares little for romance, only profit, and soon poor Kong is New York's new star attraction. But love has no bounds, especially when your boyfriend weighs six tons, and the Big Apple now has one very big problem on its hands -- this one won't end happily.
The tale of 'King Kong' is, of course, a classic. Yes it's ridiculous -- a woman and a giant ape falling in love? But the power of King Kong has always been that it is a fairy tale, a tragic fable of beauty that killed the beast. Which is why I was so exasperated by Jackson's take on the material. For the first two-thirds of the film's very long 187 minutes -- and even more padded in its extended 200-minute version, which is also included here -- Jackson seems to care little about his two leads. Instead, we get endless subplot after endless subplot, none of which pay off in any meaningful way. It is almost as if Jackson is obsessed with telling the backstories of everyone but Ann and Kong. And the island scenes, while decent enough as action filler, also have little to do with the heart of the story. Ann's relationship with Kong is certainly touching -- even a cold-hearted cynic like myself was misty-eyed as our doomed lovers made goo-goo eyes at each other on the edge of a giant cliff -- but it is surrounded by so much banal business that I nearly fell asleep.
I also remain utterly bewildered as to why today's filmmakers are so in love with their CGI toys. Precious few moments in 'King Kong' (or, for that matter the new 'Star Wars' films, or the 'Spider-Man' franchise, or 'Harry Potter...') look even remotely photo-realistic. Kong always looks like a digital creation, and after countless, monotonous scenes of normally excellent actors running in front of blue screen, pretending they are being chased by monsters, I was completely taken out of the world Jackson hoped to immerse me in. I'm not suggesting we go back to the era of latex puppets and bad matte paintings, but how about a bit more restraint? The herky-jerky rhythms of Kong and his dinos are a complete violation of physics, and no human body could withstand half of what Naomi Watts goes through in this movie and still be in one piece. This whole CGI craze continues to leave me frustrated and emotionally alienated -- I mustered more tears when that Ewok in a furry teddy bear costume died in 'Return of the Jedi' than during the whole three hours of 'Kong.'
Yes, I did find a few things in 'King Kong' to like. It is a handsome production, and whenever anything real is onscreen (a prop, a location, a costume) it hints at the authenticity that might have been. I also continue to admire Watts, Brody and Serkis as actors -- I'm sure they'll look back at this one with a shrug, as the one that got away. With a more streamlined story, less reliance on excessive special effects, and a director concerned with humanity and not technology, 'Kong' could have been a classic. Instead, it actually left me nostalgic for that classic camp-fest that was 1976's 'King Kong' -- the one starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges and some guy in a monkey suit. At least that version (as bad it was) knew when to quit.
'King Kong' first arrived on HD DVD in a 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p/VC-1 transfer, which featured the film's 187-minute version only. It was a highly-anticipated release, and as I noted in my original review, a five-star, reference-quality high-def presentation. The film now arrives on Blu-ray over two years later, and nothing much has changed. We now get the option of either the 187 or 200-minute versions (accessible via seamless branching and spread across a BD-50 dual-layer disc), and the source is the same. The additional footage is seamlessly integrated, making watching either cut a pleasure.
My personal feelings about the CGI notwithstanding, 'King Kong' is a visually sumptuous film. The production design, costumes and physical locations are simply some of the finest Hollywood has produced in recent memory (I guess when you have a $200 million production budget you can afford the best). I remain tremendously impressed by the cinematography by Andrew Lesnie. He gives the film a supple, rich and textured look that is both pristine yet realistic, modern and timeless. The film's luscious color scheme comes through wonderfully on high-def. Hues are perfectly saturated and fleshtones dead-on. There is a slight softness to the image that is consistent with Lesnie and Peter Jackson's use of filters and diffused lighting, but it does not affect this transfer's wonderful sense of depth and three-dimensionality. Sure, it is a cliche, but there are moments during 'King Kong' that are picture perfect, where your home theater screen becomes a window.
Given the film's extensive computer-generated imagery, some may find fault with the effects-heavy scenes that sometimes look a bit flatter and less sharp. In particular, the heavy motion blur applied to Kong and his various nemeses -- such as the dinosaurs -- does give those scenes a more muted and fuzzy look. But that's the way it goes with today's heavily-processed visual effects extravaganzas, and even the "worst" shots of 'Kong' still hold up with the best I've seen on Blu-ray. 'King Kong' didn't disappoint the first time around on HD DVD, and it doesn't disappoint now.
Universal has greatly improved 'King Kong's audio on Blu-ray, giving us a DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit) versus the Dolby Digital-Plus track on the HD DVD. The improvement is clear, and 'King Kong' roars even louder.
The majority of 'King Kong' sounds demo-worthy. The many bombastic fight scenes and Kong rampages are sonic nirvana. The Kong vs. Dinos scene remains my highlight, as is the extended climax on top of the Empire State Building. The 360-degree soundfield that is created is simply flawless and incredibly immersive as the bi-planes whiz around Kong's head. It's clear the sound designers outdid themselves in having fun with the mix -- transparency, pans and the sense of detail and realism to the discrete effects is second-to-none ('King Kong' didn't win the Oscar for Best Sound for nothing). Dynamics are also incredibly powerful, with low bass some of the best I've heard in recent months.
'King Kong' can be subtle, too. The sense of atmosphere is first-rate. The early scenes with Jack Black and company near the jungle island are alive with ambience and intricate sound effects. And when the crew is first surrounded by the island savages, the wall of sound that envelopes is quite effective. Dialogue is perfectly balanced in the mix. I never once had to adjust my volume control, which is a true rarity for a film like 'King Kong.' I didn't love the film, but I loved this soundtrack.
Universal didn't offer much in the way of extras for 'King Kong' when it released the film on HD DVD. Same goes for this Blu-ray at first glance -- the myriad of featurettes and other making-of material found on the extensive DVD versions is missing here as a stand-alone supplements (however, some material has been repurposed into Blu-ray exclusive content, see below). We only get a single, dedicated extra.
I just didn't love 'King Kong.' It's an ambitious and faithful retelling of the classic tale, but it's also overloaded with subplots and a bit too cold for its own good. I never warmed to its characters. This Blu-ray is quite excellent on a base level -- the video and audio are excellent -- but the lack of all of the extras found on previous DVD editions makes this not quite the ultimate collector's edition. Diehard fans may want to pick this up if they just want the film, but hold off if you are waiting for the definitive edition.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.