Around Christmas thirty years ago, for reasons that in retrospect make little sense, I nagged my father into taking me to see this sequel. The film was appalling enough, even to my untrained tastes; but the most notable part was that we comprised two-thirds of the audience, the only other moviegoer ensconced in the front row in a gorilla mask (that theater in northwest Washington D. C. is long since defunct, even if memories such as mine are probably not uncommon among local thirty- and fortysomethings). How odd then that it was the 1986 disaster and fugitive pieces of the 1976 movie, which I found in any case hopelessly dated, that formed my notions of the most famous giant ape in cinematic history (and if you think for one moment that I as a teenager could have endured the 1933 original, I have some seafront property in Bern that you'll just love). For that reason and a few others did I welcome the newest and best version of the Kong.
We begin in the worst of times in 1933 New York, mere weeks into the most decisive presidency the United States has ever known. The feeble and malnourished often coincide with the beautiful and talented, such as Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a vaudeville actress whom we first see playing to an almost empty theater. That she will be unemployed by the next couple of scenes is hardly a secret; yet a hint as to her future comes in the casual mention of a play called Isolation. The playwright, Jack Driscoll (a starry-eyed Adrien Brody), has long been admired by Darrow, so much so that she has no qualms about buttonholing an obnoxious, well-fed theater producer and begging him for a part in Driscoll's play. Ann's eyes blench at the Italian restaurant at whose threshold she and the producer will have to part, and in a brief moment of pity he gives her a name and an address ("You're not bad-looking. A girl like you doesn't have to starve"). An implication is made about what Ann would have to do at that address, and the matter is smartly never rehashed. Instead, we turn our gaze to the morally and financially bankrupt world of Carl Denham (Jack Black).
Denham is the prototypical B-movie director, which means that he greatly resembles one of his own stock characters. While success has eluded Denham, he has also done his part to avoid it. We first meet him as he insolently abuses the investors for yet another preposterous jungle adventure featuring a live lion and a rather lifeless lead (Kyle Chandler), and the comments made in his absence befit a charlatan or a madman. A more socially aware reviewer than I would note that his witticisms ("Defeat is only momentary"; "Dammit, Preston. All you had to do was look her in the eye and lie"; "There's nothing officially wrong with it because technically it hasn't been discovered yet") reflect the desperate torpor of the times – but readers of these pages know my destination for such nonsense, i.e. the circular file. B-film directors and their relentless pursuit of profitable mediocrity have always existed in the form of pulp writers, street buskers, and anyone who has an iota (and often not more) of artistic talent and an excellent nose for commercial demand. Denham wisely senses that the average consumer does not want to consider his own morbid situation too closely; films about poverty, while touching and necessary, do not entice the human imagination to create and soar. As such, he aims for the blockbuster that could not possibly be a blockbuster since that level of marketing domination had never before occurred. But then again, no one before had had a map of an unknown Pacific isle called Skull Island.
It is never revealed how Denham acquired this map, nor does such a contrivance affect our enjoyment of the spectacle. A common solution in movies of this kind is the fateful stroll by an antiques stop window, where the eye of our ever-curious protagonist is inexorably drawn to some bibelot containing a love letter or other long-concealed document. Denham is introduced with the map already in his possession so that we are spared the character development and misgivings that so obviously will not take place. His investors, already cash-strapped by their standards, haven't the slightest interest in funding a project to be filmed literally on the other side of the earth. Since minor obstacles – debt, disgrace, physical threats – have never stopped Carl Denham, a trip around the world may appear to someone of his relentless greed as simply commensurate with the eventual payoff. He coerces Ann to join the cast in a scene out of many other movies, with the difference being that Denham is not really a pimp (Ann ultimately signs up because of the chance of working with Driscoll, a man she will be destined to love, providing us with a foil to the later love story that I think you might already know), and Ann approaches a docked ocean liner with the assumption that this must be "the moving picture ship." But of course that honor is reserved for a rusty battered tramp steamer christened the SS Venture whose voyage out concludes the first act.
The legend of Kong has offended many because of the racial implications, and Jackson's film goes out of its way to make the swarthy Kong-worshipping inhabitants of Skull Island look like "no other people on earth." That said, one never has the impression that the predominantly white crew members of Denham's mission contemn the natives for being evolutionarily closer to their idol. And while one of the crew members is reading this very controversial novel, madness and colonialism have little sway in the world of Kong since he exists in an ecosystem preserved from human interference. It is no coincidence that Ann shares a surname with someone who had a great affinity for the link of man and ape, and that the damsel in distress is as refined and Aryan in feature as Kong remains a dark, amorphous hulk. But as opposed to prior Kongs, this beast is granted hegemony in a realm of equally gargantuan monsters (the famous fight scene with the Tyrannosaurus Rexes has to be seen to be believed), not just godhead among the primitives. Not that we could possibly revere anything that would want our destruction.