Friday, December 16, 2005
Before Star Wars came out, I was given a book of cover illustrations for early 20th century sci-fi pulps, Amazing Stories and the like. This book fascinated me beyond anything I had at that point, these 50-year-old paintings of impossible skyscrapers, weird machines and life on Neptune. Here’s a gallery of Frank R. Paul, the most famous of those artists, to let you know what I mean. When I think back to my own nascent imagination at that time, I figure it was mostly about that book, plus my knowledge that there were dinosaurs once.
I still have an affinity for that early 20th century sci-fi fantasy vibe, so magnificently fleshed out by The Fifth Element and the Coruscant scenes from Star Wars. And now King Kong. Jack Black calls Skull Island “the last place off the maps,” and that’s just the kind of energy this old stuff has. I imagine the readers in the 30’s thought of these places as somewhere you could really go, if you had the right spirit. I imagine that, for them, the spires of New York were those impossible skyscrapers.
Picture this thing that we’re all chasing, us nerds. These stories of outer space, the supernatural, monsters and robots. These movies, toys, comic books, cartoons, beloved TV shows – all this stuff that forms the dragon tail we’re clinging to, trying to recapture the thrill of new toys on Christmas morning or the delight of settling down on the floor with a big pad and a fistful of magic markers. That. That thing. The place where your mind goes when it wanders. Peter Jackson gives you that place with this movie. He busts through the thick ice of time, reality and half-assed attempts and draws out the pure, glowing elixir of everything you want.
The Skull Island that Jackson gives us is a place of dreams. Dreams that eat you. Compared to Skull Island, the jungles of Jurassic Park are drab, technical and real. Here, every shot is lush and dramatic. The sense of the place as Wild is palpable like a panic attack. The danger is relentless and everywhere (one of my favorite scenes is of a pursuing dinosaur that is still chewing on its last kill as it runs). There are overgrown structures all over the place, speaking of unfathomable history, but now its human denizens cling to the outside of the ancient wall like scuttling crabs, quite literally stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. Skull Island was handed over to the inmates a long, long time ago. You just gotta see it.
Of course, none of this would work if the story and characters didn’t work, but we’re in luck. In my excitement about this movie’s release, I somehow forgot to think about Kong as a character, as a personality. That’s why he’s the world’s favorite monster (screw you, Godzilla) –- people love him. The best way I can sum up their success in making that work is: he's the main character of this movie. And amazingly, this movie is a love story, and one of the purest I’ve seen. By the time they’re in New York, all Kong and Ann want is to be with each other, even though they never have anything to look forward to, or any idea about what to do. Ann becomes as lost as Kong, and Naomi Watts sells the two of them so well I never questioned it at all. I loved him, too.
There’s a ton of other stuff I could say, with a movie this dense. Other characters and themes and things to see. But that's what hit me, and hit me hard. I'll wrap with a few bullet points:
The lamest part of any story with a weird, monster-filled island is when the natives show up. Here you’ve got monsters to see and now we’re supposed to get interested in spears and such. Not so in this movie. For one thing, you see the natives before you see the monsters. For another, the natives are fucking creepy. Brrr.
Thankfully, there isn’t one second of screen time about going back to NYC.
Last one’s a teeny spoiler.
There isn’t a hint of this in any trailer I’ve seen, but Kong doesn’t fight just one T-rex. He fights three. Yeah.