Peter Jackson’s King Kong: A Lookback at an Underrated Visual Spectacle

Indie horror director Peter Jackson made a name for himself in the early 2000’s when he directed the critically acclaimed, fantasy-epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings, based off the classic books of the same name by J.R.R. Tolkein. The films swept the awards season each year they were released, winning 17 out of 30 Academy Award nominations, with The Return of the King winning Best Director for Jackson, Best Picture while also tying with Ben-Hur and Titanic for most Oscar wins for a film. The trilogy became a global phenomenon. With an incredible story, wonderful acting, fantastic action, and groundbreaking visual and practical effects developed by Jackson’s own Weta Digital and Weta Workshop, Peter Jackson became a household name. No one knew if he could ever top what he had achieved with The Lord of the Rings, and 16 years later, some may argue he hasn’t. After the success of LOTR, not many would have guessed that Jackson would set his sights on the iconic gorilla-monster, King Kong, as the template for his next film, let alone of a remake of the 1933 classic that introduced King Kong to the world. But as a gigantic fan of the original, Jackson was determined to reintroduce the iconic character to modern audiences with the same visual and stylistic trademarks that made The Lord of the Rings so popular.

No one quite knew what exactly to expect from Jacksons take on King Kong, other than that it was a remake of the original 1933 film, keeping the basic plot, setting, etc. Jackson was first offered the job of directing a King Kong remake by Universal in 1996, after being impressed by dailies from Jackson’s film The Frighteners. Jackson initially declined, but out of fear that someone else would take the job and not do it right, and out of love for the character, he eventually accepted the offer. Pre-production began in 1997 with a 1998 release date set, and Jackson began casting. For the roles of Ann Darrow, Carl Denham and Jack Driscoll, Jackson set his sights high with stars including Kate Winslet, George Clooney and Robert De Niro. The project eventually fell through, as Jackson was at the same time being approached by Fox to direct The Planet of the Apes remake, for which he declined, and he was working to attain the film rights for The Lord of the Rings. The seemingly nail in the coffin on the project was when Universal became concerned about the upcoming Godzilla and Mighty Young Joe remakes. They abandoned the project in February of 1997 after two drafts of the script had been worked on, and Weta had done six months worth of pre-production. Jackson then moved onto The Lord of the Rings and his King Kong remake was seemingly dead forever.

Universal approached Jackson again in early 2003, after the critical success of the first two Lord of the Rings films, about restarting development on King Kong. Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh, who originally developed two drafts of the script together, brought on Lord of the Rings co-writer Phillipa Boyens to help rewrite their original script, with which they were highly dissatisfied. Pre-production on King Kong started immediately after the completion of The Return of the King, and a December 2005 release date was set. Jackson brought back most of his crew from The Lord of the Rings to work on King Kong. The casting moved along quick and boasted many stars such as Jack Black, Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, and Andy Serkis, with whom Jackson pioneered the motion capture performance with the character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Serkis would further revolutionize the visual effects world with his motion capture portrayal of Kong, for which he and Weta studied hours of gorilla footage to make it as authentic as possible. The budget was set at around 175 million, Jackson made a deal with Universal that let him be paid a $20 million salary against 20% of the box office gross for directing, producing and co-writing. After nearly a decade of on and off again development, King Kong was ready to go.

Filming began on September 6th, 2004, and lasted until May of 2005. After a rigorous and tedious post-production that included an extremely difficult motion capture render, the film opened on December 14th, 2005 to critical acclaim, Peter Jackson and his incredible team did it again. The praise was heavily focused on the performances, score and visual effects, which were deemed revolutionary, same as The Lord of the Rings. The film managed to capture both the aesthetic and look of 1933 New York, as well as the spirit of the original film, while also maintaining a sense of newness and originality. Peter Jackson’s signature style of independent style filmmaking injected into a big budget Hollywood blockbuster was on full display here, which makes the film feel even more like a product of the 1930’s.

The film stars Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow, a beautiful and wildly talented stage actress who stumbles into the sights of Carl Denham, a very Orson Wells esque filmmaker looking for a new actress to play the lead in his upcoming film. Ann is obsessed with acclaimed playwright Jack Driscoll, who also happens to be writing Carl’s new film, which convinces Ann to take the part. The cast and crew embark on a sea voyage to film in what they believe is Singapore, but Carl has other plans. He plans to film in the uncharted, undiscovered, remote island known as Skull Island. Some of the ship’s crew, who know of the island, warn Carl against going, but the greedy director does it anyway. Upon arrival to the island, Carl and his film crew are attacked by the islands terrifying, indigenous people. The ship’s crew rescues them and they attempt to flee the island, but not before one of the natives sneaks on board and kidnaps Ann. She is taken to a large ritualistic offering to a mysterious creature, revealed to be Kong. Kong takes Ann and over the course of the film, they form an intimate bond. Everyone on the ship returns to the island to find and rescue Ann, running into even more terrifying creatures on the way, including dinosaurs. The team eventually finds Ann, and she and Jack, who grew close together on the voyage to Skull Island are reunited. The men manage to tame Kong with chloroform and knock him out. Carl, who lost many crew members and all his film stock on the island, sees Kong as an opportunity to make a name for himself, by putting him on Broadway. Upon return to New York, Kong is enslaved and put on display on Broadway, Ann decides to not act in Kongs “performance”, and Jack continues his career as a playwright, although he misses Ann. Kong breaks free of his metal shackles on Broadway and wreaks havoc on New York, desperately trying to find Ann. When they reunite, they are attacked by the U.S. military, who has been sent to New York to take down Kong. Kong, with Ann is his grasp, scales the Empire State Building, and fends off as many fighter jets as he can before succumbing to the pain of dozens of gunshots. Kong and Ann share one last moment together atop the building, before falling to his death. Jack and Ann reunite and the film ends as Carl stares at Kong’s lifeless body, surrounded by photographers and soldiers, Carl mutters “It wasn’t the airplanes, it was beauty killed the beast.”

Peter Jackson’s King Kong is still as beautiful, powerful, and terrifying 14 years since release. So much about the film contains filmmaking techniques and style that is rarely seen today, and it has cemented itself as a timeless masterpiece. The visuals, for the most part still hold up, and its technically brilliant and awe inspiring production design that harkens to classic adventure films remains as epic as ever.Jackson’s take on Kong is unique among a slew of King Kong adaptations as the brilliant performance by Any Serkis gives him a real and tangible sense of humanity and vulnerability, something that the other Kongs, which are mostly reduced to cliche giant monsters. Not many people talk about King Kong anymore, mainly due to the immense popularity and cultural touchstones that became of The Lord of the Rings franchise, so although the film was acclaimed and successful upon release, it is an underrated masterwork today.