A giant simian hand grabs for Ann Darrow, as famously played by Fay Wray. She opens her mouth and lets out an ear-splitting scream. Welcome to the birth of fantasy cinema.
Starring in the original King Kong (1933), Fay Wray was the damsel who bewitched the enormous gorilla Kong, brought to life by the special effects wizardry of Willis O'Brien, who had earlier created the dinosaurs for The Lost World (1925). A young Ray Harryhausen stumbled out of a screening of Kong, inspired to spend his life crafting stop-motion monsters, most notably the skeleton army of Jason And The Argonauts. These days, Harryhausen lives in West London in a grand, gloomy house with his Oscar, long retired in the age of computer special effects, an age inaugurated by Jurassic Park and its astonishingly lifelike dinosaurs. Its sequel would be titled The Lost World - Jurassic Park, an acknowledgement of Willis O'Brien's epoch-making work all those decades earlier.
King Kong is the Citizen Kane of fantasy cinema. All roads lead from it. In remaking the definitive B-Movie, director Peter Jackson and his writing partner (and wife) Fran Walsh approach it with the care and love of true fans, retaining screeds of dialogue, here and there matching it scene for scene, shot for shot, including the moment when the giant ape reaches for Ann Darrow, here played by Naomi Watts, and she lets out a suitably terrified, histrionic scream.
King Kong has been remade before, by Dino De Laurentiis in the 1970s heyday of the Disaster Movie; the plot was updated for contemporary sensibilities and climaxed not with the giant ape scaling the Empire State Building but with it swinging between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. From its opening titles, set in Futurist type, Peter Jackson's King Kong winds the clock back to the 1930s, setting his remake in the same period as the original. Mercifully we are to be spared another "reimagining" - as Hollywood calls it when it strips out the guts of an intellectual property and replaces them with a set of mechanical, mass-produced moving parts.
An opening montage introduces us to New York in The Great Depression, a time when former stockbrokers foraged in bins for half-eaten apples and a vaudeville actress like Ann Darrow might have to work as a painted lady in a burlesque if she is not to starve. She is spotted on the doorstep of her damnation by film producer Carl Denham, played by Jack Black. "I am someone you can trust, Ann. I am a movie producer," he assures her. A corrupt cherubim sucking on bottles of whisky for comfort, Denham has a devouring ambition that chows down on talent and money alike, and it is this drive to get his film made that lands him, Darrow and writer Jack Driscoll, played by Adrien Brody, on a boat to remote Skull Island, the last unmapped spot on the face of the Earth.
Before we get to Skull Island, the filmmakers stick to an intriguing, deliberate pacing, giving each character in the ensemble their grace notes, confident that as soon as the boat is drawn into the fog-bound hellhole, we will be spellbound. Sure enough, no sooner does an exploratory mission from Denham, cast and crew land on the island than the pure spectacle is unleashed, a cavalcade of thrilling sequences that includes the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch a Brontosaurus tumble off a cliff, and a brawl between King Kong and three Tyrannosaurs that sets a new benchmark for computer generated fight sequences. Throw in some enormous leeches and thousands of hectic creepy-crawlies, their moments of terror all masterfully choreographed by director Peter Jackson, and you have the meat of a rollicking B-movie.
Kong himself is a creation of a different order. Based on Andy Serkis' study of gorillas in London Zoo, the great ape is a battle-scarred veteran who slowly rediscovers some semblance of feeling in his relationship with Ann Darrow. She entrances him with her vaudeville routines, and his unreconstructed machismo rubs up against her feminine defiance to amusing effect. Described as the saddest girl he'd ever seen by her director, Darrow is alone and abandoned until she meets Kong, who is similarly isolated, meditating alone surrounded by the bones of his 'people'.
Unfortunately this common ground is buried beneath the filmmakers' faithfulness to the original, which made much play of its beauty entrancing the beast dynamic. Beauty and the beast is a pretty unedifying theme, a B-movie morality warning against the perils of dating above your station. There is also an unresolved 'Hearts Of Darkness' riff loitering throughout the film to little purpose.
At times, the camera whooshes dynamically in on details, as if the characters are undergoing intense déjà vu - the suggestion is that they are all in an eternally recurring story, trapped within fate, as characters within a remake must be. These tiny dissonances, intriguing and irritating in turn, are drowned out by the final sequences, where the filmmakers cleave reverentially to the original film, and so never quite pay-off some of the remake's more interesting thematic additions.