Flamboyant, foolhardy documentary filmmaker, Carl Denham, sails off to remote Skull Island to film his latest epic with leading lady, Ann Darrow. Native warriors kidnap Ann to use as a sacrifice as they summon "Kong" with the local witch doctor. But instead of devouring Ann, Kong saves her. Kong is eventually taken back to New York where he searches high and low for Ann, eventually winding up at the top of the Empire State Building, facing off against a fleet of World War I fighter planes.
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 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.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings King Kong (2005) to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray as a three-disc combo pack with an UltraViolet Digital Copy code. When redeeming said code via UPHE.com, only the SD and HDX (1080p) of either the Theatrical Cut or the Extended Edition are available through a variety of retailers. The dual-layered UHD66 and Region Free, BD50 discs sit comfortably on opposite sides of center spindle while another Region Free, BD50 disc is on the last panel. All three are housed inside a black, eco-vortex case with a glossy, embossed slipcover. At startup, the disc goes straight to a menu screen with full-motion clips and music playing in the background.
Captured and put on display for the whole world to see, Peter Jackson's King Kong runs amok on the crowded streets of 4K Ultra HD with a strong H.265 encode in HDR10. The overall quality doesn't offer a significant upgrade over the Blu-ray — in fact, it's somewhat hit or miss in many areas — but several moments come with visually pleasing improvements.
Best example demonstrating a mix of the positives and negatives in the overall 4K presentation is the scene after the T-Rex fight when Kong takes Ann to the mountain top to enjoy the view of the island, which is at around the 2:10:00 mark of the EE. Immediately, the scene is overflowing with a gorgeous array of yellow, fiery oranges, hints of magenta and soft pinks lining the clouds. At the same time, the blue sky peeking through those clouds is more energetic and animated while the green in the surrounding foliage pops with life, and the red in some of the clothing often radiates and looks more crimson in the blood. So, it goes without saying, the colors are noticeably more vibrant and varied than in its HD SDR counterpart. Interestingly, the photography is now engulfed in a soft yellow tone, giving the film a more antiquated feel, and far more noticeable when characters are exploring Skull Island. This also gives much of the scenery a romanticized appeal while facial complexions appear more lifelike and accurate to the environment with a healthy rosiness beneath the cheeks of some of the cast.
However, this same scene is slightly hindered by a contrast the tends to run a bit too hot, creating some blooming in the brightest areas and sadly, ruining the most minute details. For example, the sun is never distinctly visible, but rather completely engulfed and lost by its own luminosity. There are other moments where a light source shines so brightly that it just creates of blob of white, such as when Carl Denham walks onto the stage and during that wide shot, both his face and shirt disappear beneath the stage light. Granted, nighttime sequences show an improvement in the specular highlights, giving some light sources a tighter glow and glimmers on various surfaces, like faces, moisture-covered rocks, the wet streets of New York and metal objects, with a nice, realistic splendor. But this is rather inconsistent in daylight sequences. The same goes for the black levels, which appear richer and darker in the HDR, but it's also at the cost of the finer lines consumed by the shadows and again, it's hit or miss. The best moment is Kong's rampage in New York where the city looks splendid immersed in so much darkness and shadows, but some of the detailing of objects in the distance now completely covered in deep, black shadows.
Presented in its original 2.35: aspect ratio, the 2160p video is also not much sharper than its predecessor although it does show a small uptick in the finer areas. The movie was originally shot on traditional 35mm film and later transferred to a 2K digital intermediate, and for all intents and purposes, it would appear Universal simply recycled the same master used for the Blu-ray. For the most part, the grain is stable and thinly veiled, but at other times, the structure seems unnatural and spikes in thickness. There is bit more visibility in the clothing, the buildings of the city and in the foliage of the island, but sometimes, this also looks artificial because it's being upconverted from a lower resolution source. The dated green-screen effect and CGI work are also more apparent and feel fake, particularly during the fast-moving action sequences when actors are involved, such as the Brontosaurus stampede or when Jack saves Ann and Kong fights a swarm of Terapusmordax. Overall, it's nice jump in terms of sharpness and resolution, but not by much.
Kong roars to Ultra HD with a fantastic DTS:X soundtrack that, like the video, comes with minor improvements but doesn't completely take down its reference-quality DTS-HD counterpart. In fact, for most of the runtime, the sound is familiar similar to its predecessor, focusing much of the activity to the sides and rears. Occasionally, some of that action extends into the ceiling channels, but it's not often enough for truly immersing the listeners. At least, not as effectively as the previous lossless audio option.
The jungle sequences in Skull Island are, of course, the film's highlight as a variety of noises and the calls of the island's wildlife are heard in every direction, generating an awesomely immersive 360° soundfield that's amazingly consistent. When Kong is first introduced and Ann looks at the monster approaching her, the sounds of the giant ape uprooting trees and breaking branches fills the entire back area. But the best demo-worthy moment is Kong's battle with a trio of T-Rexes because several random noises spread into the space above the listening area, particularly the moment when Kong and Ann are caught in a web of vines. The swing of those giant stems cracking and breaking echo in the overheads, creating a cool dome-like effect. Later, during the Empire State Building climax, the bi-planes whiz and pan in every direction flawlessly and with discreet transparency, sometimes even flying overhead as bullets dart in every direction.
The most effective aspect of this object-based codec is definitely in the front soundstage where those same discrete effects are better spread out, creating a highly-engaging half-dome wall of sound, from start to finish. With outstanding directionality and placement, imaging continuously feels spacious and expansive, particularly when exploring Skull Island, as a variety of noises move between the three front channels fluidly with an incredible sense of realism and fidelity. The mid-range is dynamic and extensive with excellent clarity and distinction between the various high-frequency noises while a powerful, robust low-end provides the action with an appreciable sense of presence and room-shaking weight. Amid all the mayhem and carnage, dialogue and character interactions remains precise and intelligible, making this a fantastic, albeit minor improvement over its predecessor.
The same set of supplements are ported over from the three-disc "Ultimate Edition" Blu-ray.
Audio Commentary: Available on the extended cut version, director Peter Jackson and screenwriter Phillippa Boyens dissect through the production's technical aspects, detailing the enormous amount of work that went into the visuals while casually touching on the plot.
Picture-in-Picture: Taking from a variety of sources, a small window in the corner shows cast & crew interviews, stage design, lots of concept art, CG work, tons of BTS footage and much more.
2006 Introduction (SD, 6 min): Jackson returns to briefly explain all the special features and what to expect, but the intro is clearly from the 2006 special edition DVD.
Recreating the Eighth Wonder (SD, 185 min): An exhaustive, eight-part documentary detailing every aspect of the production, from inspiration and aspiration to post-production and reception.
The Origins of King Kong
Pre-Production Part 1: The Return of Kong
Pre-Production Part 2: Countdown to Filming
The Venture Journey
Return to Skull Island
New York, New Zealand
Bringing Kong to Life Part 1: Design and Research
Bringing Kong to Life Part 2: Performance and Animation
Production Diaries (SD): Same set of extensive BTS footage shared on the Kong is King website.
2005 Introduction by Peter Jackson (3 min)
Production Diaries by Date (230 min)
Production Diaries by Location (218 min)
Post Production Diaries (SD): More of the same, except showing the work that went into completing the film.
Post Production Diaries by Date (153 min)
Post Production Diaries by Department (153 min)
Deleted Scenes (SD): Viewers can choose how to enjoy a large amount of deleted material.
Scenes with Introductions (44 min)
Scenes Only (38 min)
Introduction by Peter Jackson (2 min)
The Eighth Blunder of the World (SD, 19 min): A collection of bloopers and the cast acting goofy.
Skull Island: A Natural History (SD, 17 min): A faux nature documentary that expands on the mythology of the island and treats Jackson's film as though loosely based on true events.
Kong's New York, 1933 (SD, 28 min): Interviews discussing the history of the city at the height of The Great Depression, featuring a variety pictures and vintage footage.
A Night in Vaudeville (SD, 12 min): Similar to the above, but focused on the stage performances of the period and finding the right performers for the movie, showing lots of BTS footage.
King Kong Homage (SD, 10 min): Showing the different subtle ways and times Jackson's film references the 1933 classic.
Pre-Visualization Animatics (SD): Five scenes with the option for music on or off.
Arrival at Skull Island
Empire State Building Battle "Pre-Viz" Only
Empire State Building Battle "Pre-Viz" with final Film comparison
Conceptual Design Video Galleries (SD): A collection of five still galleries.
The 1996 King Kong
"The Present" (SD, 9 min): The cast surprises the director with a birthday short film.
WETA Collectibles (SD, 5 min): A short tour of creature designs and collectibles made for the film.
Trailers (SD, 8 min): A set of three theatrical previews.
Bloated and long-winded as the movie may be, I rather enjoy Peter Jackson's King Kong, even in its 201-minute extended edition. It's an ambitious take on the 1933 classic, one of the most influential films of all time, that's amazingly faithful to the original vision of directors Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack. While at times schmaltzy and drawn-out in several spots, the end result is nonetheless a fun fantasy adventure flick that amusingly recreates the Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking. Unfortunately, Universal appears to have recycled the same master from the Blu-ray for this 4K presentation, which doesn't offer much of a step up from its HD SDR counterpart. The new DTS:X soundtrack is better with several good moments taking advantage of the object-based format. Porting over the same set of supplements as the "Ultimate Edition" release, the overall package is ultimately for die-hard fans.
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.