A TALE OF TWO KONGS: A Life Lesson From The Big Screen
It was the best of Kongs, it was the less-than-best of Kongs.
My wife and I recently took in the just-released Kong: Skull Island (KSI), this century’s second film treatment of the familiar giant ape story. This recent iteration turned out to be a competent two-hour diversion: lots of action, skillful special effects, a few laughs; but ultimately a film with little heart — which inevitably brought to mind Peter Jackson’s 2005 stab at the King Kong canon; an epic that had so much heart it could double as a cardiac ward.
Skull‘s mere adequacy — impoverished character development and desultory plotline yoked to undeniable visual spectacle — made me appreciate Jackson’s admittedly overlong, sometimes rambling King Kong even more than I already did.
And underscored for me an imperishably valuable principle.
First, a few thoughts on Kong: Skull Island: Props to the flick for delivering a handful of narrative twists that took me unawares; and its Vietnam era setting was an original flourish. The main monster villain was genuinely loathsome, not just massive-dinosaur scary but viscerally creepy (reminiscent of the abominably unearthly baddie of 2014’s Godzilla; screenwriter Max Borenstein had a hand in both films.) On a personal note, I appreciate what must have been a conscious choice to keep KSI relatively tasteful. Profanity was at a comparative minimum: a single, maddeningly superfluous f-bomb, but very little other cursing that I can recall. Plus — zero contrived excuses for throwaway sex scenes/nudity. Nowadays, that’s noteworthy.
As I said, entertaining — but hardly magisterial cinema. “Magisterial cinema” more aptly describes Peter Jackson’s King Kong of over a decade ago. Yes, I understand, lots of film-goers would disagree with me — stridently — on that evaluation. The fanged hostility toward the New Zealander’s three-hour, gargantuan-simian epic is actually rather eye-popping; it leaves me wondering: Why the hatin’? Why such bristling resentment toward a King Kong-themed adaptation that succeeds on practically every level and which aimed at something conspicuously more ambitious than a brute monster story? A sci-fi blockbuster that strove for a dash of artistic panache? Practically an alien notion in contemporary exploding-car/guns-blazing/fart-and-poop-joke saturated moviedom. I guess that bugs some ticket-buyers.
Whatever the explanation, King Kong was one impressive piece of work. Den of Geek rightly styled it “a beautiful, messy tragedy”. The late, incomparable Roger Ebert opined: 2005’s King Kong was “magnificent entertainment … [a] surprisingly involving and rather beautiful movie”. The Hollywood Reporter: “[M]ajestic and mesmerizing”.
Jackson’s Kong-vs-Three-Tyrannosaurs rumble stands in my filmic universe as perhaps the most gobsmacking episode of movie battle ever caught on camera — thrilling, breath-catching, hilarious; even profoundly moving at one point. Once more, Den of Geek: It’s “a seven-minute stunner … so over-the-top and playfully primal in its entertainment value that it pummels the viewer into dazed, giddy submission.”
Skull‘s explosive CGI moments are dexterous enough — but they can’t compare with the humor and vivacity of Jackson’s comically pell-mell brontosaurus stampede; the chilling, colossal-carnivorous-bugs-in-the-ravine segment; or a frantic Kong’s being swarmed by condor-sized vampire bats.
Then there’s the charming scene featuring Ann Darrow’s (Naomi Watts) vaudevillian hijinks — mugging, juggling, dancing — before her shaggy kidnapper; the third reel’s mournful juxtaposition between her theater performance and Kong’s degrading Manhattan playhouse exhibition; their painterly Central Park interlude, ice-skating for a moment of lyrical calm before the heartbreaking storm about to unfold atop the Empire State Building. These are bits of silver-screen poetry deftly knitted into a big-screen actioner; quieter, reflective passages, in their own way as striking as the film’s violent, bang-’em-up moments.
Conceded: at over three hours, Jackson’s Kong could have been a skoche tighter. The ape isn’t revealed until well over an hour into the movie’s running time — in startling contrast to Skull Island‘s simian behemoth appearing in its first five minutes.
I suppose if the choice is between a brisk, by-the-numbers, get-the-job-done production or one that takes its time — if even too much of it — to deliver something that is imaginative and memorable? I’ll settle on the latter, thanks. A year from now, I’ll rarely give Skull Island a second thought. I still marvel, often, at elements of Jackson’s effort.
He gave the audience space to get to know the characters a bit, to develop feelings for them; we cared about them. Bluntly, what I felt toward KSI‘s players? Barely anything. They served efficiently as screen-and-script space fillers, moving along the narrative from point A to point B; little else.
King Kong allows its tale to build. It’s more than just stitched-together story markers dumped on the audience in a big clump.
King Kong whispers “Hold on”. KSI snaps “Get moving!”
Modern, microwave-friendly, fast-food-favoring Westerners don’t do “waiting” well. Concepts of patience and delayed-gratification? Not among Generation-Smart-Phone’s favorites. More than ever, as Tom Petty crooned, “the waiting is the hardest part.”
But there’s a lot to be said about the merits of being able to wait — and of all demographics Western Christians ought to value that understanding more than most. Faith in a promise-keeping God inextricably involves an element of delay, of watching, of contentedly anticipating the unseen. And a blessing postponed, fulfillment deferred, is often so much the sweeter because of those delays.
By the time Jackson’s gorilla, for instance, is finally unveiled and goes into action, his expressiveness promptly becomes riveting. Those soulful, aching eyes, the scarred visage and damaged, crooked jaw? Hypnotic. Skull Island‘s beast, by contrast, is massive and overwhelming — but that’s about it.
This earthly sojourn’s choicest elements often don’t make their debuts quickly or easily; it’s why they’re regularly referred to in the prospective. Dickens, recall, penned Great Expectations, not Great Quickies.
It’s similarly not customary for the grandest realities of God’s Kingdom to flow trippingly and instantaneously. They require an element of “hanging in there”.
Three millennia back, the Psalmist David grasped this, admonishing others accordingly: “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart: wait, I say, on the LORD” (27:14).
Likewise, Isaiah the Prophet: “[T]hey that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles …” (40:31).
Human beings predictably bristle against these taxing verities. Still, it’s in the cauldron of waiting that relationships are often deepened, faith is proven and strengthened, the noblest qualities of men enhanced, the most satisfaction derived.
Take King Kong versus Kong: Skull Island: in retrospect, the former, willing to roll the dice on waiting, is arguably a great film. The latter, more insistent on hurrying up? Enjoyable, sure. But a great film? Hardly.
Kinda like intractably impatient people: they’ll rarely achieve life’s heights or life’s best.
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