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Making an Exhausting Technological Trip to Skull Island

Posted December 30, 2005

— The latest visit to Skull Island left me physically and emotionally drained.

The technology of movie making simply has gotten to be overpowering.

And there are some business lessons to be learned from the magical world of Academy Award winning director Peter Jackson.

I'm talking about "King Kong", the $207 million epic that is the latest production from the man who produced the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In these days when technology has come to dominate so much of our lives - from iPods to cell phones that never stop ringing and gaming systems as sophisticated as the best desktop computers - we can now endure non-stop computer generated graphics in movies.

Jackson produces scene after scene of violence and gore throughout the last two hours of the remake of Merian C. Cooper's 1933 classic. No doubt about it, they are extremely well done. But there are so many - and they last so long.

After Kong has made off with beautiful blonde Ann Darrow (portrayed by Naomi Watts in a delightful role), Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and movie producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) set off in pursuit. They soon encounter a heard of dinosaurs. As Denham tries to film them, smaller flesh-eating dinosaurs attack the herd of bronto-like creatures causing a stampede.

The brontos overrun Denham and the rescue party in a raucous scene that never seems to end. By the time the last bronto goes over a cliff, I was literally exhausted. The intensity of the CGI graphics was simply overpowering.

And that was just the beginning.

When Darrow is about to be eaten by a V-rex, or a venatosaurus, a few minutes later, Kong springs to the rescue in all his majesty. Portrayed by Andy Serkis (who did such an admiral job as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), Kong is a whirling dervish of power as he fights not one, not two but three V-rex.

Again, the special effects are incredible as Kong flings Darrow from a hand to a foot to protect her. Bitten on one arm by a V-Rex, he uses his other arm to slug a V-Rex out of his path.

Minute after minute, the theater rumbles with the roars of the giant creatures and the thuds of blows, the giant bodies falling to the earth.

Somehow, Kong prevails despite the odds, and Darrow is saved.

Again, the long, powerful scene left me feeling drained. But much more action was to come - other fights, Kong's capture, and the ultimate battle atop the Empire State Building when Kong confronts man's latest technological wonder - six aircraft each mounting heavy caliber machine guns.

Just as in the original, the king of the jungle world falls victim to man's mastery of flight and gunpowder.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Is there too much of a good thing? In the case of Kong, there could be. And that's something thought leaders might want to consider.

How often do products impress but then overwhelm potential buyers simply because they offer too much in the way of capabilities and service?

Are all the gadgets and gizmos that are embraced by the early adopters and touted by the media simply too complex for John Q. Public to embrace?

Is there enough substance behind the hype of a product to make it a long-selling success?

Kong, at more than 3 hours in length, may be an example. It has done well at the box office over 12 days, grossing $118.7 million in U.S. markets through Monday. But Kong barely beat out another fanciful tale, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", over the four-day holiday weekend, $31.4 million to $30.1 million. Narnia also has grossed $163.5 million in 17 days, according to media reports.

Narnia is not so nearly as powerful in its special effects, with the exception of some of the delightful and scary creatures drawn from the pages of the C.S. Lewis novel. The story line is more complex to follow than beast-falls-in-love of Kong. Yet it is as powerful at the box office as its rival.

Why? The C.S. Lewis literary tie-in helps, of course. But Jackson brought legions of fans to Kong with his Lord of the Rings work. That question is likely to be pondered by many at studios who expected Kong to set box office records.

The Kong movie has also been skillfully promoted for months. Jackson posted production diaries on the web, and the web site KongisKing.net is packed with information about the movie as well as the latest news.

Cross-promotion also includes the launch of a Kong video game by UbiSoft across eight gaming formats. The game even includes an alternative ending in which Kong can be saved.

Technology Over Substance?

Yet for all the hype and promotion, Kong remains a bit of a disappointment at the box office. Some have questioned whether its length is a factor in keeping viewers away.

For me, however, the biggest criticism is the overwhelming use of special effects. The viewer is bludgeoned; the technology at times is overpowering.

I loved the Lord of the Rings trilogy, including the extended versions. So it's not that I don't like long movies. But Kong fails to deliver a balance. Whereas character interaction - from love to Gollum's antics - helped balance the climatic battle scenes in the Rings movies, only Ann Darrow's wonderful scenes where she entertains Kong help offset the violence.

In fact, my favorite scene in Kong is when the giant ape and Darrow enjoy a few minutes of play on an ice-covered pond in Central Park.

Will I go see Kong again? Perhaps. But I'll always think that technology overran the story line.

Rick Smith is editor of WRAL Local Tech Wire.

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