Firefly: Ariel (15 November 2002, Allan Kroeker)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Simon offers the gang a job: help him break into a hospital so he can treat his sister and he’ll tell them which valuable medicines to steal…

Written by Jose Molina. Directed by Allan Kroeker.

Best performance: It’s a real ensemble one, this. Because he drives the story, Simon (Sean Maher) gets a lot of good screen time.

Best bits:
* While the team are chatting, River calmly picks up a knife and slashes Jayne across the chest. (Fun fact: his T-shirt has a Blue Sun logo on it. A plot thread would have revealed that the Blue Sun corporation are the bad guys who experimented on River, hence her reaction. But the show was axed before it was really developed.)
* Just in case we doubt our heroes’ morals while they’re planning to rob a hospital, Zoe points out that the stores of medicine will soon be restocked.
* The Ocean’s 11-style planning-the-heist montage – a briefing scene loaded with how difficult the mission will be, intercut with shots of preparation and rehearsal.
* Mal, Zoe and Jayne are given detailed jargon to recite when posing as paramedics. They spend ages mastering it, then don’t need it…
* Wash and Kaylee’s A-Team-style scene: suiting up the fake ambulance.
* The harshly lit and colourless hospital, a real contrast to the more earthy settings we usually see in this show.
* Jayne’s double-crossing them!
* Zoe electrocutes a troublesome doctor with defibrillation paddles. “Clear,” she deadpans once he’s unconscious.
* When Simon and River are arrested, Jayne’s also taken in for abetting criminals. Hashtag dramatic irony.
* The two guys with the blue gloves – creepy government types who are hunting for River and gruesomely kill anyone who’s come into contact with her. (The same characters had also featured in The Train Job.)
* During a scene in the hanger, Mal grabs Kaylee and pulls her in for a hug – an adlib, apparently. You can actually see how surprised actress Jewel Staite is.
* Mal punches Jayne then puts him in the airlock and threatens to kill him unless he admits his betrayal.

Review: Shepherd Book doesn’t feature at all, while Inara goes off on an unseen errand. The script is whittling down the characters so everyone has a role to play in the heist plot. And like all the best heist stories this is slick, breezy, infectious fun, which takes a number of surprising turns. It’s not especially Wild Westy, but in this instance that works as a nice change of pace.

Nine beautiful museums, not to mention some of the finest restaurants in the Core, out of 10

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Firefly: Out of Gas (25 October 2002, David Solomon)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While a critically injured Mal attempts to save his ship, we see flashbacks to how the crew came together…

Written by Tim Minear. Directed by David Solomon.

Best performance: Nathan Fillion holds the whole thing together as Mal – he’s the protagonist of the main storyline and is in every flashback scene.

Best bits:
* The in medias res opening: Serenity deserted, Mal bleeding…
* The “What’s that?” gag in the first flashback scene. (By the way, all the flashbacks are shot with a harsh, sepia light. It’s a stylish way of distinguishing them from the main story.)
* Inara: “A companion doesn’t kiss and tell.” Mal: “So, there *is* kissing?”
* The dinner scene: all nine regulars sharing a meal, trading banter and celebrating Simon’s birthday. It’s so likeable you almost want the entire episode to be these people just hanging out. It’s the calm before…
* …an explosion rips through the ship!
* Wash’s flashback: he has a moustache and Zoe doesn’t like him.
* Back in the present, Simon Pulp Fictions an injured Zoe with an injection of pure adrenalin.
* Simon says he doesn’t want to die on Serenity. Inara pointedly replies that she doesn’t want to die at all. (This was foreshadowing for a story arc that never came to fruition: Inara is actually terminally ill.)
* Mal rowing with Wash – an argument that accidentally leads to a solution to their problems.
* Kaylee’s flashback: shagging Serenity’s old mechanic and then impressing Mal with her technical knowledge.
* Inara’s flashback: a scene with Mal that’s full of subtext and sexual chemistry.
* The incidental music is excellent.
* Another ship floats into view through the cockpit window.
* Mal opens the airlock once the other ship has docked and a gust of air hits his face.
* Jayne’s flashback: he’s in a gang holding up Mal and Zoe when Mal convinces him to switch sides.
* Jayne says Inara’s ship smells funny. She explains it’s incense.
* One final flashback: Mal spotting Serenity in a junkyard…

Review: In the pilot episode we learnt how Mal knows Zoe, and how Book, Simon and River ended up on board Serenity. So this episode could be considered to be a mopping-up exercise: we now see flashbacks of Mal buying Serenity, recruiting Wash, Kaylee and Jayne, and meeting Inara. But rather than being dry or functional, this is superbly fluid and engaging storytelling. The intercutting of the three time frames (past, present, future) is breathtaking. The dialogue fizzes with energy and attitude. It’s another tremendous episode.

Ten nav sats out of 10

Firefly: Jaynestown (18 October 2002, Marita Grabiak)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The crew are stunned to land on a planet where Jayne is revered as a folk hero…

Written by Ben Edlund. Directed by Marita Grabiak.

Best performance: Adam Baldwin’s having a blast as the routinely funny Jayne. The character is a selfish thug with a childlike outlook, but it’s still believable when he feels guilty for his actions.

Best bits:
* Simon and Kaylee’s sweet chat about swearing. He’s anti, she’s pro. (It’s set-up for a gag at the end of the cold open).
* Kaylee saying goodbye to Inara, who’s off to meet a client. “Have good sex!”
* The huge exterior set of the mud farm.
* Simon sees the statue of Jayne. “Son of a bitch!” (There’s that gag.)
* Book’s shocked to find River ‘fixing’ his Bible – ie, striking through passages that don’t make sense, ripping out pages and generally editing the text.
* Jayne and co hide in a bar, wanting a low profile. Then a guy with a guitar starts singing a song in praise of “the hero of Canton, the man they call Jayne!”
* The whole song, in fact.
* River freaks out when she sees Book with his usually tied-back hair hanging loose.
* The twist of who Inara’s client is.
* Simon and Kaylee getting drunk together. “You’re pretty funny.” “You’re pretty… pretty.”
* River, still obsessed with Book’s wild hair: “His brains are in terrible danger!”
* Jayne symbolically knocking the statue over.
* Kaylee tells Simon they slept together while drunk. (They didn’t: she’s just winding him up.)

Review: There’s a lot going on. The zippy and fun main story is about Jayne and his connection to the people of Canton. There are also subplots centred on Inara and River, while the Kaylee/Simon romance goes through a few more gears. Terrific stuff.

Nine inherent metaphoric parallels out of 10

Firefly: Our Mrs Reynolds (4 October 2002, Vondie Curtis Hall)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Mal is stunned to discover he’s got married by accident…

Written by Joss Whedon. Directed by Vondie Curtis Hall.

Best performance: It would be very embarrassing for me when I finally marry Christina Hendricks if I hadn’t picked her now in this category. The words womanly perfection spring to mind.

Best bits:
* The cold open: a trap to lure in some bad guys, which involves a stagecoach and Mal posing as a woman.
* The fireside party – Jayne drunk, Book seeing to the bodies of the dead bad guys, the first appearance of Saffron (Christina Hendricks) and lots of dancing – which abruptly ends with a hard cut to the next morning.
* Saffron’s on the ship!
* Saffron’s married to Mal! (After this revelation we get another of Nathan Fillion’s wonderful reaction shots.)
* Zoe calls the whole crew together so they can tease Mal.
* Inara’s look of hurt when she finds out Mal’s married.
* Book’s warning to Mal, worth quoting in full: “If you take sexual advantage of her, you’re going to burn in a very special level of hell. A level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theatre.”
* Saffron coyly asking if Mal wants her to wash his feet. Mal just walks away.
* A fantastic rug-pulling act-break: Jayne suddenly appears in front of Mal with a huge gun… which he then offers to trade for Saffron. (The gun, by the way, is called Vera.)
* Saffron waiting for Mal in his bedroom. Naked. I have no words.
* Mal collapses after kissing Saffron. (He’s been drugged by her lipstick.)
* Saffron – who we now know is a con-woman – rolls her eyes while Wash talks about his happy marriage.
* Saffron tries to seduce Inara, but savvy Inara sees through the ruse: “You’re amazing – who are you?!”
* Inara in a daze, having kissed Mal and therefore been dosed by the lipstick, but trying to tell everyone she fell and hit her head.
* The snowy coda.
* The final scene with Mal and Inara.

Review: It’s not showy or significant or epic or experimental. It’s just a standard episode telling a nice self-contained story. However, judged on its own merits – on how well it achieves what it sets out to achieve – this is a rather magnificent piece of television. The script is packed full of plot, character, subtext and comedy – so much wit! – yet the whole thing is as light as air. There simply isn’t room for improvement. A quiet masterpiece.

Ten very nice qualities out of 10

Firefly: Safe (8 November 2002, Michael Grossman)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Simon and River are kidnapped by some locals – just as the doctor’s expertise is needed on board Serenity…

Written by Drew Z Greenberg. Directed by Michael Grossman.

Best performance: This episode is the first real chance for Summer Glau – a former ballerina who had little acting experience – to flesh out the childlike yet dangerous River Tam. It’s a fascinating performance, even when she doesn’t have anything concrete to say or do.

Best bits:
* Oh, look: it’s Zac Efron playing a young Simon in a flashback.
* The crew are selling the cows they acquired in the last episode: a nice bit of continuity.
* Inara and Kaylee poking fun at the merchandise in a local shop. Inara then clocks that Kaylee fancies Simon.
* How hurt Kaylee is by Simon being a douchebag,
* Wandering off, River stumbles across a group of people dancing around a maypole – so joins in.
* How calm Zoe is while tending to a badly injured Shepherd Book.
* Captured Simon says his crewmates will come and rescue him and River… but then looks up to see Serenity flying away.
* The twist that Simon hasn’t been kidnapped to be a hostage: the locals need a doctor.
* Jayne reading Simon’s diary and making up entries. “Dear diary, today I was pompous and my sister was crazy. Today we were kidnapped by hillfolk never to be seen again. It was the best day ever.”
* Mal’s taken Book to an Alliance ship to ask for medical help. They refuse, until they check Book’s ID card and then act like he’s incredibly important. (The series was axed before we found out what his secret past contained.)
* The twist on a twist when the locals who have snatched Simon and River turn on them: they think River is a witch so plan to burn her.
* Simon joining his sister on the stake.
* Mal and Zoe swaggering into town to rescue Simon and River.
* Jayne quickly returns the items he stole from Simon’s room before the doctor finds out.

Review: River and to a lesser degree Simon have been in the background of the series until now, but this episode is built on their relationship and history. We get some very nice intercutting between the present and a series of flashbacks, which flesh out their characters well. Meanwhile, Shepherd Book – the other passenger who joined the team in the first episode – takes part in the story more than usual. It’s not the most gripping 42 minutes of television ever made, but broadly enjoyable.

Seven big damn heroes out of 10

Firefly: Shindig (1 November 2002, Vern Gillum)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While Mal tries to negotiate a bit of business, Inara takes on a possessive client. And then the two men collide at a party…

Written by Jane Espensen. Directed by Vern Gillum.

Best performance: Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is the baby of the gang and therefore whatever emotion she goes through we feel in spades.

Best bits:
* Inara and Mal’s banter. You could watch it all day. They clearly want each other.
* The town of Persephone has a dress shop that has live models in its windows.
* Jayne’s confusion over whether a clearly upset Kaylee is upset or not.
* Badger’s back from episode one; as is his hat.
* Badger says someone has taken a dislike to him. “Did he see your face?” asks Jayne.
* Mal and Jayne’s smirks when Badger inadvertently says something smutty.
* Kaylee – in her enormous dress – showing up at the party.
* Inara’s saying how much she dislikes the swearword gosa when she sees Mal arrive at the party. “Oh, gosa,” she says to herself.
* “Yes, sir, Captain Tightpants.”
* Kaylee’s obsession with the buffet table.
* Jayne, Simon and Book playing cards and betting with daily chores.
* At the party, Kaylee charms a gaggle of men by talking about engines.
* Mal punches Atherton, the twat who’s paid to spend the evening with Inara.
* Mal’s double-take when he realises the upcoming duel involves swords.
* River mimicking Badger’s English accent. Dick Van Dyke would be proud.
* Having won the duel, Mal nobly declines to kill Atherton… but can’t resist poking him with the sword a couple more times.
* The reveal of what the all-important shipment is: a herd of cows.

Review: It’s another very smart script – watch it tell a story, reveal character, make jokes, provide cute scene transitions, spin numerous plates and not neglect anyone. And it’s made with style and a huge sense of fun. Marvellous.

Nine little pieces of wrapping paper blowing around out of 10

Firefly: Bushwhacked (27 September 2002, Tim Minear)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The crew find a derelict space ship with just one survivor aboard. The assumption is that it’s been attacked by savage rapist cannibals called Reavers…

Written and directed by Tim Minear.

Best performance: Jayne (Adam Baldwin) is always funny. And after how mean he was to Kaylee in the first episode, it’s really sweet to see hints of a brother/sister vibe in this one.

Best bits:
* The crew enjoying a basketball-like game in Serenity’s cargo hold. It’s a bit of fun before the darkness descends.
* Unlike most sci-fi films and TV shows, space is silent in Firefly – a really nice, eerie touch.
* The gag of Jayne tricking a nervous Simon into wearing a space suit for no reason.
* The reveal of the dead bodies.
* As in the pilot episode, the sheer fear in everyone’s eyes when the zombie-like Reavers are mentioned.
* Zoe, telling a freaking-out Jayne to calm down: “You’ll scare the women.”
* The reveal of why Mal’s acting more compassionately than you’d expect: it’s just a diversion because he has another problem to deal with.
* The Alliance agents board the ship and Wash puts his hands up.
* The interrogation montage: unflappable Inara, defensive Zoe, chatty Wash, pissed-off Kaylee, stone-faced Jayne, serene Book…
* The reveal of where Simon and River have been hiding.

Review: There’s a horror-movie shock in the teaser as a dead body hits Serenity’s cockpit window – and that sets the tone for the next 20 minutes. The episode starts out as a haunted-house format (a la Alien) and is creepy… to a point. But the fact we’re stepping outside the show’s USP (Wild West meets science fiction) means it doesn’t feel especially Firefly-ish. The story also takes a drab turn halfway in when the feds arrive – it’s very much an episode of two halves. Sadly the result is underwhelming, a bit flat, and has a simplistic resolution.

Six pirates with their own chaplain (there’s an oddity) out of 10

Firefly: The Train Job (20 September 2002, Joss Whedon)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Serenity crew take on a job: steal some supplies from a train. However, things get complicated when they discover what those supplies are…

Written by Joss Whedon & Tim Minear. Directed by Joss Whedon.

Best performance: Morena Baccarin gets a series of moments where she just *shines* as Inara – an easy friendship with Kalyee, some flirty bickering with Mal, a nice conversation about religion with Book, and the scene where she waltzes into town to rescue Mal and Zoe. Baccarin was actually a late replacement in the role. Rebecca Gayheart filmed for a day before being let go for not having the right chemistry with the other cast members. Baccarin doesn’t have that problem.

Best bits:
* Mal gets thrown through the window of a saloon – it’s a hologram that reconstitutes itself once he’s on the ground. A nice example of the show’s sci-fi/Western hybrid tone.
* Inara telling Kaylee that they should experiment. (She’s talking about hairstyles, but still…)
* Seriously, though, the sexual chemistry between Inara and *Mal* is Han-and-Leia good.
* Bad guy Niska’s office: interesting details range from the huge factory we can see through the window to a delicate Art Deco lamp on his desk. He also has a cool, tabletop iPad that he uses to lay out the mission.
* On the train, Mal and Zoe walk into a compartment full of Alliance troops.
* Zoe, to Mal: “Sir, I think you have a problem with your brain being missing.”
* Jayne’s hat.
* The town of Paradiso, which is a massive outdoor set full of detail and extras.
* Mal and Zoe have to pose as a married couple.
* Jayne, to Wash: “Do you know what the chain of command is? It’s a chain I go get and beat you with until you understand who’s in rutting command.”
* Jayne under the influence of painkillers.
* Inara pretending to be Mal’s owner and Zoe’s employer.
* Mal kicking a thug into Serenity’s huge turbine engine.

Review: After the network’s decision not to screen the first produced episode, this story also had to function as a ‘pilot’. It’s a tricky task, given that the original pilot would probably get shown or released at some point. So this one has to introduce and establish the characters, situation and setting… but not contradict or overtly repeat anything. It does it well. There’s a relatively simple plot. But a train heist honours the show’s Western idiom, while a moral-dilemma twist allows our Robin Hood heroes to show they’re more than just thieves. And the writing is very impressive. Every scene, every moment, every *line* is telling us about the characters. Good stuff.

Eight terrifying space monkeys out of 10

Firefly: Serenity (20 December 2002, Joss Whedon)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Note: I’m reviewing the episodes in the producers’ preferred running order, which differs from the original broadcast pattern.

While carrying illegal goods in the hold, trader/thief Mal Reynolds and his crew take three passengers aboard their spaceship, Serenity. However, at least one of the guests is hiding something…

Written and directed by Joss Whedon.

Best performance: Nathan Fillion as Captain Mal Reynolds, the ensemble’s lead. He’s Han Solo crossed with John Wayne – stoic but sarcastic – and is equally at ease with banter, action, authority and emotion.

Best bits:
* Wash (Alan Tudyk) playing with toy dinosaurs.
* Any shot featuring Kaylee (Jewel Staite).
* The sing-along theme tune.
* “Somebody on this boat has to make an honest living…”/cut to Irana (Morena Baccarin) sleeping with someone for cash.
* Badger (Mark A Shepherd) and his very fine hat.
* Kaylee’s umbrella.
* Kaylee eating a strawberry.
* Mal’s realisation that the agent is after Simon (Sean Maher), not him.
* Kaylee gets shot.
* The reveal of what’s in Simon’s box – and Mal’s resulting ‘Huh.’ (When this double-length episode is cut in two for repeats, this is the cliffhanger.)
* How scared everyone is by the unseen creatures called Reavers.
* Mal telling Simon that Kaylee is dead (just to wind him up).
* The gunman with the nice hat (this episode is obsessed with hats!).
* Mal shooting the bad guy dead rather than reason with him (very Raiders of the Lost Ark!).
* The ‘crazy Ivan’ manoeuvre.

Review: There’s a simple storyline, but it’s just a frame to hang the introductions and exposition on, and it’s all very fluid and watchable. The regular characters are instantly enjoyable company, with an easy rapport and interesting dynamics – tension between Mal and Jayne, a Mal/Inara romance, a marriage in the crew, newcomers with secrets, and so on. Wisely, the script introduces these regulars in groups so we’re not bombarded with information. We meet Mal and Zoe (Gina Torres) in a flashback prologue; then Jayne (Adam Baldwin), Wash and Kaylee in a little mini-mission; then Inara; then newcomers Book (Ron Glass) and Simon; then finally River (Summer Glau). And it’s a very strong cast of actors. Meanwhile, there’s a certain Blade Runner-ness to the level of detail and storytelling in the production design. The ship is especially wonderful, but there’s also a vaguely steampunk vibe to the world of Firefly – it’s science-fiction, sure, but the technology is often mechanical and analogue. Notably, as well as a sci-fi this is also a Western. The whole thing is built on clichés, locations, costumes and dialogue and musical idioms that remind you of the Old West. It’s a nice mixture, which also contains surreal snatches of Chinese in the dialogue. Eighty minutes zip by with fun and panache, helped by lots of handheld camerawork, some non-linear editing and a few terrific hard cuts that give the episode real polish. As a pilot for a TV series, it’s practically flawless. However, executives at the Fox network didn’t like it and didn’t screen it until after the show had been axed. Morons.

Nine perfectly legitimate conflicts of interest out of 10

King Kong (2005, Peter Jackson)

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The 1976 version of King Kong actually got a belated and ridiculed sequel, King Kong Lives (1986), but this is a section-by-section review of the second remake from 2005. Warning: there are spoilers ahead!

Note: this review is based on the DVD edit of the film, which is around 12 minutes longer than the cinema version.

New York City: Director Carl Denham is about to be shut down by his bosses, so hires an actress, kidnaps his writer and sets sail for a far-off location…
* This film essentially follows the same story as the 1933 original, and is even done as a period film. From the Art Deco credit sequence through the opening montage of Hooverville and Manhattan, the sense of time and place is established very well. In fact, the film’s single biggest strength might be the stunning recreation of 1930s New York. It was filmed on a backlot in New Zealand, but the physical production design and the CGI set extensions are mind-blowing. It’s a totally immersive world. There are rich, bold colours – yellowy yellows, bluey blues – and all the period clichés you could ask for. Depression, prohibition, skyscraper construction… Taxis, pedestrians, Broadway…
* We first see Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) on stage in a failing vaudeville show. This is a nice example of what this adaption is doing compared with 1933. In the original movie, we were just told Ann was an actress; now, we see her in action. This film dramatises its story much better.
* James Newton Howard’s score is terrific throughout, but I mention it here because I love the punchy and jaunty music in this opening New York sequence.
* Meanwhile, Carl Denham (Jack Black, playing it just the right side of comical) is under pressure from his studio execs, who want to cut his funding (another good example of dramatising events rather than just saying things are so). The 1933 Denham felt like a street hustler, whereas this one is clearly informed by Orson Welles: he’s ruthless and arrogant, but undeniably likeable too. (“Goddamn it, Preston, all you had to do was look her in the eye and lie!”) Preston, Denham’s put-upon assistant, is played by Colin Hanks.
* In need of an actress at short notice, Denham mentions people he could ask. They’re all real-life actresses of the 1930s: Jean Harlow (1911-1937), Myrna Loy (1905-1993), Clara Bow (1905-1965), Mae West (1893-1980) and ‘Fay’ – ie, Fay Wray (1907-2004). The gag here is that Fay can’t do Denham’s movie because she’s working for ‘Cooper’ over at RKO – in other words, filming the original King Kong with Merian C Cooper! (In additional self-referentialism, Jean Harlow was considered for the role of Ann Darrow in 1933.)
* It’s noticeable how scenes and even dialogue (“No funny business!”) are being specifically repeated from the original now. The 1933 Kong is Peter Jackson’s favourite movie, and this is pretty much a love letter to it.
* One big change from 1933, however, is that the character of Jack Driscoll has been repurposed. No longer the first officer on a merchant ship, he’s now Denham’s writer. Jack (Adrian Brody) only delivers 15 pages of his script, though, so Denham tricks him into staying on the Venture until after it’s left the dock. Jack then spends *months* sailing to and from an island in the Indian Ocean rather than a couple of minutes swimming ashore.

On board the Venture: Denham has paid for a ship to take him, his actors and his crew to a mysterious island…
* The captain of the Venture has the same name as in 1933 – Englehorn (played by Thomas Kretschmann) – but is now German and has many more featured crewmen. Jamie Bell plays Jimmy, a young boy who reads Heart of Darkness just in case you’re not getting the subtext; Andy Serkis plays the cook, Lumpy; Evan Parke plays first mate Hayes; and Lobo Chan plays a janitor called Choy. These characters are being introduced now so we’ll care when they get killed later on.
* Denham also has new characters with him. In 1933, he was a one-man film crew, but here he has a cameraman called Herb (John Sumner), a sound recordist called Mike (Craig Hall), general dogsbody Preston and an up-his-own-arse actor called Bruce Baxter (John Chandler). There’s a lovely gag where Bruce finds that Jimmy has defaced some of his movie posters, but then comes to like how he looks with a moustache drawn on his face.
* En route to the island, we see Ann and Bruce film a scene for Denham’s movie. As a bit of postmodern tomfoolery, the cheesy dialogue has been lifted from a scene in the 1933 Kong.
* Ann and Jack’s romance begins around this point, and it’s quite sweet. In fact, the whole segment rattles along very enjoyably. There’s lots of fun, especially with Denham driving the story. But the tone turns darker as the Venture sails off the shipping lanes and then stumbles across Skull Island. It’s very spooky stuff – set at night, unlike the previous two films, with lots of fog and moody music.

Skull Island: Denham and his team sneak ashore to film some footage, but encounter natives who kidnap Ann and deliver her to a giant gorilla living in the interior of the island…
* Well, clearly more thought has gone into this native culture than in either 1933 or 1976. These people have a vaguely Cambodian or Polynesian feel to their costumes, and there are skulls and skeletons dotted around the ancient ruins they live in. Initially it seems Skull Island is uninhabited, but then we get some trippy editing and staccato frame jumps. This heralds an attack from the threatening locals. It’s more like a horror movie than anything else: the fun and zip has gone. Then when Ann screams after seeing Mike killed, Kong enters the story – we hear his enormous roar in the 57th minute.
* One thing we don’t get in this version is a scene of the natives sacrificing one of their own before they spot Ann. But once Ann is offered up to Kong, we move into action-movie territory as the men set off to rescue her. (As in the previous films, the island natives oddly vanish from the story at this point. Where do they go?!)
* Kong appears for the first time at the 67-minute mark. After the stop-motion puppet of 1933 and the man-in-a-suit of 1976, this film has a 100-per-cent CG Kong. The character’s performance is driven by actor Andy Serkis using motion-capture technology and it’s a superbly impressive piece of work. He fits into the surroundings very well indeed – and his face carries genuine emotion and empathy.
* We’re into a long section now, which cuts between the men encountering dinosaurs, giant insects and sea monsters, and Ann’s Stockholm-syndrome subplot with Kong. It drags, to be frank: the characters are on Skull Island for nearly half the film and it’s largely dialogue-free. The Ann/Kong scenes seem to never end. But there is also fun to be had, especially in the way Denham keeps shooting his movie even when colleagues are being killed before his lens. The action is generally good too, if a bit cartoony at times (as well as Kong and the monsters, the island is often computer-generated).
* Kong’s fight with a T-Rex contains allusions to the equivalent scene from 1933, while the famous ‘giant insects’ sequence that was cut from the original has been restaged here.
* When Denham loses his film footage, he decides to transport Kong back to New York instead. It takes this gang a lot longer than their 1930s counterparts to subdue the beast!

New York City (again): Carl Denham presents his Broadway show ‘Kong – Eighth Wonder of the World’. But his star attraction breaks free and goes on the rampage…
* After the same kind of audacious jump-cut as in 1933, we’re back in the glorious New York City we saw at the start of the film.
* A change from the original movie sees Ann not involved with Denham’s stage show – instead she’s got a lowly job in a chorus line. Time has passed and things have moved on: Denham’s bosses return from the start of the film, but are now much more kind to him, while Jack and Ann are estranged. It’s a more downbeat section than in 1933, which basically had everyone okay with kidnapping a wild animal for entertainment.
* At the theatre, Denham’s show features music and costumes from the 1933 film: nice touches. Kong then goes crazy because it *isn’t* Ann on stage with him (Denham has hired a stand-in), which is lovely twist on expectation.
* As Kong tears through the city, we get lots of action. There’s no big stunt involving a train (as in 1933 and 1976), but Kong does trash a tram. He calms down once Ann appears on the scene – and there’s then a very silly sequence where the two of them go ice-skating! (Firstly, where has everyone else gone in this moment? Secondly, would a 25-foot-tall gorilla not break the ice on a small lake?) The timing of this section is also difficult to fathom. We go from an evening Broadway show to dawn the next day, but nowhere near enough story seems to happen to justify that time stretch.
* Once Kong has climbed the Empire State Building, the action sequence featuring biplanes is very enjoyable indeed. And, in keeping with this version’s emotional rigour, it’s actually a moving moment when Kong is killed and falls to the ground.
* The 96-year-old Fay Wray was asked to cameo as a bystander who utters the line, “It was beauty killed the beast.” She initially said no, then hinted she might be up for it. But she died on 8 August 2004, a month before filming began.

Review: Unlike a lot of recent blockbusters, this uses CGI in skilful and stylish ways – to create believable creatures and environments that wouldn’t otherwise be filmable. The title character might be the focus, and he is a marvellous creation, but it’s the New York scenes that really wow. They’re so believable you wonder whether time-travel was involved. Super stuff. The script also has a light touch and tells its story briskly and with economy… well, at least until the story gets bogged down with repetitive action on Skull Island. Things really drag at that point, which is a shame. The King Kong template has a slender, simple plot, but this version is *twice as long* as the original. Peter Jackson clearly has an issue with brevity. His Middle Earth movies are enjoyable, but all feature superfluous encounters with elves or talking trees or skin-changers. Here, the terrific work of the film’s first half is nearly scuttled by self-indulgence on Skull Island. But there’s still more than enough good stuff to see us through.

Eight bars of chocolate out of 10