Director: John Guillermin
Remaking a classic film can be a tricky thing. You not only have to appeal to those that hold the source material dear (and will likely resent the remake no matter what), but try something a little different so the movie doesn't seem like a total rip-off. The idea of remaking movies has meant big business for Hollywood since the late '90s, but they've been around for decades. Even as early as the '50s, filmmakers have long been infatuated with the idea of telling the same story from a different perspective. But when Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis announced his intentions to remake the legendary monster movie King Kong in 1976, critics immediately jumped all over it. The original King Kong is one of those movies that you just don't mess around with, so the idea of a remake was immediately proclaimed blasphemy. But is it really that bad?
Our story begins at a port in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, where an exploratory vessel for the Petrox Oil Company is on an expedition to find a previously undiscovered South Pacific island hidden by a permanent fogbank. Petrox executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) believes the island contains a massive depository of oil, and wants to acquire it before Shell and Exxon have the chance. As Wilson explains the details of the island to the crew, the meeting is interrupted by Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), a primate paleontologist that just so happened to stow away as the ship left Surabaya. He warns Wilson's team about going through with their mission, citing ominous messages from previous doomed explorers. Wilson orders Prescott to be locked up, claiming he's really a spy from a rival corporation. However, while being led to the brig, Prescott spots a small life raft in the ocean and convinces the crew to pick it up.
On the raft is a beautiful yet unconscious woman who, upon awakening, introduces herself as Dwan (Jessica Lange). Yes, her name is "Dwan." No, that is not a typo. I'm assuming that whoever came up with that name was either a.) a hippie, b.) an idiot, or c.) had a rather tenuous grasp on the English language. Maybe it was d.) all of the above. In any event, it is revealed that she was an actress aboard a movie producer's yacht when it suddenly exploded, but because she was on deck, she managed to get into a lifeboat. Turns out the only reason she was up on deck was because she didn't want to watch Deep Throat with the rest of the yacht's crew. I wish I was joking, but that's the real reason. Go watch the movie for yourself if you don't believe me.
The voyage continues as planned, and the ship finally arrives at the island. The expedition, with Dwan in tow, head for shore. Despite Wilson's unsupported belief that the island is uninhabited, they discover a primitive tribe of natives living behind a gigantic wall. The natives are in the middle of a ceremony where they plan on sacrificing a girl to their god, Kong. But when their leader (Keny Long) notices them watching, he stops everything and starts giving them grief over it. None of the expedition understands the native language, but they do understand when the tribe's leader proposes to trade six of their women for Dwan. They refuse, and when the tribe makes a move, the expedition gets out of Dodge as fast as their legs can carry them.
Back on the boat, nightfall comes, and the natives stealthily arrive at the ship and kidnap Dwan. They're like ninjas. Nobody even knows they're there until it's too late. They take her back to the island and lash her to an altar as a sacrifice, and from the looks of it, she doesn't really mind. Dwan doesn't even fight back or scream or anything. So anyway, they tie her to this altar thingamajig, and as everybody has probably assumed, we discover that Kong is a fifty-foot-tall ape. Kong picks her up, and she finally screams for help. Yeah, Dwan, that would have been a little more helpful had you done it earlier. But instead of biting her head off or squashing her, Kong just heads back into the jungle. Okay, whatever. Maybe Kong has a soft spot for airhead hippies with stupid names, I don't know.
While the sacrifice takes place, Prescott finds a native's necklace where Dwan had been, and that's when it hits the fan. With Wilson and the team close behind, Prescott returns to the island and breaks up the tribe's party. But alas, Kong has already made off with Dwan. He takes his new trophy wench back to his home in the jungle the following morning, where she promptly calls him a "chauvinist pig-ape" (whatever that's supposed to mean) and tells him to choke on her before she bonks him on the nose. Kong doesn't like that, so she starts backpedaling and apologizes. She tries to make nice, which leads to the following line of dialogue: "I'm a Libra. What sign are you? I bet you're an Aries." Once again, I wish I was joking. She asked Kong his sign! He's a giant monkey, astrology serves him no purpose. He has people to eat, jungles to conquer. But as lame as it may be, Dwan's flirtatiousness spares her life, as Kong puts her down and makes goo-goo eyes at her. She promptly tries to run away and falls into a mud puddle, so Kong once again picks her up and carries her away. Gentleman that he is, Kong takes the muddy Dwan to a waterfall and gives her a bath. He even blows her dry. And judging by her reaction, hot monkey breath really scratched her itch, if you know what I mean.
Meanwhile, back at Wilson's base in the village, Wilson's assistant Roy (Rene Auberjonois) informs him that there is indeed a large deposit of petroleum on the island. But there's a catch: it'll be another ten thousand years before the oil will be worth anything. Not wanting to go home empty-handed, Wilson calls in reinforcements. Nightfall comes once again, and just as Kong starts putting the moves on Dwan and remove her top, they're attacked by an enormous snake. Prescott finds them, and while a battle between Kong and the snake ensues, they make a run for it. The fight is short, and Kong begins chasing the pair through the jungle. Just as they arrive at the village's giant wall, Kong is bombarded with chloroform and knocked unconscious.
Since he won't be getting any of the oil he so desired, Wilson has come up with another idea to make Petrox millions of dollars. Drawing inspiration from both an offhanded joke made a member of his crew and Exxon's "put a tiger in your tank" advertising campaign, Wilson decides to transport Kong to the United States as a promotional gimmick for Petrox. Confined to a dark, empty compartment aboard an oil tanker, Kong is a miserable wreck until they reach their final destination of New York City. Prescott protests Kong's exploitation, theorizing that losing Kong will cause the entire island to turn to alcoholism because their way of life has changed so drastically. It's funny, because I figured that having an enormous man-eating ape living in my backyard would be a better reason to START hitting the bottle. Getting rid of him would be a good thing, right?
But in any event, Prescott protests, and tries to convince Dwan to avoid involvement herself. But the call of stardom is too tempting for her, and she agrees to do Petrox's "Beauty and the Beast" show with Kong, who is bound in chains and surrounded by an immense cage. Unfortunately, Kong mistakes the throng of reporters surrounding Dwan as attackers, and the extremely pissed off ape goes berzerk. He breaks out of his chains and the cage surrounding him, and begins to demolish anything standing in his way. He angrily squashes Wilson and demolishes an above-ground subway train, before leisurely strolling across the East River. He discovers and recaptures Dwan, making his way through the streets of Manhattan towards the World Trade Center. With his betrothed in tow, he climbs atop of the World Trade Center and stares down armed helicopters and men with flame throwers, staging what will be his last stand.
You know that whole stereotype of remakes paling in comparison to their source material? The 1976 iteration of King Kong reinforces that stereotype. The movie is nothing short of mediocre from start to finish. The acting is less than stellar, the script is silly, and the special effects are lackluster. And even the movie's tagline is screwy. The poster up there proclaims the movie to be "the most exciting original motion picture event of all time." Think about that one. I mean really ponder it for a minute. You done? Okay. Now that you've thought about it, I'd like to ask: What kind of moron in Paramount's advertising department decided to promote a remake as an "original motion picture"? Anybody that hasn't been living in a cave for their entire lives has heard of King Kong, so billing a remake as original smacks of absolute idiocy.
So let's go down the list of the really big complaints, shall we? The screenplay written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. is very much a sign of the times. A great big stupid sign of the times. There's the energy crisis, greedy corporations, characters using the "what's your sign" method of flirting. Even that idiotic pet rock fad is referenced in the name of the Petrox Oil Company. The screenplay does retain a basic skeleton similar to the original classic: a group of people discover an colossal simian on an island in the South Pacific and ship him to New York City, only for the ape to go crazy over a pretty blonde woman and climb a relatively new skyscraper (or pair of them, as is the case in the remake). However, Semple makes numerous artistic changes to the story, some of them for the worse. Instead of the timeless idea of a film crew, the crew is an is a much more topical oil company hunting for petroleum reserves, as the country was recovering from the oil crisis of 1973. And let's not forget Semple's complete and total omission of the dinosaurs living on Skull Island (which remains nameless in the remake). The various dinosaurs were the coolest part of the original movie, yet the only other wildlife on Skull Island is a very large, very immobile snake. Come on, guys, couldn't you have given us something worth watching on Skull Island?
Semper's dialogue is downright ridiculous as well. Dwan's line "did you ever meet anyone before whose life was saved by Deep Throat?" has to be one of the most absurd (yet oddly brilliant) snippets of movie dialogue I have ever heard. How Jessica Lange could deliver it with a straight face is beyond me. However, I should commend Semple for giving us a sequence that neither Merian Cooper or Peter Jackson attempted to offer. In neither of the other versions do we see how Kong is transferred to his American prison, but this film does. Semple also develops the romance between his human leads better than the original story did. Ditto for the relationship between Kong and his betrothed. In the original film, Fay Wray existed simply as an object of Kong's lust. She loathed him, and he only kept her around because he thought she was cute. But in this updated version, Kong and Dwan seemingly have a bond. It takes her a while to warm up to him; in the early going, she appears to merely humor Kong's fondness for her in order to keep him calm. But as the movie progresses, and she realizes the depths of Kong's affection, her fear and dislike for him give way to sympathy. She knows that his rampage through Manhattan will lead to his demise, but she tries to save him and weeps when he takes the Nestea Plunge off the World Trade Center.
And then there's those very poor special effects. If Dino de Laurentiis had just waited a couple of years for George Lucas to conquer the world with Star Wars, then the effects could have been salvaged. But alas, what we get is average at best. The special effects won an Acadamy Award, proving that in the '70s, special effects didn't have to be all that special to garner praise. There apparently wasn't much evolution in the effects field in the forty-three years between the original and this one. The blue-screen shots are very noticeable and distracting (especially in the scene where Dwan punches Kong on the nose), while Kong is very obviously a guy in a costume. Rick Baker, the man in the monkey suit, doesn't even bother to walk or really act like an ape. And to make things worse, the suit doesn't look all that realistic either. My guess is that the effects department decided that they would eschew any type of sophistication and play it like a Godzilla movie. That's the only excuse I can think of, because the suit looks just as awful as the worst Godzilla costume. There's also a life-size mechanical version of Kong in the movie, which is a great idea in theory. But in execution, it just looks completely fake. Maybe that's why it has only about ten seconds of screen time. And let's not forget Kong's epic brouhaha with the giant snake. Simply put, Kong's battle with the snake has to be the stupidest cinematic fight scene since Bela Lugosi took on a fake octopus in Bride of the Monster.
I should, however, compliment the sweeping musical score arranged by John Barry. It successfully establishes the mood needed for each scene, and I'd rank it as some of the most underrated work on Barry's extensive résumé. Also great is John Guillermin's direction and Richard H. Kline's Oscar-winning cinematography, which give the movie a much-needed epic scope. But Guillermin and Kline's work is nearly rendered ineffective by the lousy art direction at the beginning of the movie. The majority of the jungle sets look like they were leftovers from old episodes of Star Trek. Frankly, they just aren't believable at all. And finally, there's the cast. You can tell they're all having fun, but that doesn't exactly mean the same for the audience. Jeff Bridges's hippie animal rights activist is a pain in the neck, and not once did I want to root for him. Charles Grodin is fun as an unscrupulous corporate executive, but the character exists solely to look pathetic and be proven wrong every time he says something.
Jessica Lange's performance leaves a lot to be desired. Throughout the whole film, Lange just preens for the camera, as if she's silently declaring, "Here I am, world. Check me out. Aren't I just so darn pretty?" She's like the Paris Hilton of the '70s. Granted, King Kong was her very first movie, but couldn't she have at least tried harder? During the whole sacrifice scene, Lange simply sat there. She didn't scream, she barely moved, and she didn't even bother to open her eyes for most of it. I wouldn't be surprised if she was as high as a kite, because she definitely looked like it. Seriously, if I was being sacrificed to a giant gorilla against my will, I would at least pretend to be a little perturbed. I must admit that I'm not the least bit surprised that she took a three-year hiatus from Hollywood after making King Kong, as she didn't appear in another film until 1979's All That Jazz. If I'd been around in 1976 and had been asked if Jessica Lange would have had a fruitful career in Hollywood based on her performance in King Kong, I'd have probably said no. But she has two Best Actress Oscars (along with four other nominations), so King Kong proves that everyone can improve upon something.
The remake of King Kong wasn't the complete disaster that history has made it out to be. It made a solid 52 million dollars at the domestic box office, which would be a huge 180 million dollars when adjusted for inflation. So King Kong wasn't a financial failure by any means. However, time has not been as kind to the remake as it has been to the original classic. As I said earlier, this movie reinforces the belief that most remakes are disappointing attempts to make a buck or two at the expense of a proven name. No, it isn't a bad movie, but it's not a good one either. A film's mediocrity can be forgiven if it is at least charming or entertaining, but King Kong doesn't really fit either of those categories. So for that, I have to give it no more than two and a half stars. I wanted so much more out of the movie, but I just didn't get it.
Final Rating: **˝