When watching King Kong (1976), it's tough to not think of Godzilla (1998). Both were modern remakes of beloved monster classics. Both had lame scripts and a suspicious lack of big name stars despite big budget pedigrees. Most crucially, both used different special effects techniques than their predecessors to bring the monster to life.
Where the two films differ is that Godzilla (1998) tried to be its own movie. King Kong '76 follows the plot of the original quite closely, with only a few changes. What's amazing is that every one of those changes is for the worse. This isn't just a matter of updating. It's a matter of rendering the film silly and boring at nearly every turn. Despite the thrill that monster-movie lovers might feel at the prospect of an update of their favorite giant ape, there are scenes in this movie that will reduce them to the level of despondent two-year olds, standing alone on a cold street corner rubbing the tears from their eyes.
"Oh my God! A giant ape!
Oh, it's just you, Jeff."
The original King Kong followed a movie crew looking for nature-themed thrills. That, at least, explained what a beautiful American woman was doing on a Pacific Island. King Kong '76 follows an expedition by the Petrox Company to find oil on a hidden Island. Years of watching 50's science fiction films have taught us that women can't do real science, so we weren't surprised to see that none are present on the expedition. Instead they have to find a woman along the way, namely the castaway Dwan. No, that isn't a typo, that's her name, and she's played by Jessica Lange. She also just happens to be an actress. She was on a friend's yacht when it exploded, but because she was on deck, she was able to get to a life raft. It seems she didn't like the movie playing below deck. She explains:
Did you ever meet anyone before whose life was saved by Deep Throat?
We assume she's some kind of X-Files fan.
The toughest Survivor challenge ever.
You will notice that much of the added material dates the film horribly. Sure, today it seems a little quaint in King Kong (1933) that Carl Denham could achieve fame by making nature documentaries, but we can roll with it. King Kong '76, on the other hand, hits us over the head with its 1970s setting at every turn. There are many references to "the energy crisis," and while a movie crew has a timeless glamour, the adventures of an oil prospecting crew don't exactly stir the blood.
Meanwhile, the film is so desperate for a hero that one has to stow away on the ship. That hero is Jack Prescott, played by Jeff Bridges. (Because it's the Seventies, Jeff is even shaggier than Kong.) Jack works as a primate paleontologist, and he wants to go to the hidden island for which the Petrox ship is bound.
"This is the last time we celebrate
my birthday at Burger King!"
Once our characters get to the island, things go as you'd expect. The expedition, with Dwan (snicker) in tow, finds a giant wall and some suspiciously African-looking natives living on the Pacific island. The islanders want to sacrifice Dwan to Kong, their local god. They kidnap her from the ship in the dead of night and lash her to a ceremonial platform just outside the gates. Then Kong comes through the jungle, knocking over trees left and right. If the islanders do this often enough to build a platform, wouldn't it seem likely that Kong would have already knocked over all the nearby trees?
The plot holds no surprises. Dwan is taken prisoner by Kong, who taunts her for having such a stupid name. Although she comes to understand and even be fond of Kong, Dwan is nonetheless grateful to see Jack, who rescues her from Kong's clutches. Since the island is woefully devoid of oil, the expedition's leader, Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), decides not to go back empty-handed and devises a way to capture Kong. Once on the island of Manhattan, Kong escapes and does some predictably stupid things.
"Hey, are you guys watching Friends?"
We would like to be able to say that this movie might have gone over better if its makers had waited another twenty years for better special effects technology. Given the story and acting on display here, however, the goofy (but plentiful) special effects are the least of this movie's worries. Rick Baker's effects and performance as Kong vary from laughable to breathtaking. There are moments in which Kong is more alive and believable than his human co-stars, but occasionally a badly matted shot or a cut to the stiff, mechanical full-size version will ruin the illusion. It would have been nice to see Kong act a bit more like an ape (there's very little knuckle-walking going on here, further reinforcing the idea that it's just a guy in a costume), but so long as he's wetting down the already half-naked Jessica Lange in a waterfall and then blowing her dry with his monkey breath, we find it difficult to complain at any length about Kong himself.
To be fair, not all of the actors are chewing the scenery. A bit of slack-jawed wonder and earnest staring is expected from Jeff Bridges; he is backed up by Rene Auberjonois (one of the most underrated actors of all time) and a very steady Jack O'Halloran, whom you may remember from Superman II. Their good work is hampered, however, by the vapid camera lovemaking from Jessica Lange and over-the-top show from Charles Grodin. This was Lange's film debut, and it's no wonder that her career took a three-year vacation afterwards. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Charles Grodin, who was working again in no time.
"I just can't decide...
is your hair prettier, or mine?"
The script offers no assistance; it is full of bad jokes, including a plethora of wink-at-the-camera humor. Grodin's character exists merely to be proven wrong five seconds after he says anything, and when he's not being stupid, he's acting dumb. "Let's not get eaten alive on this island!" he yells. "Bring the mosquito spray!" Just when we think his character couldn't be any flatter, Kong helpfully shows us just how two-dimensional the guy can be.
The high-handedness of Prescott's dialogue irked us a bit as well. When someone remarks that the island's natives will be glad to be rid of Kong, Jack expresses the opposite opinion: "They'll miss him a lot. He was the terror, the mystery of their lives. And the magic. A year from now that will be an island full of burn out drunks." Amazing, huh? Because usually you'd think that the presence of 50-foot tall man-eating gorilla in the immediate vicinity would cause people to drink, not prevent it. But then we're not primate paleontologists like Jack Prescott. We were also a bit suspicious when this animal rights booster picks up an abandoned chinchilla coat for Dwan, and then compliments her on how she looks in it.
These Mormon weddings just
keep getting weirder.
The worst insult, however, is the complete removal of dinosaurs from the story. When they went to look at the original movie and make their remake, did the filmmakers somehow miss that the dinosaurs were the best part? The only other wildlife we see on the island is a very large and very immobile snake puppet that King Kong wrestles to a very gory end. Ugh.
Despite the bloody helicopter attack on Kong at the climax and the movie's inevitable failure at the box office, this movie had a happy ending for nearly everyone involved. Jessica Lange got positively vicious notices for her work here, some of which intimated that she should stick to her original line of study: mime. She later went on to win two Oscars for her acting. Rene Auberjonois got a role on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the lifetime income that comes along with it. Charles Grodin has a cable talk show. Jeff Bridges is one of the most respected actors of his generation. And, God help us, producer Dino De Laurentis is going to get a lifetime achievement Oscar later this month. Just in case you weren't sure the universe was a cold, unfeeling place, proof comes along.
*In the 1920s and 30s, such nature films were popular. The transformation of the documentary into the jungle film (of which the original King Kong was an example) occurred in such films as Ingaki and Tarzan the Ape Man, movies that featured original plots but large helpings of stock footage. It wasn't until much later that stock footage of animals became a hallmark of movie making on the cheap. Jungle Hell, anyone? Go back!