Monday, March 29, 2021

King Kong

1976's King Kong holds up fairly well nearly 45 years after its release. The first remake of the 1933 film, producer Dino De Laurentiis and director John Guillermin's film is memorable for its practical effects including the mechanical Kong mask developed by Carlo Rambaldi and Rick Baker giving Kong's face a wide range of emotion. While some of the composite shots merging Kong with the world aren't as effective today, there's still quite a bit of movie magic. Baker also credits cinematographer Richard H. Kline whose work he felt hid the limitations of what could be done with Kong at the time.

Updating the story a bit to fit with the times, the ship isn't searching for exotic locations but instead that of an oil company executive (Charles Grodin) looking to drill. Stowing away is paleontologist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) who has his own reasons for wanting to visit the island. The ship also picks up the sole survivor of a shipwreck, aspiring actress Dwan (Jessica Lange), who completes a cast supplemented by the ship's crew and the natives they will encounter on the island.

From there the story takes the expected journey of Dwan being sacrificed to the island god, and our greedy oil executive (after discovering he's struck out on the oil reserve he hoped to tap) changing tactics and choosing to capture the ape and take it back to New York as a publicity stunt to save his job within the company. The event turns out to be a grotesque mockery of marketing which no doubt a company would actually attempt in these circumstances. Of course, Kong gets loose and eventually climbs the tallest building he could find (in this version the Twin Towers) before being killed by the true monsters of the film: humanity (who are both responsible for the majestic creature's death and whose masses can't wait to gawk at the dying carcass of the once powerful eighth wonder of the world).

Lange, in her first role, is delightful here as the ridiculously named Dwan who has to sell many scenes when playing off of only a large mechanical arm apparatus which was built for the film. Bridges is fun as the man smart enough to see how badly this is all going to end. It's a telling choice the film ends with the two characters apart, rather than comforting each other over what their actions have wrought. The end of King Kong is tragic, not melancholy (particularly after Bridges' earlier speech about how removing Kong from the island also ruined the lives left behind). Despite Kong's various paths of destruction, it's the greed of humanity that is the most destructive force captured here.

While far from perfect, the movie fits the bill as a big budget summer popcorn flick, with some genuine thought and emotion behind it, and avoids loosing itself in a director's extended masturbatory fantasies (see Peter Jackson's disastrous 2005 remake). The film would inspire a sequel ten years later, without Bridges or Lange, in which Kong is saved and nursed back to health after the fall. While the sequel plays off an interesting idea, its a large drop-off from what the 1976 film offers and there's good reason why so many have forgotten about it over the years.

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