In the name of King Kong completeness I watched the 1976 remake of King Kong, a film that is mostly remembered for being the Kong film that was advertised as containing a robotic Kong and instead presented a man in a suit.
But I do give the screenwriter credit for trying to update the film and put it in a contemporary 1970’s setting (complete with hippies, evil oil companies and oil shortages) and trying to create a film that makes you think. But as a successful, exciting Kong film? Not as much.
Part of the problem is that Kong does not dominate the film the way he does in the original 1933 film (or even the 2005 film). He hardly gets to fight any monsters, his destruction of the city is limited and ultimately he spends most of the time leering at the leading lady (I think he’s trying to smile) and looking depressed. The human characters are more interesting than he is and in a Kong movie he needs to be the star.
Petrox is a rival oil company to Exxon and Shell (and sounds like a combination of the words “petrel” and “detox”). Fred S. Wison (Charles Grodin) has convinced the board of Petrox that an island hidden in the mists of the ocean contains oil. He sets sail secretly, but a Princeton zoology professor, Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), stows away on the ship. He believes that there is a new species of animal on the island. The ship also picks up a woman on a raft whose yacht blew up. Her name is Dwan (Jessica Lange – her film debut), flighty woman who wants to be a star.
But once they arrive on the island, the film is back to territory mapped by the original film. Native islanders offer to swap several of their woman for Dwan so they can sacrifice her to their god, Kong. Naturally, they refuse and the islanders kidnap her and sacrifice her anyway. And then Kong arrives.
But alas, Kong is only a man in a monkey suit and he walks like a man and stands like a man and his appearance is a bit of a letdown. Even the CGI Kong of the 2005 film looks more impressive. But nevertheless, Kong carries Dwan off, at which point the leering begins. I think he’s supposed to be smiling and looking sweet, but that’s not the vibe he’s giving off. And because Kong is played by a man in a mask, it’s creepier. The other Kongs – both the ’33 and the ’05 – were more like animals who felt very deeply, but were nevertheless rather juvenile in their affection. Not this Kong. This Kong is more like a man and a randy one, too
Dwan is then rescued and Wilson comes up with the idea of capturing Kong so they can use him in commercials to advertise Petrox. Both Dwan and Jack sign contracts – she to star in the commercials and he to help handle Kong – but Jack is already having doubts and sees Wilson’s plans for Kong as grotesque tragedy. He’s also beginning to wonder about his relationship with Dwan, wondering how a flighty, thrill-seeking, attention-grabbing woman can be happy as a professor’s wife. And then Kong gets loose and stomps through New York City (he climbs the Twin Towers instead of the Empire State Building, which were opened in ’73) and Jack must rescue her, though they take time out to discuss their relationship.
I think one of the difficutlies with this movie is that there is simply not enough action. There’s a lot of staring (there was a lot in the ’05 film, too). In the original, once we meet Kong, we’re off to the races. He fights a T-Rex, he fights a snake, he fights pterodactyls, he chases people, he romps through the city, he destroys a train. He’s a busy guy and we barely have a moment to catch our breath. There are far too many moments in the ’76 film to breath. He only fights one, highly artificial looking snake, there are no dinosaurs, and we don’t really see him chase anyone. It gets dull at times.
The other problem is that Kong doesn’t seem to quite belong in his own story. It may be something with the special affects, but there is a disconnect between the scenes with him and the scenes with the rest of the characters and he doesn’t seem like he belongs in the highly realistic 1970s. The original Kong was partly a fairy tale adventure, which is missing in the remake. No running, chasing, seeing incredible new sights (apart from Kong) or making new discoveries. The wonderment is absent.
I also found it interesting how they chose to portray the leading lady, Dwan. She’s a bit of an airhead and not very bright and it’s clear from the beginning that Dwan and Jack’s relationship is not going to work. I would have thought in the 1970s they would have been more interested in a stronger female lead ,but perhaps they were more interested in making a statement about chasing fame and how shallow it is. Dwan ultimately gets what she wants…though it comes at the cost of Kong (who she cares about in her own selfish way – she doesn’t like to see him suffer) and Jack, who I have to say is a bright spot in the film. Jeff Bridges makes a very personable hero who loves Dwan, but isn’t blind to her shortcomings, either. He lost me a little at the end, though, when he cheered when Kong killed a couple of guys who were using flamethrowers. It’s not nice to use flamethrowers, but it’s not nice that three families were suddenly bereft of someone they loved, either.
This is King Kong with a point: oil, commercialism, fame…exploiting oil (and Kong) for fame and money. But the magic is missing.