Saturday, May 26, 2012
The Three Faces of Kong, Pt. 2: 1976
The Dino De Laurentiis-produced remake of King Kong is an interesting case, in that it's not very good but still quite watchable because, in the end, it's still about a giant ape. Apes seem to make everything better, and the 1976 King Kong is the kind of movie I'm willing to watch even if it always disappoints just a little. My relationship with it is complicated. This is a movie that does a lot of things right, but there's something wrong with the core of it- it's a version of the original story with a lot of the magic and adventure missing, replaced as the times dictate with a grim cynicism and too many attempts to poke fun at itself. It's not without its moments, though.
The crew of an oil company's exploratory vessel are off to what executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) is convinced will be the biggest oil strike in history, on an uncharted island hidden by a perpetual fog bank. Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), a hippie scientist, has stowed away on board, convinced the island holds something a lot more interesting than oil. The ship picks up a lifeboat carrying a dazed Hollywood starlet, Dwan (Jessica Lange), saved from an explosion on board a producer's yacht, and she joins the expedition to the mysterious island- where she, as you may expect, ends up captured and offered up to the natives' god, the giant ape Kong (played mostly by Rick Baker in an ape suit.) When the oil exploration proves a bust, Wilson decides to save his job by bringing back Kong as a publicity attraction, and you can imagine what happens as a result.
The film began production less than a year before its release (after a protracted legal spat between Paramount and Universal over who had the rights to do the remake), and to a certain extent a casualty of the rushed filming was Kong himself. With stop-motion out of the question, the filmmakers turned to the old standby of a man in a gorilla suit, albeit enhanced by facial animatronics. Rick Baker actually does some good work huffing and puffing inside the suit, and the facial expressions are pretty impressive, but the thing still looks a little shaggy at times, and is definitely a step down from the expressiveness and mobility of the original Kong. And then there's the life-size hydraulically-controlled King Kong robot, a major ingredient of the film's publicity which didn't work at all and is visible in about 6 shots. And doesn't even look like the suit. We don't get any dinosaurs this time either, and while I'm normally loath to roast a remake for being different form the original, I think we can all agree that, all other things being equal, a movie with dinosaurs is superior to one without. (This is why Citizen Kane, the best movie ever, has a pterodactyl.)
The dearth of prehistoric monsters is a symptom of a larger problem, which is a general lack of wonder. The film manages some sense of mystery early on, with a journey to an unknown land and ominous hints of "the creature who touches heaven", but insists on undermining it with a jokey script heavy on lines that undercut the reality of the situation. When Dwan quips about the psychological motivation for Kong knocking down trees, she's treating him like a pop culture icon and not a terrifying beast from before time. Lines like "Estimated Monkey Time to your position" don't help either, and while there is the occasional sparkle of genuine wit- Kong being unveiled inside a cage festooned with a giant gas pump- too much of it follows the predictable pattern of Fred being a buffoon and Jack possessing an almost prescient knowledge of the island.
This is very much a film of its time, and it never quite overcomes the problems that accompany this. By 1976, we were aware of animal rights as a concept and of imperialism-in-the-name-of-oil as a bad thing (not that that has stopped us any), so of course the men who capture Kong have to be bad guys, Kong has to be misunderstood, and the male lead has to be a sensitive liberal who understands the tragedy unfolding. Jeff Bridges' acting ability needs no defense from me, but he's saddled with the burden of a character who is always right, and not in any kind of fun way either, since we know how this story ends.
Much of what makes the original film great is the ambiguity of Kong, the fact that we end up feeling sorry for, and even kind of rooting for a man-eating monster, and there's a tension between the fun jungle adventure part of it and the ultimate tragedy. The 70s King Kong is mostly tragedy with a few hints of adventure, but it's too goofy to be effective. At the end of the day it is a movie about a giant gorilla wrecking things, and it's not like the picture doesn't have things to recommend it. John Barry's musical score is gorgeous, some of the visuals are nice, the cast mostly turn in good performances. (Lange was so good she had a hard time convincing people she was actually a talented actress and not a bimbo.) It just never gels, and we're left with something that looks nice but is ultimately redundant.
Based on the story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace, and a screenplay by James Creelman and Ruth Rose
Screeplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
Directed by John Guillermin