Sunday, July 29, 2012

Random Movie Report #108: King Kong Lives

King Kong Lives DVD Cover and Amazon Link

One of the reasons for my recent Kong retrospective was that I've become enamored of the theory that giant apes can make any movie worth watching. Scientifically speaking, the only way to test such a theory is to see a really bad giant ape movie, so I decided to be a completist (read: idiot) and watch King Kong Lives, the sequel to De Laurentiis' Kong remake that mostly survives as a record of a bunch of really bad decisions. Honestly, I went in open minded, but it's a movie that doesn't work for a lot of reasons, chief among them a petty, exploitative atmosphere that does little justice to the majesty of one of the screen's most iconic characters. Now, we do get two giant apes instead of one, and they wreck things and step on people and do the things we expect giant apes to do, but I'm not sure if it falsifies my theory or not.

So, as per the title, Kong survives his fall from the World Trade Center, and nine years later is in a coma at a giant university research center, where surgeon Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton) is waiting to install a giant artificial heart to revive the ape. The problem is, Kong needs a blood transfusion in order to survive the operation. Fortunately, adventurer Hank Mitchell (Brian Kerwin) has discovered a female Kong in the wilds of Borneo and manages to capture her thanks to the natives riddling her with poison darts. Lady Kong is shipped to the medical facility, and with her blood, the operation is a success, but when King Kong senses another of his kind in distress, he breaks out, liberates his female counterpart, and the two escape into the wilds of Tennessee. Amy and Hank are in pursuit, but unfortunately so is the kill-happy Lt. Col. R. T. Nevitt (John Ashton), who is in favor of destroying the apes rather than recapturing them. Meanwhile, King and Lady let nature take its course, and Lady is eventually with child, which makes their situation more difficult when the army rolls in.

Nobody sets out to make a bad movie, but while a decent amount of talent has been assembled here (writer Ron Shussett co-wrote Alien, and John Guillermin returns from the 1976 King Kong), and they all are giving it a solid effort, the film can't escape a hacky, ramshackle atmosphere. Part of this is down to the fact that, before filming, the movie saw its budget slashed substantially when DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group ran into financial trouble. This required that various sequences be scaled down or cut out altogether, which makes parts of the story seem abbreviated. Lady Kong, for example, is captured within minutes of her introduction, brought down by natives who seem to be  used to doing this, which raises the question of why the people on Skull Island had to go to the lengths of putting up a giant wall.

Which, I think, brings us to the real problem: everyone's all too blasé about the existence of two giant apes and the fact that one of them was effectively brought back to life by an artificial heart the size of a coffee table. By the time Amy is introduced she's already accepted this assignment, and there's no sense that she feels any particular exhilaration or nervousness or much of anything at the prospect of performing an operation that would more or less make her the most famous heart surgeon of all time. The surgery itself is presented utterly matter of factly even though everyone is using giant scalpels, forceps, etc. Hank treats his (well, the natives') capture of a second giant ape as mostly an opportunity to make a few bucks, and Nevitt sees the primates as mostly a nuisance. The comedic tone of the 1976 Kong was a problem, but it's worse here, as it's not tempered with any kind of majesty. The picture can't help but slide into camp, especially when we have scenes of the two Kongs romancing each other, Kong disrupting hillbilly family reunions, etc.

It must be said that budget issues aside, the special effects are pretty good- the Kong suits aren't as ratty as in the '76 movie, and they didn't waste money on any malfunctioning robots this time. The action sequences are well shot and often fairly entertaining in and of themselves, they're just surrounded by a lot of very bored people and a story with a very obvious trajectory. They almost make the film worth watching, but the overall experience is a slog.

King Kong Lives is interesting as a missed opportunity. American studios weren't even making giant monster movies in the Eighties, and this one has an intriguing enough premise that you could imagine it working in a strange, off-kilter way. And I will confess that even though this is a bad movie, I will probably pick up a copy on DVD if I find one for cheap. I have a giant ape problem. But you should probably avoid this.

My findings are inconclusive.

Based on the character created by Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper
Story and screenplay by Steven Pressfield and Ron Shussett
Directed by John Guillermin

Grade: D+

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