Wednesday, November 30, 2005

King Kong 1976

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In my fervor of snowballing Kong-mania, I rented Dino De Laurentiis's remake last night and gave it an open-minded watch. Having seen it, I can say it's pretty easy to understand why this film is so widely disliked. On its own, it is a passable beer-and-pizza movie to watch with your buddies, MST3k-style, but standing in the shadow of the 1933 original, it's pretty shitty.

The film updates the Kong story to the 70's, where the Petrox oil company are sailing to a mysterious fog-cloked island in order to seek out new sources of oil. In tow is hippie ape specialist Dr. Jeffrey Lebowski, who believes that the fog may actually be caused by the breathing of a big creature. Okay, his name isn't really Lebowski, but Jeff Bridges looks a hell of a lot like a young version of The Dude in this film. On the way there, they pick up a very young and numbile Jessica Lange floating around in a raft. Her name is Dwan. Not Dawn, Dwan. She switched the letters around to make it more memorable. Anway, after a montage featuring Lange in a collection of very watchable outfits, they get to the island, and things follow much in the fashion of the '33 film. The natives are having a ceremony to give away one of their young women to Kong, who lives on the other side of a great big wall. When they see the blonde chick, they want her instead, and when the crew refuse, they sneak up to the boat at night, kidnap Dwan, and she becomes a sacrifice to the The Mighty Kong.

The biggest irony of the film is, in fact, the titular creature. It's well-known that, during the huge promotional hullabaloo that preceded this film in the seventies, Dino De Laurentis made a huge fuss about the animatoronic gorilla robot that they planned to use in the film, which would be so realisitic that it would roar, beat its chest, smash up dinosaurs and climb sckyscrapers all by itself. Carlo Lombardi actually did attempt to make such a robot, but upon testing it, the crew discovered that it made the creatures out of the old Godzilla movies look like cutting-edge CGI monsters. Robo-Kong ended up being used in the film less than a minute, in the scene where he breaks out of his cage in New York City. The entire rest of the gorilla footage achieved with makeup artist Rick Baker in a costume as the giant creature.

So, De Laurentiis promised the world a Kong more technologically advanced than anything they'd seen before, but what he delivered were gorilla effects that were actually a leaps-and-bounds regression from those of the '33 film. The believeability of the movie is kindered because not once do we ever look at the beast and not think "That's a guy in a suit." Moreover, if you've ever seen a picture of Rick Baker, you know he's quite a tall, thin guy, and as much as he tries to play the ape with a lot of sympathy and sadness, he hasn't got the right body type to play a 60-foot gorilla. The fact that he walks bolt upright doesn't really help thing either. Think of a Planet of the Apes gorilla without any clothes, and basically, that's Kong. One can imagine that Ernest Shoedsack and Merian C. Cooper might have considered making Kong by way of an ape suit. Maybe they even shot a few test reels and had a look at them. I can imagine Cooper turning to Schoedsack and saying "Say, Ernie, nobody's going to believe that's a damned gorilla. Let's give that Willis fellow a call and ask him about that new-fangled stop-motion stuff he does."

In additon to the suit, the '76 Kong doesn't have two dinosaurs to rub together. Kind of ironic, as the producer was named Dino. Apparently De Laurentiis saw the original one as a fantasy, and wanted to make this one a little more "scientific". Instead of dinosaurs, the island is home to a 200-foot-long plastic snake, whose run-in with Kong actually makes Bela Lugosi's showdown with the rubber octopus in Bride of the Monster look groundbreaking. After he fends off the plastic menace, he chases Dwan and The Dude through the jungle to the other side of the wall, where Charles Grodin, the president of the oil company, is waiting to trap him and take him back to America to be Petrox's new mascot.

It's a well-known fact bringing 80-foot gorillas back to civilization for corporate profit is both pointless and dangerous, but I guess no-one on this voyage saw King Kong vs. Godzilla. To be fair, the scenes in New York City are quite well done. They'd never make you believe that an actual giant gorilla was rampaging around Manhattan, but I'd be damned if I wasn't convinced a giant man in a gorilla suit wasn't. And in addition to updating the movie to the seventies, it also makes what might be interpreted as an attempt at an environmental statement. In the early thirties, there was still a lot of the world which had not been explored yet and gorillas were percieved by most as fearsome, monsterous creatures, so the unapologetically gung-ho, white hunter attitude of the original was acceptable them, and can be looked at now as a product of its times. The new one adds a bit more of a head-butting between Bridges the nature-loving biologist and Grodin the profit-hungry "environmental rapist." I'd even go as far as to say that Lange, and her relationship with Kong, is a little more sympathetic in this film. She's not terrified of him as Fay Wray was, she really likes and feels sorry for him, even going as far as to beg him to pick her up while on top of the World Trade Center, so that the helicopters won't shoot him down. It's a tender moment that feels simultaneously sad but also cheap and exploitve, and it's got nothing on the massive lump you get in your throat when O'Brien's Kong is shot down from the Empire State Building. I'd reccomend it as a curiosity piece for Kong fans who'd like to see a different but inferior take on the story, but for cheap 'n cheerful giant gorrilla pics, you'll do much better watching Mighty Joe Young or one of the Toho Kong films than this one. The best thing about the movie is without a doubt, the iconic teaser poster (see below).

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