The 1976 remake of King Kong might be peak Dino De Laurentiis. The legendary Italian producer’s films whipsaw back and forth between the grandiose, the absurd, the exploitative, and the just plain shitty. King Kong is a prime example.
Clocking in at an interminable 134 minutes, this King Kong is meant to be an epic retelling of a cinema classic. Everything about this film, directed by John Guillermin, seems meant to showcase how film has improved and grown in the forty years since the original film was released. The original King Kong was severely limited by what was possible at the time, yes, but it never felt like a failing. Nor is this film an indictment of what came before. But this film does live and die on an implied promise that it will be a better technical film than that which came before. Other than making money, there really isn’t much more reason for this film to exist.
The film follows Jeff Bridges as Jack Prescott, a paleontologist from Princeton. He got wind of a mysterious island somewhere in the Indian Ocean that could be home to a mythical beast. In order to get to the island, he stowed away on a ship heading there to prospect for oil. That expedition is being run by Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), an executive with the Petrox Oil Company, who believes the island will provide access to the largest oil reserves in the world. While traveling to the island, the ship encounters a life raft with a single occupant — aspiring single-named actress Dwan (Jessica Lange, in her film debut). Thusly is the cast assembled, and it only remains for them to reach the island.
The filmmakers dispensed with the ominous skull mountain of the original, perhaps because it was the one thing too campy for this remake, but other than that, the island setup is identical. There’s a massive wall dividing the island into two parts. On one side is an indigenous village, and on the other is Kong. The native islanders are preparing a human sacrifice to Kong when Wilson’s expedition arrives, and similar machinations lead Dwan into the clutches of Kong, with Jack Prescott hot on their heels to provide a daring rescue. Viewers familiar with the original will know how this goes, as this film tracks closely. The major difference being that this remake, despite the bloated running time, somehow has less action than the original. Kong was pretty busy dealing with dinosaurs on multiple occasions in that flick, but audiences in 1976 only rated one measly fight with a rubber snake.
That points to the biggest problem with this film. Being a showcase of modern Hollywood, this version of King Kong could not be considered a success unless the ape and the other special effects looked better than the original. They do not. A massive suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy the original King Kong, but the movie is such an adventure that it’s easy to lose oneself in it. The stop motion effects of Miles O’Brien look cheap compared to today’s best CGI, but it is still a masterclass in storytelling with effects. Meanwhile, the remake is just a guy in a suit.
The suit and mask were designed, built, and worn by Rick Baker, with assistance from Carlo Rambaldi. The various masks they made do a fine job of conveying the different emotional states of the great beast, but every time the camera pulls back to show the ape in full, the illusion is destroyed. There may have been much progress in film over the previous four decades, but not enough to make the wide shots believable. Despite the hard work of the effects teams and the model builders, and the film’s respectable budget, these shots are barely better than what one would find in any random Godzilla film.
That’s a huge problem, as the spectacle of Kong is all the promise this film has. The scenes with the ape have to be the best scenes in this film, otherwise one has to wonder why the filmmakers bothered at all. As it is, they are not the best scenes. The most competent part of this film is the first act, during the setup. The film is occasionally gripping in this first act, despite all the cliché and caricature. Once Kong appears, all that promise evaporates as the viewer sees the monster in full, and wonders, “Is this it?” Yes, it is.
As for the human cast, they were burdened by a poor script. I’m sure Jessica Lange was excited for her big break, but her character was repellant. Dwan is the film’s perpetual damsel in distress. The first moment we see her she’s being rescued, and such is the case in between and at the end. She floats through the movie blissfully unconcerned with the machinations of the menfolk, and willingly submits to being a walking, talking, empty-headed MacGuffin for Kong. She is Marilyn Monroe at her most ditzy and objectified, and I don’t think all of this is Lange’s fault. She didn’t write or direct this film. Her performance wasn’t going to win any Oscars, but no one could bring the character of Dwan home. Still, the scenes where she sits in a giant mechanical hand and berates Kong are cringeworthy.
This remake of King Kong is a bloated mess. The Kong suit was a good effort that fell way, way too short; all the main characters, not just Dwan, can take a long walk off a short pier; and the film is too long. In just about every way, this film fails compared to its predecessor. So much for forty years of film progress.