Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Monday, April 3, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: King Kong (1976)

By 1976, America had entered a new era of cinema. “Jaws” threw open the floodgates, birthing the age of the blockbuster. “Star Wars” would come the next year and show movie studios that there was no turning back. In this new epoch of massive, effects driven successes, Italian super producer Dino De Laurentiis decided to remake one of the greatest special effect movies of all time. “King Kong” would be reborn. De Laurentiis directly compared his version of “King Kong” with “Jaws,” famously declaring that “No one cry when Jaws die but when the monkey die, people gonna cry.” He also promised that his Kong would be a forty foot tall, fully animated robot created by Carlo Rambaldi. When neither of these promises exactly came true, fans and critics were pissed. The movie would make a lot of money but 1976's “King Kong” is often considered an unnecessary update of a classic, if not a massive blunder.

The remake was directed by John Guillerman, who had just made “The Towering Inferno,” another decade-defining blockbuster. Guillerman's “Kong” updates the story in a number of ways. Instead of a filmmaker leading an expedition to a rumored lost island, an oil company travels to the unnamed Skull Island equivalent in hopes of finding an untapped supply of petrol. Along the way, an activist and nature photographer named Jack Prescott sneaks onto the ship. The rig also picks up a ship-wrecked would-be actress calling herself Dwan. Upon arriving on the island, the remake falls more in line with the original. They encounter a huge wall, natives performing human sacrifices, and a giant ape named Kong who becomes enamored with the girl. After the oil turns out to be unusable, Kong is taken back to New York as a mascot. As in 1932, this goes horribly wrong.

The original “King Kong” is either the greatest pulp adventure story ever told or a sly fable about slavery, depending on how you look at it. The remake ditches that subtext to become a campy satire about corporate imperialism. That Petrox Oil is so desperate to find a new welling source is obviously meant as a(n unclear, fuzzy) commentary on the seventies energy crisis. Kong is exploited by the oil company the same way they exploit the land. The film seemingly considers this a really interesting observation but similar ideas about nature's exploitation are present in the original. Mostly, it mocks Big Oil by making the company man leading the expedition, Charles Grodin's Fred Wilson, a clownish buffoon. He suffers from seasickness, cracks meta jokes about gorilla suits, and gets personally stomped by Kong.

Much of the disappointment in 1976's “King Kong” revolved around the big ape himself. De Laurentiis promised that Kong would be brought to life as a life sized robot. Yes, that horse hair covered monstrosity does appear in the film... For a split second, at the very end, barely moving at the far end of a crowd shot. Instead, Kong is primarily played by Rick Baker in a gorilla suit. Keep in mind, it's an extremely good gorilla suit. The expressiveness and range of motion in the mask allows for a great deal of emotion. (Baker would perfect the techniques he learned for “Kong” on “Harry and the Hendersons.”) This Kong is an impressive creation but the fact is it's just not as much fun as Willis O'Brien's stop motion original. It doesn't have the same heart or personality. Look at Skull Island for another example of this version's lack of imagination. The dinosaurs of the 1932 version are gone entirely. Instead, Kong stiffly tussles with a giant snake. The magic of the original is replaced by seventies cynicism.

This “Kong” does make one interesting change to the original. Fay Wray's Anne Darrow was nothing but terrified of Kong, spending the whole movie screaming her head off. Jessica Lange's Dwan has a more ambiguous relationship with the giant ape. She's very frightened at first, calling the gorilla names and running from him. However, as they spend more time together, she grows mildly fond of him. In a moment that borders on laughable, Kong washes Dwan in a water fall and dries her with his breath. The scene from the original where Kong peels away the girl's clothes is revised here as more playful. Dwan uses Kong to though, seeing the ape as her chance to become a star, something she desperately craves. Lange is fine in the part. The film desperately wants her to become a sex symbol, placing her a series of tight, revealing outfits. But the overall cynicism of the film makes this full blown romantic approach difficult to take seriously.

As a smashy-smashy monster movie, this “King Kong” pales in comparison to the original too. Perhaps in an attempt to further humanize the monster, this Kong wracks up a much smaller body count. The famous sequence where he derails a train is intact and relatively impressive. Aside from him briefly destroying the stadium he's displayed in and an even briefer scuffle with some phone wires, that's about it. Instead, the movie focuses on the ape's mythic death. In a rather lazy attempt to update the original, the Empire States Building is traded out for the World Trade Center, which had supplanted the Empire State Building as the tallest building in the world. (Also lazy: How the film obviously connects the Twin Towers with a pair of mountains back on the island.) Kong scales the building with the girl and gets blasted by machine gun, cut to gory shreds before falling to his death. It's a little too easy, not grabbing the legendary stature Kong's ascent had in the original.

The next remake would balance Kong's monstrous, heroic, and tragic qualities better while maintaining the original's spirit of adventure. This remake tries too hard to have it both ways. It's both a campy riff on the original and a pointed satire on corporate greed. It's both a more realistic and more funny version of the 1932 story. The violence is gorier but Kong is more of a misunderstood innocent. Ultimately, it's strikes the viewer as a less inspired take on a genuine classic, too tongue-in-cheek to really grasp what made the original truly great. The film had its defenders – Roger Ebert, Pauline Kiel, John Kenneth Muir – and the vitriol that was projected at was maybe a little overdone. Mostly though, it's the most skippable version of Kong around. [5/10]

No comments: