In that moment, the isle’s inhabitants — the explorers and, as we’ll soon learn, the natives and gargantuan creatures — are made equal, dots on a map. If we weren’t already skeptical of the invaders’ landing to begin with, we certainly are now. How funny it is that the age-old egoism of privileged leeches hasn’t much changed since the founding of the United States.
Fortunately, these creeps are supposed to be creeps, and one of the delights of the King Kong update in which they live is watching the development of their almost cartoonish evil and how it is squashed, eventually, by the very thing they’re trying to exploit. Like the 1933 version, the film follows a ragtag crew’s journey to Skull Island. But this 1976 romp is much more convoluted in regards to why they’re interested in the place.
Here, an expedition is being led by Fred S. Wilson (a cat-strokingly nefarious Charles Grodin), an executive of the Petrox Oil Company who believes the island might be carrying an abundance of liquid gold. The adventure would likely be much more of a waste if it weren’t crashed by primate paleontologist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), who sneaks onto the ship and becomes the movie’s moral center, and by the beautiful screwball Dwan (Jessica Lange, in her film debut), a would-be movie star rescued by the crew en route to Skull Island after her ship sinks.
You know how the rest of the movie goes: the protagonists crash ashore, encounter Kong and other fantastic beasts, kidnap Kong (after the promise of oil proves to be underwhelming), bring him back to New York, and, ultimately, watch as the giant ape is slaughtered atop a skyscraper. (Here, it’s the World Trade Center rather than the Empire State Building).
Of all the King Kong films, this one is the least visually and generally inventive. The 1933 rendition was all scrap and elbow grease, a proponent of the belief that, if you tried hard enough, you can do anything. The 2005 remake was a big-budget, three-hour fantasy epic that immersed you in its romantically nutso world, and this year’s complete reimagining, Kong: Skull Island, was a brawny, old-fashioned adventure yarn.
The 1976 interpretation just brags about how far special effects had come since the pre-Code era. It’s a little more self-aware, packed with campy one-liners and characters almost DeMillian in their exaggeration. (Bridges is a slightly batty paleontologist, so of course he looks like a sexy caveman, Grodin is a maniacal dick, so of course his hair's slicked back and has an upper lip dressed in a sharp mustache, and Lange is a bimbo of an aspiring actress, so of course she’s imitating Carole Lombard circa 1936.)
The movie aims to have a good time, but such is apparently synonymous with keeping the fake laughs coming and the visual spectacles ample. The movie forgets why its predecessor was so widely beloved in the first place: it prompted unfamiliar oohs and ahs, changing the cinematic landscape in the process. This King Kong might be shinier, but it doesn’t have the heart nor the imagination.
But Bridges, so subversively unkept, is good, and so is Lange, who should be a blank slate as the damsel-in-distress but nonetheless steals the movie. (She’s what the feature wants to be: funny, fresh, great to look at.) And the special effects are remarkable, not just because they continue to be marvelously effective 40-plus years later but also because it’s a treat to see optical illusions with so much obvious care put into them. I just wish King Kong felt like more than a product exemplifying what a lot of money can get you — it routinely feels like a movie made to pack the pockets of Dino De Laurentiis and Paramount. C+
2 Hrs., 14 Mins.
King Kong September 25, 2017
here’s a moment near the beginning of the 1976 remake of King Kong in which the camera takes a deep breath. Explorers, or, as they more closely resemble, opportunists, have just arrived at the uncharted Skull Island, a strip of waterlogged land they believe might have scores of oil. They step onto this isle loudly and crudely, deciding that they’ve conquered it before taking the time to uncover what might actually be in front of them. Just as our mouths are turning downward, soured by disgust, though, there’s a sudden transition to an aerial view of the island, zooming back slowly.