The 1970s was the golden age for disaster movies, and with the recent success of The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, King Kong looked ripe for a remake. Unfortunately the real disaster ended up being the film itself.
While Jackson’s remake took the original’s 1930s setting and fleshed it out by doubling the length and adding CGI monsters, this version is set in the present, being 1976. Instead of going to make a film, the ship heads to the mysterious island in search of oil, with a biologist, Jack (Jeff Bridges) sneaking aboard to observe the legendary wildlife on the island.
I actually prefer this premise since exploration of dangerous places is common when looking for oil, but not when making movies. It means it’s no longer a film about film, losing something of interest compared to the original, but it gains a timely if heavy-handed comment on the white man’s worship of oil.
The concept of Kong is inherently racist. Indeed, in this version six black women are offered up by their tribe in exchange for one white woman. But the tribes-people are at least allowed some superiority to the invaders in their relationship with nature. They are respectful of nature to the point of worshipping it and are consequently able to live in harmony with it. In the industrialised world, however, there’s a more adversarial relationship with nature, as they seek to tame Kong and bend him to their will, which ultimately leads to carnage in New York.
Replacing ambitious film maker Carl Denham with biologist Jack means that there is a far more appealing protagonist. In the original and Jackson remake they don’t really know what to do with Denham and whether he’s supposed to be a good guy or not. Jack’s respect for nature gives him the moral high ground against the oil tycoon who decides to bring the ape back to the city; a far more interesting dynamic. Another improvement is the fact that this is the only version with the sense to have a boat big enough to bring the monkey back.
A major flaw is the extensive focus on Jack’s relationship with only female character and simian romancer Dwan (Jessica Lange), made even more peculiar by the fact he’s doomed to be cuckolded by a giant ape. The horribly written Dwan is discovered passed out on a life raft wearing next to nothing in a creepy scene that feels like someone’s better-left-to-the-imagination sex fantasy. It’s only made worse by her child-like naivety and constant nauseating flirtatiousness. It would have been better to do away with Jack altogether and develop Dwan properly so we could buy into her relationship with Kong – surely the central dynamic of the story.
But while there are major problems with the characters, there’s one big reason for this film’s dire reputation: the quality of the monkey. Let’s be clear, the main appeal of a King Kong film is Kong. His name is the title for Christ’s sake. In this incarnation the effects don’t appear to have improved at all in 43 years. This doesn’t have to be a problem. The original still works even considering how dated it looks. It just stretches the limits of believably when Dwan has to stand completely still to allow herself to be grabbed by the painfully slow mechanical ape arm, only to start struggling once she’s in its grasp. Many of these scenes are completely hilarious, which is quite far from the desired effect.
But the main problem is that for much of the film the monkey is a person in a monkey suit, and a person who doesn’t make any attempt to move like a monkey at that. This ape strides around bolt upright and can’t climb for banoffee. In fairness to whoever was in the suit they do have excellent posture, but not for an ape. It doesn’t have to look completely real, but it also shouldn’t look like a guy in fancy dress walking round Legoland. Especially when your script includes the line “who the hell do you think went through there? Some guy in an ape suit?”.
That’s not the the only hint that the film’s makers realised how bad it looked. Before the end credits a special message from the producer comes onscreen telling us who created the ape effects, but omitting to thank them. At least now we know who to blame.