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Posts Tagged ‘King Kong’

Not for the first time recently, we went on holiday only to find our arrival coincided with regrettably unseasonal weather conditions: ‘WINTER STORM EXPECTED SUNDAY PM/MONDAY AM’ flashed every roadside information board all the way from JFK into Manhattan. Probably just a coincidence, and I suppose it could have been worse: it was only the first day or so of the trip, when we were taking it fairly easy and trying to get over the jet lag.

The prospect of spending the evening in the hotel room was brightened a bit when Travelling Companion spotted that the movie on BBC America was King Kong. This seemed (potentially, at least) a very appropriate film for the situation – it’s one of the great, iconic New York movies, and we were staying just round the corner from the Empire State Building. The only slight cause for uncertainty was that there was no way of finding out which version of King Kong we were going to be treated to, because personally I find that my mileage differs radically (I have written in the past about my very unfashionable fondness for the reviled 1976 version). Well, we settled down in front of the TV, and I have to confess that my heart sank a bit when it became clear we would be going through the experience that is Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of this classic tale.

Surely everybody knows the basic plot of this archetypal fable: it is the early 1930s, and many Americans are struggling with the consequences of the Great Depression. Amongst them is vaudevillian Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), who is out of work and struggling to even eat. Hope glimmers when she encounters maverick film-maker Carl Denham (Jack Black, playing the part as Orson Welles at his most Machiavellian), who whisks her off to star in his new movie, to be filmed on location on an uncharted island. Also shanghaied for the trip is earnest young playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). Soon enough (well, maybe not, but we shall return to this) everyone sets sail for Skull Island, little anticipating the unusual ecosystem that has survived there: arthropods of unusual size, relict dinosaurs, and a large gorilla population (there’s actually only one gorilla, but it is very large).

Well, the natives take a fancy to Ann and end up sacrificing her to the ape, known to them as Kong (Andy Serkis does the mocapping essentials). Even as her colleagues mount a desperate attempt to rescue her, Ann finds herself realising that Kong is not quite the savage beast he first appears to be, while Carl reaches the conclusion that the ape could be just what he needs to make his career – all he needs to do is get Kong back to New York. What could possibly go wrong with an idea like that…?

Peter Jackson is quite open about the fact that the original King Kong is his favourite film of all time – well, there’s nothing wrong with that, it is an essential classic and one of the foundation texts of the fantasy and monster movie genres. He initially wanted to make it in the late 1990s, when I seem to recall it had acquired the title The Legend of King Kong, but for various reasons the project got put on hold while he pushed ahead with his noted jewellery-related triptych.

Personally I would quite like to look into that parallel dimension where Jackson made King Kong before Lord of the Rings, as I think the version they have there would be very interesting and quite possibly better. For me the extant version feels very much like the movie equivalent of one of those brick-sized mid-to-late Harry Potter novels written when J.K. Rowling had become so successful she could do anything she wanted and nobody, it seems, was brave enough to suggest that more is sometimes less.

It’s hard to imagine that the pre-Rings Jackson would have been indulged in making a version of Kong that runs for over three hours, nearly twice the length of the original film. Certainly, the 1933 film moves along at a brisk clip and skimps a little bit when it comes to things like characterisation, but it’s a pulp monster movie and that is the source of most of its charm. Blowing the movie up to proportions even vaster than that of the title character changes it entirely, making it ponderous and a source more of bathos than genuine pathos.

It is, for example, an hour into the movie before they even arrive at Skull Island, and obviously more than that before we see any monsters: Jackson has cast a trio of hot young stars (Brody was relatively fresh from his Oscar win, making this a curious inversion of that phenomenon where successful young actresses are almost instantly cast in fantasy and superhero movies – cf. Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Brie Larson, etc), but they struggle with a script that simply feels bloated – Peter Jackson and his collaborators clearly have their hearts set on making an epic movie, perhaps rather in the same vein as Titanic, but they struggle to find anything appropriately profound to say, and the film feels like it’s taking itself very seriously considering it is essentially about an island full of dinosaurs and a giant gorilla rampaging through Manhattan. It also feels like there’s an awful lot of filler (a subplot about Jamie Bell and Evan Parke’s characters doesn’t contribute much of anything and could easily be snipped entirely).

Despite being essentially a homage, the movie seems to have a curious and by no means uncritical attitude towards the 1933 film. There are, of course, a number of in-jokes and references scattered throughout it, but one gets a general sense of Jackson and his writers attempting to update and ‘fix’ the original story. This is fair enough: the 1933 Kong‘s presentation of the islanders is horribly awkward and dated, which the newer film acknowledges by modelling Denham’s ugly and garish stage extravaganza on these scenes. But again, this is hardly done with the lightest of touches.

The really successful element of the 2005 film, at the heart of the sequences where it genuinely feels as if it’s coming to life, is its handling of Skull Island itself: what’s a fairly generic ‘Lost World’ backdrop in the original has obviously been the source of much (maybe even too much) thought and imagination, with new species of dinosaur and creepy-crawly developed to populate it. The bits of the film where Jackson genuinely feels like he’s enjoying himself all derive from this, and diverge considerably from the source: the sauropod stampede, the nightmarish chasm scene, and the fight between Kong and the vastatosaurs.

The special effects are, of course, state of the art, but again one has to wonder about some of the creative decisions involved – it’s shorthand to describe King Kong as a gorilla movie, but the makers of most films involving this character have played it a little fast and loose when it comes to presenting the giant ape – the most recent Kong movie, for instance, opted to make him more bipedal and humanoid, simply because this suited the feel they were going for. The Jackson-Serkis Kong, on the other hand, is the most authentically gorilla-ish Kong in movie history, but it’s not really clear what dividend this pays.

What does feel like a definite misstep, motivated perhaps by that decision to go for a Titanic kind of vibe, is the choice to make Kong an almost entirely sympathetic character from much earlier in the film. It’s only comparatively late in the 1933 version, when it becomes obvious he is doomed, that Kong becomes the icon of pathos and tragedy he is best remembered as – prior to this, he is an ambiguous and often frightening figure. Jackson and company clearly want us on his side all the way through, one of their main tactics being to get Naomi Watts to do her sad-open-mouth face whenever Kong is in trouble (which she ends up doing a lot). The problem is that by trying to solicit pathos rather than thrills, the film usually ends up generating neither.

Despite all of this negative talk, I would still have to agree that King Kong is a case of a great director producing a magnificent folly more than an outright failure. There is all the material here for a potentially great fantasy film, but there’s just too much of it, along with plenty of other stuff which wouldn’t ever normally appear in a conventional monster movie. In the end, this is a lavish, impressively-assembled film, but it’s saddled with an inappropriate tone and a misconceived sense of its own significance that makes it a tough slog to get through.

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Well, with the Oscars out the way, the decks are clear for an onslaught of releases which a few years ago would have been cheerful, unpretentious genre movies. These days, of course, everyone wants a slice of the megafranchise action that Marvel Studios has been concocting over the last few years, regardless of whether or not their material really fits the bill: out in a couple of months is a DC comics movie that for once looks like it won’t be actively painful to watch, while we are also promised the actual real first episode of Universal’s, er, Universal Monsters franchise (Dracula Untold has apparently been stricken from the record), while first off the blocks, representing Legendary Pictures’ rather similarly-titled MonsterVerse (put those lawyers on standby!), is Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

The year is 1973, and the Vietnam War is coming to its messy conclusion. ‘Things are never going to be this messed up in Washington again,’ declares Bill Randa (John Goodman), which at the very least is a felicitously knowing first line for a movie these days. Randa is high-up inside a secret agency named Monarch, whose mission statement is to hunt down Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (or giant monsters to you and I). However, Godzilla’s visit to San Francisco is still forty years off, and to pass the time until then Randa gets himself and his team onto a US government mission to a newly-discovered island in the Pacific, surrounded by a perpetual storm system and – perhaps – containing a bizarre ecosystem the likes of which no-one has even suspected before.

Providing a military escort for the explorers is the possibly-unstable Colonel Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and his helicopter squadron, while also along for the ride are photojournalist Mason (Brie Larson) and ex-SAS guide James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Randa’s list of things to do on their visit to Skull Island, when they finally get there, starts with ‘drop bombs everywhere’ (the wafer-thin pretext is that this is to assist with a geological survey), which annoys at least one of the island’s inhabitants: one of the chopper pilots barely has time to say ‘Is that a monkey?’ before the squadron is involved in a pitched battle with…

Well, come on guys, the movie is called ‘Kong’, who do you think it is? It’s a bit of a divergence from standard monster movie grammar to wheel on the big beast in the first act, but the movie pulls it off, I would say. In the aftermath of the battle, the survivors regroup and start to think about getting home alive. But, naturally, it’s not going to be that easy, and many discoveries await: lurking on the island are all sorts of monsters, which seem intent on eating our heroes, and also John C Reilly as a stranded Second World War airman, who seems intent on eating all the scenery.

You could be forgiven for turning up to Kong: Skull Island with a degree of trepidation, for quite good reasons – 84 years on from the original movie, King Kong remains a movie icon like few others, but he’s an icon with a singularly poor track-record when it comes to appearances in subsequent movies – if films like King Kong Lives and King Kong Escapes have any value at all, it’s simply as glorious trash. You could also argue that to do a remake of King Kong which completely omits the tall building-related section of the story, and takes place entirely on the island, is also a rather bizarre choice.

However – and I can hardly believe I’m typing this – Skull Island is actually a really fun fantasy adventure film, with a lot going for it. The problem other King Kong projects have tended to encounter is one of tone – they either end up as silly, campy nonsense (the Toho and De Laurentiis projects, for example), or take themselves absurdly seriously (my main problem with Peter Jackson’s take on the great ape). Skull Island gets the tone just about right: it knows when to play things straight, and when to relax and have a little bit of fun with the audience.

There seems to me to be no pressing reason as to why this movie is set in 1973 (there’s some dialogue about how Kong is young and ‘still growing’, presumably to prepare us for a rather bigger present-day ape in a subsequent movie) – there are no overt references to the 1970s King Kong remake, anyway. It mainly seems that the film-makers thought it would be a cool wheeze to make, essentially, a Vietnam war movie that includes a load of giant monsters of different kinds. All the iconography of guys with assault rifles wading through swamps, and helicopters skimming low over the jungle canopy is here, and while it is just dressing-up with no thematic depth, it definitely gives the film its own identity (the classic rock soundtrack is also a definite bonus).

Kong himself (mo-capped by Terry Notary) is rather impressive, both terrifying and sympathetic at different times, as the story requires, and it seems to me the makers of this movie know their stuff when it comes to both this character and the whole giant monster genre – there’s a scene which seems to me to be a call-back to Kong’s love of calamari (first established in King Kong Vs Godzilla), and another which may be either a reference to a deleted scene from the original Kong, or an unexpected appearance by a new version of the Toho monster Kumonga (the fact that Kumonga is not one of the characters for whom Toho receives an on-screen credit – oh, yes, readers, there are big-name Toho monsters in this movie (sort of) – suggests the former). All in all, it’s an engaging new take on the character.

Even the stuff in this movie which is not especially brilliant doesn’t particularly detract from it as a piece of entertainment – Tom Hiddleston has an air of slightly detached bemusement throughout, as though he signed on for the movie without bothering to read the script, and I found this rather funny rather than annoying. I have to say that most of the actors are content to do big character turns rather than anything too subtle and nuanced, but again this is exactly what the piece requires.

If I’ve been at all excited by the prospect of Legendary’s planned monster franchise, then it’s really been more in hope than expectation – but Kong: Skull Island gets so much right that I’m actually really looking forward to future films in this series, provided they handle the tone and subject matter as deftly as this one. It’s certainly a much more nimble and straightforwardly entertaining movie than Gareth Evans’ Godzilla, to which it is technically a prequel. In fact, in terms of technical accomplishment, dramatic success, and ability to channel the spirit of the original film, I would say this movie gets closer to the original King Kong than any other featuring the character. An unashamedly big, crazy, fun monster movie, and a very pleasant surprise.

 

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I appear to have exhausted my supply of Heisei era Godzilla movies, which is a shame, as the ones I’d managed to find were mostly fun and interesting. Never mind. Let us now skip back in time 30 years or so, and leave the world of mostly credible, seriously-intentioned films, for that of… King Kong Vs Godzilla, a 1962 film from Ishiro Honda.

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This is one of the very early Godzilla movies (the first to be made in colour) and subject to one of the curious conventions of the period: not only was it decreed that Western audience would not be interested in seeing subtitled films (hence the rather variable dubbing which plagues many suitamation films to this day), but they would likewise be left completely cold by a film entirely populated by Japanese characters. Hence the bizarre phenomenon of the ‘American edit’, in which a Japanese film would be recut and have new footage added for its Stateside release. This happened to the original Godzilla, inserting Raymond Burr into the action – also to The Return of Godzilla in 1984. It’s a fairly central, not to mention crashingly obvious feature of King Kong Vs Godzilla.

The film opens with a rapidly-spinning globe and a voice-over intoning the ‘There are more things in heaven and earth…’ speech from Hamlet. You have to admire the sheer brass neck of opening a film called King Kong Vs Godzilla with a quote from Shakespeare, but the fun is just getting underway.

Most films have a protagonist. King Kong Vs Godzilla is no different, but it also has an anchorman: Eric Carter (played with an admirably straight face by Michael Keith), a news reporter who hosts the film from a studio. Every few minutes Eric Carter pops up to recap the action and comment on what’s going on, sometimes accompanied by his panel of fellow reporters and experts. (The actors in this scene are not being dubbed, which explains why their pronunciation of Japanese place-names is wildly different – and often better – than that of the Japanese characters in the film proper.)

It sounds like an incredibly clunky and primitive narrative device, and it is, but somehow it just adds to the fun of what is undeniably a very entertaining film. Anyway, as the film opens the Baring Sea is becoming clogged with icebergs due to an unexplained heat-source in the area, and a submarine is sent to investigate. The sub discovers an iceberg glowing with Cherenkov radiation, and, sure enough, Godzilla erupts from inside, destroying the sub in the process.

(The implication, for Japanese audiences at least, is that this is the same Godzilla who was buried in ice at the end of Godzilla Raids Again, but Carter and his colleagues talk as if Godzilla has been stuck in the ice for millions of years – despite the fact everyone already knows who he is. But then worrying about that sort of thing definitely qualifies as taking this film too seriously.)

Meanwhile, two employees of a big Japanese corporation (as usual, the boss is a tool, but played very much for laughs this time) have been sent to a remote island in search of narcotic berries and a mysterious monster reputed to haunt the mountains there. There is one scene in particular which is almost uncanny in its total incorrectness: the two men arrive (in pith helmets), to be greeted by a host of Japanese actors in blackface makeup. They proceed to buy the favour of the natives by handing out cigarettes to every man, woman, and child.

Back in the studio, Carter has been joined by Dr Arnold Johnson (Harry Holcombe), who purports to be an expert on prehistoric life, but actually appears to be some sort of escaped lunatic given his contribution to the discussion. Dr Johnson suggests that Godzilla is a tyrannosaur-stegosaur crossbreed, who is homing on Japan as it is his ancestral stomping ground. Carter does not have him thrown off the programme, remarkably enough.

Anyway, Godzilla carries out a bit of preliminary destroying in Hokkaido (horribly mispronounced in the dubbing), just to keep his hand in, while back on the island the two salarimen, Sakurai and Kinsaburo, are still looking for the monster. They are a bit distracted when a giant land-octopus attacks the village where they are staying, but this turns out to be a blessing in disguise as it turns out their quarry, King Kong, has a craving for takoyaki and turns up to fight the octopus (apparently special effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya was feeling peckish too, as he ate one of the stunt octopuses once the scene was in the can).

As fate would have it, Kong is thirsty after fighting the octopus and drinks some of the narcotic berry juice, knocking himself out. This gives Sakurai and Kinsaburo just the opportunity they need to tie him up and claim him for their corporation. However, the Japanese government feel one giant monster on the loose in the country is enough and refuse King Kong an entry visa. He ends up destroying the rather rickety-looking raft he is being transported on and swims to Japan anyway. The prospect of a clash of titans looms large, which Dr Johnson finds ‘scientifically interesting’. Everyone else starts thinking of a way to keep Kong and Godzilla apart until the last ten minutes of the film…

The appeal of most of the Godzilla series, for me, is that while the films routinely deal with outrageous ideas and feature preposterous plotting, they are generally made with quite a straight face: there are certainly moments of broad comic relief, but as far as the monsters are concerned they are treated seriously. This is especially true of the two black and white movies from the 50s – Godzilla Raids Again may feature the first in a seemingly-endless series of monster tussles, but it concludes with Godzilla ripping Anguillas’ throat out and setting fire to his corpse, while the rest of the movie is a dour family saga about fish packing.

To go from this to King Kong Vs Godzilla is therefore a bit of a shock. The inserted American scenes with Carter and Johnson may be ludicrous, but they’re played much, much straighter than many of the Japanese scenes. Much of the original King Kong Vs Godzilla is actually pitched as a comedy adventure, very light-hearted in tone, with extremely broad comic performances (Ichiro Arishima as the boss would struggle to get into a late-period Carry On film, his mugging is so outrageously OTT). A lot of this has apparently been cut for the US edit in a vain attempt to turn this into a more straightforward monster movie, but the comedy runs too deep for this to be successful.

Perhaps this is why it feels vaguely dissatisfactory as a vehicle for King Kong in particular. The fact that the ape suit is rather dismal is a contributing factor, too, but above all one just gets a very strong sense that Kong is slumming it by appearing in this sort of film. The sight of Godzilla participating in a ridiculous film is quite a familiar one – it’s much less the case with the big ape.

There’s also the fact that doing King Kong via suitamation just doesn’t feel right, especially suitamation this primitive (people complaining about the Kong ’76 suit should watch this film and then shut their mouths). Apparently there were plans at one point to realise both Kong and Godzilla via stop-motion animation, which might well have changed the course of genre history, but of course the money wasn’t there. There is a brief flash of stop-frame animation during the octopus fight, and some genuine cel animation later on, but that’s all.

The climactic tussle between Kong and Godzilla is good fun, I suppose, even if the script has to resort to ludicrous contrivances to make it a fair fight – to counter Godzilla’s nuclear breath, Kong magically acquires the ability to supercharge himself by absorbing electricity. But it’s still entirely lacking in the grandiosity and sense of moment which – all joking apart – an encounter between the two biggest monsters in movie history should surely have had. You can kind of see why Toho decided to pitch this movie to the broadest possible audience, and they certainly reaped the financial rewards of that decision, but – certainly in terms of the majority of the Godzilla series – this film is a very peculiar anomaly, an exercise in intentional camp. But it is highly entertaining to watch, if perhaps not always in the way the makers intended.

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Some movies win deserved obscurity simply through not being terribly good; others carve out a certain notoriety on the grounds of their lack of achievement – more often, it must be said, when they don’t earn money, than because they’re simply not very good. And then there are films which have seemingly been stricken from history, such is their simple, audience-repelling, critic-stupefying horror.

John Guillermin’s King Kong Lives was released in the US in 1986, promptly tanking spectacularly. It never got a theatrical release here in the UK; to my knowledge it’s never been shown on TV in this country, either. It was nearly ten years old before I found out it even existed. This is a seriously obscure movie, especially when you consider the name-recognition factor of the King Kong brand, and I was rather delighted to find a free-to-view copy of it somewhere on t’internet. Obviously, I expected it to be bad. I didn’t expect it to be quite as bad as it was, though.

Hey ho: the movie opens with a reprise of the climax of the 1976 King Kong, with the big hairy guy getting machine-gunned off the top of the World Trade Centre while Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange look on in horror (Bridges and Lange probably reprised these expressions when they heard their performances were going to be reused in this movie).

Ten years later, and in defiance of all logic, reason, and common sense, the boffins of the ‘Atlanta Institute’ are keeping Kong alive and sedated. Despite having been chopped to bits by cannon shells and then fallen over four hundred metres onto rather solid concrete, Kong seems in pretty good shape, and despite the fact that he went on a rampage through New York City killing dozens, if not hundreds of people, the folk at the institute really seem to care about him. President of the Kong club is Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton, still fairly fresh from The Terminator), who has knocked up a bionic heart for him. The problem, she gravely reveals, is that Kong has been in a coma so long his blood has gone all rubbish. In order to get the replacement heart into him, they need a source for a blood transfusion, and no such donor exists. Bummer.

But wait! Off in the wilds of Borneo, extravagantly-coiffured adventurer Hank Mitchell (Brian Kerwin – no, me neither) is minding his own business when he happens upon another giant ape. Luckily, the locals are able to shoot the outsized primate full of tranquiliser darts so he can capture it. That’s a coincidence, you may be thinking – what’s rather more striking (and blatantly so) when watching the movie is that Mitchell’s introduction, his discovery of the ape, and then its capture, all take place within the space of two and a half minutes. None of this character development and suspense malarkey in King Kong Lives! This movie has more important things to get to!

Such as… well, the board of the Atlanta Institute decide that they really like giant uncontrollable gorillas and buy Mitchell’s discovery from him. This is against Amy’s wishes, as she’s concerned that the presence of a female (yup, it’s a girl) may do things to Kong’s blood pressure, bad news given he has his heart transplant coming up. But she is overruled and the female ape…

I must now digress a bit. The female ape is referred to throughout this movie as ‘Lady Kong’. I can’t quite work out why. If she is indeed King Kong’s counterpart, then surely she’s Queen Kong? (There may have been legal issues concerning an Italian movie of that name which the De Laurentiis corporation effectively had banned, and which the producers had no desire to revisit.) Unless Kong had a previous wife who was much more popular and attractive and people would resent the new gorilla usurping her rightful title, in which case she would end up being called something like the Duchess of Cornwall Kong instead. In any case, Lady Kong just sounds like a slightly naughty wrestler. For the remainder of this review I shall therefore be referring to her as Mrs Kong. We now go back to the paragraph in progress.

…she is overruled and Mrs Kong is flown from Borneo to Georgia on a transport plane. That’s what I call a long-haul flight; the mind boggles at the lavatory arrangements alone. No sooner has she arrived than preparations are underway for the operation, which is just one of many immortally absurd sequences in King Kong Lives, complete with scrubbed-up surgeons wielding circular saws and operating cranes, and giant surgical paraphernalia including cotton-wool buds the size of bean bags.

The operation is a complete success and everyone celebrates! (Especially the film-makers, for the movie has still got over an hour to fill somehow.) Why is everyone in Georgia apparently so happy Kong has survived? Have they got such a grudge against New York and its inhabitants that they have adopted this terroriser of the city as their own? Questions, questions. The scent of Mrs Kong (one shudders to imagine) reaches Kong, who busts out of the convalescent ward and rescues her from her own quarters. (The moment at which the two apes first set eyes on each other is another one to savour: shot as a moment of great emotional epiphany, it’s somewhat undercut by the fact it features TWO MEN IN GORILLA SUITS!!! Sorry. Found I had to shout a bit just then.)

The hirsute lovers head for the hills, literally, with the US Army in hot pursuit. Also on their trail are Hank and Amy, who discover their own relationship is blossoming. This would seem out of character had either of them been written as possessing a genuine personality prior to this point. ‘We’re primates too,’ coos Amy seductively as she entices Hank into her sleeping bag, while down in the valley Kong and Mrs Kong are apparently also hard at it. Frankly, I wasn’t remotely interested in seeing either of these consummations, and, thank God, the director appears to have felt the same way.

The villain of the piece enters in the form of an army colonel who wears sunglasses and smokes a cigar and is keen on shooting things. Happening upon Mrs Kong in a state of happy post-coital stupor (Kong is clearly not one of these guys who likes to stick around afterward), he has her gassed and airlifted away by helicopter (once again, what about the lavatory arrangements?!?). Kong is struck by a pang of guilt but is unable to rescue her, falls down a ravine into a river, bops his head on a rock and is promptly declared dead by all concerned, despite the absence of a body (no small consideration given we’re talking about a fifty foot ape).

Mrs Kong is kept prisoner down a missile silo and Amy’s boss keeps telling her Kong must be dead, as there’s not enough protein out there to keep him going. But wait! Kong is quietly devastating the local gator population and biding his time, ahead of a daring attempt to save the missus. Suffice to say it all ends up with an utterly absurd sequence in which Mrs Kong drops a disproportionately small sprog, who is then fondled by a dying Kong, while a tearful Amy delivers deathless dialogue like ‘He’s there, Kong. Can you reach him? Reach for him, Kong.’ The music soars heroically, the direction is shamelessly manipulative, the actors emote for all they’re worth, AND IT’S ALL JUST THREE MEN IN GORILLA SUITS AND A BADLY COMPOSITED LINDA HAMILTON!!!! FOR GOD’S SAKE!!!

This is not one of those movies let down by a small budget or other such piddling little trifles. Indeed, I feel obliged to say that in many respects the production values are actually better than in the 1976 film – the special effects are certainly less embarrassingly inept and primitive, while the ape suits are not too bad either. But this does not get away from the fact that this is a film based on a fundamentally stupid idea: doing a story revolving around a romance between two characters played by men in gorilla suits. If that’s your premise, you may as well give up right at the start, because there’s no way in the world you’re ever going to make a good movie.

I was thinking just the other day about why some monsters have endured and why I like some more than others. Godzilla, for example, is an oddly mutable character – he can be the good guy or the villain, or even an anti-hero. You can project your own ideas onto Godzilla, as long as you respect the fact he’s a nightmarish destructive force. Personally, I prefer the Heisei version of Gamera to nearly any Godzilla you care to mention – partly this is because the Kaneko movies are just so good in every department, but also because Gamera himself is such a grandiose and enigmatic figure in them.

King Kong has done considerably fewer movies than Godzilla or Gamera, and it seems to me that he’s a much more limited character than either of them. The original movie has considerable archetypal power – the wild beast, shackled by society, rises up to challenge it before meeting its inevitable end – which may be why that story has been retold so many times (in, for example, The Valley of Gwangi). It’s about the triumph of technological civilisation, and the price of that triumph. This is all very well, but once Kong’s been shot off the top of the highest local landmark there’s not a lot else he can meaningfully do. All-star wrestling matches with Godzilla (keep your fingers crossed, folks – review coming soon, hopefully) have a certain novelty value, but Kong feels out of place in that kind of movie, genuinely slumming it.

It’s the same in King Kong Lives – Kong on the rampage in New York has a visceral charge to it, no matter how questionable the script or effects are. Kong wandering around Georgia chowing down on crocodiles and startling passing hicks just feels pointless and silly, and after a while one gets a sense of a movie treading water while it waits for the climax to arrive.

One could also argue that while the 1976 Kong had Jeff Bridges, Lorenzo Semple Jr., and John Barry, King Kong Lives has Brian Kerwin, Nathan Pressman, and John Scott. But the truth is that the earlier movie had a story that, while fantastical, wasn’t laughably absurd – the story here manages to be both pointless, mundane, and utterly silly. King Kong Lives? Hardly: if this is life, then it’s not as we know it.

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As long term readers may have noticed, the scope of this blog has shrunk somewhat over the last nine months, mainly due to the diploma course I’ve been plugging away at since the end of last summer (the end of this is in sight, by the way, so brace yourselves). In particular those moments of personal revelation to which I was occasionally wont, never common, have become non-existent. Let me make up for this with a confession which may shock and astound some of you, and is not something I would casually say in any other public venue: my favourite version of King Kong is the 1976 one.

Well, let me qualify that straight away by saying that the 1933 Kong is, obviously, an immortal classic and one of the keystone texts of cinema – but the sheer age of the thing means it’s very difficult to appreciate it as anything other than an historical artifact. The 2005 Kong also has much to commend it, but conciseness and lightness-of-touch are not amongst its virtues. Simply in terms of watchability and entertainment value, the 1976 film scores heavily compared to both of them, and it would (narrowly) beat out the 1933 version if I had an evening with nothing to do and only a pile of King Kong DVDs to entertain me.

And yet this film retains a rather toxic reputation, described as ‘campy’ and ‘idiotic’, and is frequently accused of almost destroying the careers of its stars. So, in the first instalment of a new strand snappily entitled Is It Really As Bad As All That?, let us revisit John Guillermin’s movie and see if it really is, er, as bad as all that.

(An interesting new sense of the word ‘original’, I think you’ll agree.)

Things kick off in Indonesia, with a ship owned by the Petrox oil company setting sail for remote waters. In charge of the expedition is executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), who believes he has discovered an uncharted island which holds vast untapped oil deposits. Also on board is stowaway Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges, in a truly appalling hairstyle and beard), a primate palaeontologist (when the script doesn’t require him to be a doctor or expert photographer) who suspects the island may not be as undiscovered as Wilson thinks, and may hold at least one very unusual inhabitant.

Along the way they pick up Dwan (Jessica Lange), a slightly dippy survivor of a shipwreck, which if nothing else cheers everyone up a bit. But things become more serious upon arriving at the island – despite what Wilson believes, it does hold a human population, living in fear behind a giant barricade protecting them from the interior and the power of their god, Kong.

Well, the natives take a fancy to Dwan and decide to sacrifice her to Kong, who turns out to be a fifty-foot tall gorilla. Attempts to free her from the ape’s somewhat lubricious clutches proceed, but Wilson is distracted by news that the oil deposits he has gambled on finding are non-existent. He will be ruined, unless he can find something very special to take back to America and justify the cost of the expedition. Hmm, shipping a giant wild gorilla to New York City as a publicity stunt – what could possibly go wrong with a plan like that?

Okay, if we’re going to be properly objective about this movie, let’s start by looking at a few of the undisputedly good things about it. Chief among these is John Barry’s score, which moves easily between being romantic and ominous, as you would expect where such a talented composer is concerned. Even I, who like this movie and am prepared to cut it all kinds of breaks, am prepared to admit the music is probably much better than it really deserves. The cinematography is also very well done.

However, the fact that much of the movie looks so good only throws into sharper relief those moments when it really honestly doesn’t. There’s no real getting away from the fact that King Kong is always going to be a special effects movie, and likewise no avoiding the fact that the special effects in Kong ’76 are amongst the most dismal ever seen in a major studio release. Now, I don’t have an issue with giant monsters being realised by men in suits, and the ape suit in this film is not completely awful. Likewise, the animatronic Kong mask is quite impressive, and there’s nothing really wrong with the full-scale hydraulic Kong arm, either. But any shot where these elements have to interact never quite works. The compositing is lousy. Effects shots throughout the movie are plagued by obvious matte lines, fringing problems (characters and objects turning transparent around the edges), and blatantly unconvincing backgrounds.

I’m prepared to admit this is a major problem and I expect my tolerance of it is largely the result of having seen much worse in many Japanese monster movies. But let me try to persuade you that this is a case of a half-decent script being torpedoed by substandard production. Lorenzo Semple, as befits the sometime scribe of the Batman TV show, Flash Gordon and Never Say Never Again, provides a screenplay which isn’t afraid to be knowing and slyly humorous in places – some of these moments fall utterly flat, such as when Lange asks Kong what his star sign is, but Charles Grodin gives a broad comic performance which is genuinely funny. ‘Here’s to the big one!’ he cries, even before the opening credits roll. Later, on arriving at Kong’s island, he is in more cautious mood: ‘Let’s not get eaten alive on this island – bring the mosquito spray!’

Now, I know some people have accused this film of not taking itself seriously, with nudgey-winky moments for the audience’s benefit like the ones above used as evidence. But, come on, let’s remember what this film’s about – a giant gorilla falls in love with a blonde starlet and runs amok in New York City. How seriously can you really take it? Treat it as a serious, emotional drama and you run the risk of looking pretentious and absurd, as I would suggest Peter Jackson discovered in 2005.

I’m also not sold on criticisms that the movie soils the memory of the original by being excessively salacious – admittedly, some of the accusations slung Kong’s way regarding his intentions towards Lange seem a little OTT (especially given the anatomical incorrectness of the ape suit). However, the dodgiest actual sequence, in which Kong seems intent on tearing Lange’s clothes off, is only a reworking of one from the 1933 movie – in which the ape genuinely does tear some of Fay Wray’s clothes off!

Nevertheless, for a film which appears to be initially pitching itself as a light-hearted fantasy romance, there are some jarring missteps along the way – casual references to rape and some incidental profanity are one thing, but the climax is startlingly bloody, as Kong is ripped to pieces by the cannons of helicopter gunships atop the World Trade Centre. (The prominent inclusion of the twin towers may explain why this film has become much less of a fixture on TV over the last ten years or so, but you can hardly blame the filmmakers for their lack of precognesis.) Slightly less obviously, the central romance between Bridges (as good here as he usually is, by the way) and Lange concludes on a peculiarly ambiguous note.

Watching this movie again with a mind to writing about it, I have found it does have more problems than I recalled – for a fantasy movie released less than a year before Star Wars, it really has much more in common with the middle-of-the-road extravaganzas and disaster movies John Guillermin most commonly put his name to (though his is a filmography not lacking in quirks, as the presence of movies like Shaft in Africa would suggest). I still think the script, the score, and some of the performances are certainly strong enough to make it an entertaining experience – it’s nowhere near a classic, but neither is it a total disgrace to its illustrious forebear.

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