Running time: 134 min.
Release date: December 17, 1976
The 1976 remake of King Kong suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. On the one hand, it's a fun and exciting jungle adventure almost worthy of it's predecessor; on the other hand, however, it's a campy, silly, overly long bore with a screenplay that probably should not have been greenlit. The rating I have given to the film is a balancing act itself. When it was the exciting jungle adventure, it was a real good film. However, the campy silliness of a lot of the screenplay weighed it down like an anchor.
You know the original story, I assume. This remake has changed some of the players and scenarios. Charles Grodin plays Fred Wilson, an oil company executive, who is undergoing an overseas expedition to a mysterious uncharted island in the Indian Ocean. Infrared images from a spy plane have led him to believe that it is rife with oil, and he wants to get the jump on Exxon and Shell. Jeff Bridges is Jack Prescott, a primate paleontology professor at Princeton (say that five times fast). He has stowed away aboard Wilson's ship after learning where the ship is headed; his curiosity has been piqued because of legends he was read about concerning the island. We get a scene where Wilson is briefing the ship's crew about the possibility of oil, which is interrupted by Jack as he relates the legendary stories of a possible unknown beast on the island. Wilson accuses him of being a corporate spy for the competition and lying to his crew to scare them. Once Wilson checks out his credentials and realizes who he really is, he brings Jack into the fold and makes him the expedition's official photographer.
The ship receives a mayday distress call and eventually comes across a lone life boat with an unconscious woman inside. She is over-dressed for a woman adrift on the ocean, but they bring her aboard to help her recover. When she awakens, we discover that her name is Dwan (Jessica Lange), like "Dawn" except with the W and N switched around. She remembers that the man she was sailing with was going to get her into the movies, but first he wanted her to watch Deep Throat, which is prerequisite viewing for all aspiring actresses. The boat she was on exploded and she managed to escape unharmed. "Did you ever meet anyone before whose life was saved by Deep Throat?". Yes, she really says this. The crew take a liking to her, provide her with clothes which she modifies to fit her fashion sense, and she becomes one of the gang. When the ship reaches it's destination, she wants to follow. After some coercion, they agree to take her to the island. When they get ashore, they discover that the island is not-quite uninhabited. The natives are performing some ritual that involved a priest in an ape mask gyrating his pelvis at a woman who appears to be the center of attention. The natives catch the interlopers and decide that they want Dwan. When Jack and Wilson refuse, the natives go ahead and kidnap her anyway, later that night.
Finally, after an hour into the film, Kong appears. Then we get the similarity to the original film, with Kong taking Dwan into the jungle, followed by Jack and the ship's crew in a rescue attempt. When Wilson discovers that the oil still needs thousands of years to mature and become useful, he decides that he is no longer an oil company executive, but an entertainment executive, as he plots to take Kong back to America. We get a hilariously over-the-top celebration that includes a parade and a giant gas-pump. This is part of what fails the film; it spends too much time not taking itself seriously. Small doses of humor can go a long way, but the screenplay takes those small doses and stretches them out to almost insufferable length. I admired Charles Grodin's performance as Wilson, but he certainly could have taken it down a notch with the scenery-chewing.
In this updating, Kong ends up climbing the towers of the World Trade Center, which is understandable, since the Empire State Building was dwarfed by the latest addition to downtown New York. The scene with Kong taking on the military helicopters was well-crafted and I enjoyed those few moments. Kong was designed by Carlo Rambaldi with assistance from make-up artist guru Rick Baker. When we get wide shots of Kong's entire body, Kong is not as impressive. The fight scene between Kong and a giant snake, and scenes with Kong running rampant through New York were something out of a Godzilla movie, with cheap looking miniature sets. However, when we got scenes of Kong emoting with his facial expressions, this was done much better and helped deliver some insight into Kong's feelings for Dwan.
Jeff Bridges was adequate in his role as Jack, not quite a hero, though, as he was a mere observer for the final moments of the film. Jessica Lange looked good as Dwan, but unfortunately for her, the script had her uttering some of the most ridiculous dialogue you will ever hear. That's not her fault; she was working with what she was given. Her character ended up looking very daft throughout. The screenplay was written by the late Lorenzo Semple, Jr. When looking at his résumé, you will find that he wrote for the Batman television series starring Adam West. That campy dialogue carried over to this film in spades. It truly is the downfall of this film, as a better script and a more serious tone would have benefited the film greatly.
King Kong could have been a fun, exciting adventure story from beginning to end, but a poorly written script, an uneven tone from director John Guillermin, and some less-than-convincing special effects help this film fall off the roof.