Thursday, August 6, 2015

King Kong 1976

I am aware that this is not really science fiction, but I want to blog about it all the same.

When I as but a very wee lad in the late 1970s, I loved just about anything that had a giant monster in it. If a film featured two grown men in rubbery suits slogging it out with each other over a cheap model likeness of a city, then chances are I was there. Destroy All Monsters was a close second only to Star Wars in the rankings of "favorite films." I loved it all and King Kong was no exception.

I was introduced to the giant ape in a library book on monsters and science fiction films as it detailed the 1933 classic in all of its stop motion glory. I found a piece of cardboard packing material that would stand up in a tri-fold manner. I colored one side of it to look like a massive jungle backdrop and the other a generic city such as New York (which was so often the de facto "city" in these films.) This way I could play out the expedition to find Kong on Skull Island, his battle with dinosaurs, and the bringing him back to the city.

Interestingly enough, I found that these dual backdrops could stand in for any number of films of this ilk.

Naturally, I really wanted to see the Dino de Laurentiis remake of King Kong in 1976. I didn't get to see it in a theater but I did catch it on TV not long after. Then, just one week ago, I saw it again on cable. You know what? I have a most unpopular opinion on the film.

I like it.

Always have. Always will. It's a good remake that keeps the spirit of the original King Kong constantly in mind. The film features Jeff Bridges as Jack Prescott, a primatologist from Princeton University. Bridges is damn good in just about anything he does and this is no exception. He stows away on an oil company expedition to the South Pacific. Leading this expedition is Charles Grodin, who plays the heartless and bufoonish oil exec caricature to the hilarious hilt. In a deus ex machina of the ridiculous kind, the ship carrying this expedition comes upon an actress named Dwan, played by a very sexy Jessica Lange who does her best Marilyn in her film debut. Rene Auberjonois and Ed Lauter fill out the ballast.

The expedition is sailing to an island in the South Pacific where they hope to make a big score in oil. Jack Prescott knows better. What they find is a population of primal natives who have belt a gigantic wall to protect themselves from...something. In keeping with the original, these natives kidnap Dwan and offer her as sacrifice to the mighty Kong. Anyway, the oil guys get Dwan back, capture Kong, and things pretty much end as you'd expect in New York City as beauty fells the twitterpated beast.

Critics hated this movie. While I agree that there is sometimes more cheese here than what you'd find on your average nacho plate, I still really enjoy this version. The special effects are rough in places, but the work of Rick Baker and Carlo Rambaldi was still innovative for the times. I knew as a kid that the close ups of Dwan in Kong's hands were done with gigantic, robotic ape arms, but honestly that enthralled me all the more. More to the point, I now appreciate this film for the polysemy of Kong.

Yes, there's quite a bit of fruity astrology, New Age hoo-hah, and general psychobabble from Dwan that place this film squarely in the 1970s, but there is such a a social conscience present. This film raises questions about the environment, greedy oil corporations, and animal rights. There are also issues of imperialism and nationalism. Check out what Bridges' character says about the island natives after Kong is taken from them:

"He was the mystery and the magic in their lives. In a year, that'll be an island of burnt-out drunks."

Heavy. A far greater effort overall than that godawful abortion of a remake from Peter Jackson back whenever that was. I've blocked it out of memory to be honest with you. Of all the incarnations of Kong, this one is the only version that really made me feel anything for the creature. The ending is genuinely heartbreaking and I still can't bear it. I can watch it up to a point as its fun to see a "what if" as in New York City responding to a giant ape on the loose, but I can't handle the end. You might not either if you have any PTSD remaining from 9/11 and the World Trade Center. I don't, but you might.

If I have any criticism its that the movie loses the dinosaurs present in the original. That's understandable. There's no way the technology or the budget existed for such effects back in the 1970s, plus if you've found dinosaurs, why stop with Kong? Make the island into your own theme park just like the other movie tried to do. Would probably work out just as well as Kong in New York City.

So as a brilliant philosopher recently said, haters are gonna hate. I'll always dig this one.

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