On March 10th, Kong: Skull Island came out, and it marks the eighth film that the famed movie monster, King Kong, has appeared in. Since his debut in the 1933 classic, Kong has appeared in numerous forms of media that has included video games, books and even a musical that came out in 2013. The film itself has been remade twice; most recently in Peter Jackson’s bloated, too-heavily-inspired-by-Lord-of-the-Rings version in 2005.
A little over forty years after the original was released, the first remake came out. It was a massive hit, but as far as the King Kong movies go, it’s a bit of a misfit. Retrospectively, it’s not a bad movie. What makes it a misfit is that it messes with the King Kong mythology a lot more than the other ones do (it’s a 70s movie; of course it’s going to be subversive). For example, instead of being about a filmmaker looking for an uncharted island, it’s about an oil company sailing for an uncharted island to mine some oil. Although I love the original story, I’m not a purist, but that kind of plot doesn’t inspire the kind of boyish adventure spirit the other ones carry.
It does make it interesting, however, that Kong comes as more of a surprise. Before Kong shows up though, the plot makes room for the standard 1970s film conflict: the authority and the outlaw. In this film, the outlaw is Princeton primatology professor Jack Prescott, played by the outlaw actor himself, Jeff Bridges. Prescott is a stowaway looking to find the missing piece in a diary entry about the island that mentions a beast. Reluctantly, Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), an oil executive, allows him to stay on board as the crew photographer.
It isn’t long before we meet our Fay Wray of the movie, Dwan, played by Jessica Lange in her film debut (Dwan changed her name from Dawn. Creative, huh?). Dwan is an actress picked up from a boat that was shipwrecked. About forty or so minutes into the movie, we finally get to the island. From there, we then proceed to the standard King Kong plot routine: we see the wall, meet the natives, the natives kidnap Dwan, Kong takes Dwan, Kong shakes crew members off a log, Kong fights a giant snake, Kong is trapped, taken to New York and is killed by airplanes.
Sounds comforting? It is, and that’s its problem. When we watch these familiar scenes, we feel giddy at being reminded of them. That’s all it brings us though. The way it arrives at each of these points is by the numbers; the revelation of each event isn’t exciting, so they feel static (even Jackson’s version put twists on these). It has scope all right, but no sense of adventure. The movie feels like the plot: guys that came to an island to get a job done and it gets interrupted. There’s part of me that believes the lack of adventure exists because there’s no dinosaurs.
Yes. You read me right. You might’ve noticed that Kong fighting a T-Rex wasn’t on my list. Trust me, I was as sad as you are.
Childish attitude aside, there’s just not a great sense of danger with having just Kong on the island (Yes I said there was a giant snake, but it doesn’t do anything besides fight Kong). In the other films, Kong wasn’t the only one the characters worried about; there were plenty of other animals hiding in the shadows, ready to gobble them up.
The worst part is the filmmakers don’t even execute these scenes well. For example, when Kong first appears to take Dwan, it’s done from Kong’s point of view. Wouldn’t it be a lot scarier to have witnessed it from Dwan’s point of view? Also, the climax is set atop the World Trade Center. Unlike the Empire State Building, which had a narrow top that made it more unsafe, the World Trade Center has a nice flat surface for Dwan and Kong to roam around on.
On a technical level, this movie is done well. The cinematography by Richard H. Kline definitely gives the movie its scope, and the score by John Barry takes a lush, more romantic feel. As ridiculous as Kong looks at times (just look at that picture) and that his movement seem more casual than monstrous, the design by Carlo Rambaldi and the performance by Rick Baker is accomplished. Baker’s not the only one who performs well; even forty years ago, Jeff Bridges was playing Jeff Bridges. Despite this, his laconic, realistic persona sticks out like a sore thumb between the hammy performances of Grodin and Lange.
King Kong is a typical 1970s blockbuster: well-made but shallow and empty. Its subversive qualities in both style and substance date the movie, but that subversive nature did cause a breakthrough in one area: this was the first Kong movie that did attempt to create a sympathetic relationship between the female lead and Kong, and not have the female lead screaming her head off all the time. Although, maybe the filmmakers knew that no one could touch Fay Wray, the true “scream queen.”