The most unfortunate line of dialogue in the 1976 version of King Kong is when Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), as proof of Kong’s existence, points to jungle debris and says, “Who do you think made that mess – some guy in an ape suit?”
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I think.
In between the original 1933 version of King Kong (a classic and the best version –- no arguments allowed) and Peter Jackson’s 2005 version (which put me off but obviously has its fans), there came producer Dino De Laurentiis’ version –- which, to cop a much-used phrase from Roger Ebert, knew the words but not the music.
The movie attempts to “modernize” the story with a plotline about Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), a greedy executive of an oil company named Petrox (“Pet Rocks,” isn’t that cute?). Wilson is sailing his crew to an uncharted island that promises hoards of oil that will help Petrox lead the way during the ’70s energy crisis. Stowing away on the Petrox ship is Prescott, an “environmentalist professor” who tries to show Wilson the political incorrectness of his greedy ways.
Bridges and Grodin seem pretty game for the plot conceit. On the other hand, there’s Jessica Lange, making her unfortunate film debut as Dwan, another of the ship’s passengers. Dwan is a would-be actress who talks like a flaky flower child. From this performance, you’d never have guessed that Lange would go on to be an Academy Award winner.
Other than hippie girl Dwan, the most head-shaking aspect of the movie is King Kong himself — who is shown, alternately, as a man in a gorilla suit (special effects artist Rick Baker) and a robot (designed by Carlo Rimbaldi, who went on to better things when he designed E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial years later for Steven Spielberg).
(SPOILER ALERT!) I feel compelled to mention that the only element that might spoil the movie’s fun for you is the setting of its climax. Whereas the ending of the 1933 movie famously took place atop the Empire State Building, here Kong climbs to the top of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. That was obviously intended as a novel climax at the time of the movie’s release, and just as obviously, it might have negative emotional resonance for some viewers now.
Other than that, the movie is quite the valentine to 1970’s America in all of its tacky glory. So join us for some laughs this Sat., Oct. 3, at 4:30 p.m. EST at Twitter.com. Use the hashtag #SatMat to get the link to the movie online and to comment on the movie throughout our viewing of it!